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Audio news expert shares the why and how of spoken content

By Shelley Seale

INMA

Austin, Texas, USA

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As the executive producer of audio and video at New Statesman Media Group, Chris Stone shared three main goals audio can do for publishers who implement it into their strategies.

  • Reach. Audio is a powerful top-of-the-funnel audio growth tool, with a strong skew towards the 18-34 age group. News and current affairs is the most popular category in podcasts and other audio products.
  • Nurture. Audio engages audiences. New Statesman podcast listeners are more likely to become subscribers, have read the newspaper for one to five years, receive newsletters, and share content via Twitter.
  • Connect. Audio creates commercial opportunities. It allows for data capture via hosting platforms, drives subscriptions and registrations, provides advertising inventory, and is a vehicle for sponsorships.

In the UK alone, there are more than 10 million weekly podcast listeners, with an average of six hours and 39 minutes of listening per week, Stone said in a Webinar for INMA members on Wednesday. He stressed, however, that audio goes beyond podcasts — there is an entire publisher audiosphere.

When publishers think about audio strategy, they often think of podcasts — but audio goes beyond that.
When publishers think about audio strategy, they often think of podcasts — but audio goes beyond that.

“Podcasts are a big part of it, but there are also publishers doing great work in voice interactive audio,” he said. “There are opportunities to use audio on social. Increasingly publishers are using audio as an alternative means for consuming their articles. Some publishers are even launching complete stand-alone radio stations.”

Podcasts

“There is a need to define what we mean by podcasts in regard to publishing frequency,” Stone said. “It’s a very flexible space and there’s a lot of different things that people can do.”

He shared the three broad podcast frequency models:

  • Regular: Podcasts that publish at regular intervals (daily, weekly, or monthly) on an ongoing basis. The pros are it builds audience over time, is habit-forming, and enables topical subject matter. The cons are it requires consistent resources, can be labour-intensive, and you can’t miss a scheduled episode.
  • Seasonal: Pre-recorded podcasts that are published as series. The pros are that episodes can be batch produced, it allows time for production and marketing, and resources can be engaged as needed. The cons are these types of podcasts rely heavily on marketing and the content must be evergreen.
  • Limited series: One-off seasons with generally fewer episodes. The pros are these can be released as stand-alone podcasts feeds or as part of a weekly publishing schedule. The con is it’s hard to build an audience for them.

“How many people does it take to make a podcast?” Stone posed. “Well, it depends on what kind of podcast you’re making.” He shared a handy “cheat sheet” that gives publishers an idea of the type of resources needed for each format of podcast.

This cheat sheet gives an overview of the different resource requirements for various types of podcasts.
This cheat sheet gives an overview of the different resource requirements for various types of podcasts.

Many publishers prefer to start with a less resource-intensive format and work their way up. That’s what Stone did when he was with the Evening Standard, building the audio team alongside the video team. They wanted to get into podcasting but didn’t have a lot of resources to dedicate to it.

“The first thing we did was we started partnering with a publisher who had produced a series of short stories, and they wanted to get that out to new audiences,” he said. “They had some content, we had an audience — bring those two together.”

His team took the audio version of those short stories, wrapped them with a bit of editorial such as interviews with the authors, and published them as an Evening Standard podcast.

“It was very resource light, but it gave us some very useful experience as a company to start figuring out which levers we can pull to start engaging our audiences.”

From that beginning, the Evening Standard went on to release a six-part mini-series podcast, a recurring limited series, a flagship daily podcast, and an experimental bulletin format that was reversioned from news content.

All of that meant that when Google launched a new product and was looking for partners in the UK, the Evening Standard had a good body of work and experience with which to approach them and demonstrate their abilities.

Beyond podcasts: voice-interactive audio

Many publishers are now delivering content for smart speakers and virtual assistants. One in five UK households have such devices, Stone said.

“In its most rudimentary form, and the most common form, when you say ‘play me the news’ to your smart speaker, it serves you a bulletin from the default provider or your chosen provider.”

Voice-interactive audio is one example of ways that audio content strategy goes beyond podcasts.
Voice-interactive audio is one example of ways that audio content strategy goes beyond podcasts.

The next generation from there is curated audio news feeds. The Evening Standard did this with Google, producing Your News Update. Instead of playing news bulletins, this format plays a curated news feed from multiple providers.

Another possibility is text-to-speech mark-up, which appears as audio in voice search results, Stone said: “New opportunities are revealed that you might not have thought about otherwise.”

Audio articles

This is another area growing in demand, Stone told INMA members. There are two ways of doing this:

  • Text-to-speech (TTS). These are computer-voice articles from existing content, housed on the publisher’s Web site or in their app. Pro: They automatically audify everything. Con: computer voices are not as engaging as real human voices (yet).
  • Human voice. Third-party services record human-read content, housed on their app in exchange for royalties or audio files. Alternatively, publishers can record these themselves. Pros: reach new audiences, provide samples to attract subscribers, human voice beats computer (for now), can be swapped out for TTS versions, and can reversion as podcast feeds. Cons: publishers give away their IP, it’s open outside the paywall, or it requires resources to do internally.

He mentioned Amazon Polly, a service that turns text into lifelike speech, as a possible resource for publishers. Amazon is currently offering a free tier that gives five million free characters per month, and it’s available in multiple languages.

“These services are getting quite sophisticated,” Stone said.

Social audio

The Telegraph audio briefings via WhatsApp are a good example of how this works.

“Users of this service are 12 times more likely to subscribe to The Telegraph than readers of the Web site, which is quite amazing,” Stone said. “They’re getting users in the thousands. It’s a really interesting model and I’ve not seen a lot of people do this in the same way.”

The Telegraph has also started re-publishing the WhatsApp bulletins as short-form podcasts, as well. Stone highlighted this as a good example of a publisher taking content from one use and re-purposing it for another.

Network thinking: a verticals-based approach

So how do publishers bring all this together?

“At the Evening Standard I was very keen on getting teams to understand audio in verticals,” Stone said.

These verticals included news, sport, tech, and showbiz, as well as stand-alone podcasts. At New Statesman, the three key verticals are UK politics, global affairs, and business. Audio is part of the content strategy in each of these verticals, right along with print, Web, newsletters, video, and live.

“So you’re covering verticals from many different approaches, and audio and video will be a big part of that,” he said. “One of the advantages here is that you can start thinking about your multi-channel opportunities for sponsors to get involved.”

Commercial opportunities

There are many commercial opportunities for audio:

  • Advertising. Dynamic ad insertion via hosting services, programmatic, and host-read ads.
  • Sponsorship. Stone advised to get creative. Wrap sponsors into multi-platform campaigns. Sell against the entire feed or single episodes.
  • Licensing. Platforms can license content, such as the Evening Standard did with the Google Your News Update.
  • Commissioning. Platforms can commission original audio such as Spotify, Audible, and BBC Sounds.

There are many opportunities for podcast sponsors, such as feed sponsorship and “featurettes.” Sponsors can also sponsor bespoke episodes, which can even include video.

In his final thoughts, Stone encouraged publishers to think about who their audience is and how audio can enhance their experience.

“I’d also encourage you to think about what are your highest-performing and most profitable verticals as a good place to start when considering a future podcast strategy.”

Podcasts also need talent — who are your key in-house talent for subject matter experts and broadcast voice/hosts? The relationship between audio host and listener is an intimate one, so this is an important decision.

Lastly, how can you recycle some of your existing content into your audio strategy?

“If you’re at a point of considering how to get into doing audio, I would suggest that recycling some of your existing content is a great way to start,” Stone said.

About Shelley Seale

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