How Indian Express Group created a podcast strategy and culture

By Shelley Seale

INMA

Texas, USA

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India is witnessing a growing market for podcast listeners attributed to rising smartphone penetration, dipping mobile data prices, and Millennials’ growing affinity towards on-demand content.

Monthly podcast listeners in the country crossed 40 million at the end of 2018, growing 57% annually. In fact, India is the world’s third-largest podcast market. according to PwC.

On Thursday, INMA members sat in on a Webinar with Anant Nath Sharma, head of Express audio, who shared The Indian Express Group audio story with insights into strategy, product culture, growth, and technology. Umesh Barve, head of India partnerships/Audioboom, moderated the session.

Sharma opened the Webinar by saying that the Express Group started podcasting about a year-and-a-half ago, with a soft launch. “We started with around 12, 13 shows, and over time we have produced over 20 shows.”

The Express podcasts have received six million listens for diversified topics that include news, parenting, tech, sports, food, performing arts, and books.

A snapshot of the current Indian Express podcast portfolio.
A snapshot of the current Indian Express podcast portfolio.

Why audio?

Sharma explained the reasons behind Express Group creating an audio space: “Some of the trends we’ve observed are that there’s a huge digital market right now that we see booming in India. There are over half a billion smartphone users, and all of these are potential listeners. And this number is slated to grow in the next two to three years.”

India is primed for audio, Sharma said, because it embraces the Indian tradition of storytelling. “People are primed to listen to stories and listen to oral renditions of things. Podcast is just a medium, and we’ve seen phenomenal success with radio in India in the past.”

Most of the news broadcast on Indian radio is state operated, so Express saw an opportunity to provide audio news that was not state operated. “Why not make a product that is beneficial to people and that they will listen to day in and day out?” Sharma asked.

The question on everyone’s mind, however, was could they make money from it?

“We’ve seen increasing Internet revenue growth in India last year; it’s about a $1 billion industry and the trends seem that it’s only going to go up from there,” Sharma said. With print advertising revenue drastically reduced, the digital market seemed a good opportunity for revenue through podcasting.

Global vs local

The Express team was also aware that the global podcast market had some similarities, as well as some strong differences, from the local market in India.

The Indian market experiences some similarities and differences from other global markets.
The Indian market experiences some similarities and differences from other global markets.

One difference is in audience maturity. India’s boom in digital streaming is fairly recent compared to other countries globally. “In terms of audience maturity, it’s a very young market, and so there’s a lot to explore,” Sharma said.

There are also differences when it comes to the type of content that works in India versus other parts of the globe. Barve explained this, saying that the genres that work best in India are comedy, news, and current affairs.

“Storytelling always, which can be for all age groups — it can be for kids, it can be for adults,” Barve said. Other popular genres include entertainment, Bollywood, and spiritual topics.

Lastly, sports and particularly cricket are extremely popular topics, especially to an international audience. While Sharma said there are some podcasts already covering this, he still sees huge potential in this genre.

“Indians are ready for [audio] content, yes,” he said. “Indians now have data, yes. But Indians [lack] availability of the various mediums through which they can consume content.”

The long commute times of many Indians presents a big opportunity, Barve continued. “Podcasting, as a medium, is a passive consumption medium. There’s a huge space, a huge time, that can be spent to consume podcast-based content. It is only about people getting educated about this medium, and they will get hooked onto it.”

The big difference between the Indian market versus globally is that in the rest of the world people listen to podcasts for information, Sharma said, whereas it’s more entertainment driven in India.

When it comes to platforms, Apple has been the big player in podcasting in the West, but a lot of smaller players are coming in taking a piece of that market. Language, as well, is a consideration in the Indian market.

Sharma referenced a recent study that showed nine out of 10 Internet users in India preferred content in their own, local language. “Especially when you look at news, it is more trustworthy when it’s in your own language rather than English. It’s been quite debated how this vernacular market is going to shape up. There’s a huge market for Hindi and other languages in India rather than English.”

Not everyone in India speaks English, and there are many different languages, so reaching users in their own language is of high importance. They still want to consume news and stay informed.

The last area to consider when it comes to the specific needs of the Indian market is awareness. “Podcast awareness is a problem that the entire industry is facing,” Sharma said.

About 40 million people in India listen to a podcast every month. With a population of 1.3 billion, that represents only 3% of people listening to podcasts monthly. “If you ask me, that’s not a great number because 40 million once a month is not your average podcast listener that will bring you revenue,” Sharma said.

The market is growing, however. In December 2018, Audioboom had about 1.2 million podcast listens per month, and now it’s 3.5 million per month. “Which is an exponential growth in one year’s time,” Barve said. “Growth is there, most definitely, but still a lot of [available market].”

3 Things podcast

Sharma then turned to a specific example of an Express podcast, called 3 Things. This English news podcast publishes two episodes per day — one lengthy and another shorter recap.

3 Things is a twice-daily podcast show from The Express Group.
3 Things is a twice-daily podcast show from The Express Group.

