Listenership to podcasts has enjoyed strong growth since the success of the medium’s breakout 2014 hit Serial. More than half of Americans have now tried the medium, and almost a quarter of Americans have listened to a podcast in the last week, according to Edison Research’s annual Infinite Dial report.

Politico has been in the podcasting business since 2016, recalibrating its strategy for 2019 as the number of new shows easily outpaced the growth in listenership. Even publishers who enjoyed early success in the medium, including Politico, need to re-evaluate their goals in light of the new competition.

On Wednesday, INMA members participated in a Webinar presented by Politico Audio Executive Producer Dave Shaw, who outlined his newsroom’s content strategy — one built on the organisation’s strengths as a business and adapted to the rapidly changing audio landscape.

Shaw began by saying a major challenge for streaming news publishing is how to do on-demand audio for news in a sustainable way. “I’m passionate about figuring out how to do audio that’s economically viable in an on-demand world.”

Shaw continued by citing today’s high-tech cars as listening devices: “Almost every car sold since 2012 is like a ticking time bomb,” he said in regards to audio on-demand and what that means for publishers.

The on-demand audio market

Presenting data from The Infinite Dial, Shaw showed a graph that illustrates overall growth in podcast listenership (the red line) and the increase in the numbers of people who listen to a podcast every week (the yellow line).

This graph shows podcast listening data, from overall listeners to weekly listeners.
This graph shows podcast listening data, from overall listeners to weekly listeners.

“More people are listening year over year,” he said. “When I think of the core podcasting audience, it’s that yellow line I’m thinking about. Once people start listening to podcasts, it often quickly becomes their favourite format.”

Apple Podcasts continues to dominate in number of episodes published every month. “You can see the explosion. Even in the time since I’ve been at Politico, their numbers have more than doubled,” Shaw noted.

The demand is there. The question that publishers are asking is this: How do I find my audience?

Politico’s first podcast, Off Message, debuted in January 2016 as a weekly interview show. The first guest was U.S. President Barack Obama. But much has changed since then. Shaw noted the strategies that worked well for Politico (a weekly interview format) in 2016 weren’t going to cut it in 2019 because of the sheer number of new shows and competition.

How to win

When it comes to plotting a strategy to succeed in the podcast market, Politico asks: What is the content we do best? What is our unfair advantage, our “super power?” They then have to match that to what people want and what sponsors are interested in — the audience they want to reach.

Politico's winning