“We’ve seen great completion rates,” Sharma said of the podcast, with 75% of listeners consuming the entire episode.

They would like to produce more podcasts, but a challenge was the size of the team. With just four people, production falls on a small group.

“How can we make, on a daily basis, a product that’s great and people will listen to?” Sharma asked.

The answer was to utilise the Express newsroom.

“We went back to our roots, and what we have is a great collection of people at Express, who’ve been doing journalism for the last 20, 30 years. Some people have been there for the last 40 years, very senior in the profession. To get all their expertise into a podcast, that builds a great product.”

Using the resources they already have in their journalists is one of the reasons they have been able to build such a quality podcast lineup, particularly in news shows like 3 Things, Sharma said.

Learning curve

Measurability, however, presents some difficulty. They get information such as the number of listens, where the traffic is coming from, and the age group of listeners. “But apart from this, there’s not much data,” Sharma said.

One way that the team obtains more data is by keeping tabs on what people are saying about Express podcasts through social media. They also conduct listener surveys from time to time to get feedback.

“This gives us sort of an idea about what people are looking at and what people are looking for,” Sharma said. “One of the things that was overwhelming was that people wanted to listen to shorter updates, especially toward the end of the day.”

The pattern that emerged was that Express listeners consumed longer podcasts in the morning, generally on their commutes. During the evening, while they still want to be updated, they want shorter content. Understanding this is what led to the format for 3 Things, with the longer morning episodes and shorter evening recaps.

Another issue that the team wanted to address was making the podcasts relevant for longer. Realising that people don’t generally go back to older news, Sharma said the question became how to create content that people will come back to and that would continue to be listened to for a longer period of time.

“We used to see that traffic would last anywhere from two to three days,” he told the INMA audience. “But then, we sort of got out of the breaking news cycle and got more into covering policy. If people want to be updated [about breaking news], what we’ve seen is that people don’t come to podcasts for that. They have their apps for that. Most of our listeners expect a deep dive from us.”

Taking that into consideration, the Express team began producing podcasts that will stay relevant for a longer period of time. Now, they are seeing traffic to each episode last for 10 days and even longer.

Discoverability is also something that had to be considered. “Castbox and Apple remain our biggest traffic sources,” Sharma said. “Traditional social media marketing has not really helped a lot of people in the podcast industry.”

While they aren’t seeing a lot of conversion from social media, they are working on that because that is where a lot of their audience lives. Internally, creating the best possible Web site and app to give users a good experience was also important. They have also entered into “soft partnerships” with other platforms to push their podcasts.

Hindi News podcast

One of the more recent creations was the Hindi News podcast, which was started about six months ago. The team began with just one episode per day, but now produces four short, five-minute episodes per day.

The Hindi News podcast puts out four five-minute episodes per day.
The Hindi News podcast puts out four five-minute episodes per day.

“It’s traditionally believed that less is more,” Sharma said of podcasting, where others in the field are doing one episode per day or even per week. “But this is something we’ve seen work for us,” he said of the multi-episode format, seven days a week. “It has shown promise, we are getting good numbers on all of these.”

This month, the podcast crossed the 100,000 listeners threshold. They do see a pattern in the type of news their listeners prefer, with astrology, Bollywood, and cricket being the biggest topic draws.

“Our strategy has been a little different,” Sharma said. “We’re trying to reach out to these local players and see if they can promote our content. We believe that most of our audience is there.”

Challenges

The main challenges that have presented to Express Group when it comes to podcasting are the same ones that most other media publishers around the world face:

  • Awareness: A lot of people still don’t know what a podcast is or it’s not their preferred consumption medium. It’s not a go-to method in India.
  • Measurability: There isn’t enough data coming from podcasts.
  • Monetisation: How to create revenue from podcasts when the numbers just aren’t big enough yet.
  • Competition: Podcast as a medium has to compete with radio and streaming apps.
The Express Group faces the same challenges that most other publishers face with podcasting.
The Express Group faces the same challenges that most other publishers face with podcasting.

The time will come when the competition is amongst podcasters, but that’s not right now. Today, the competition is other ways people are consuming content. “The more content that comes out, the more possibilities there are,” Sharma said.

The future of Indian Express audio

As far as future strategy, Sharma said Express plans to experiment with content outside of news, particularly in the vernacular market. “We would love to experiment with language. We are in talks to start a Marathi podcast.”

Another area of potential content growth is in other formats, such as documentary. and with different genres. “We have a huge expertise on crime sitting in the office,” Sharma said. “True crime is something we would also love to explore.”

What does the future hold for Indian Express audio?
What does the future hold for Indian Express audio?

The biggest question remains revenue and how to generate money with podcasts. “There are a couple of options that we’ve discussed. One is the ad space revenue, where we put ad space in the podcasts. The other is to put content behind a paywall and have a subscription model.”

Express has done this successfully with the digital newspaper, though Sharma said that is still in its nascent stage.

“We would love to see some revenue coming in, some advertisers coming on board, and making this a viable option for us.”

About Shelley Seale

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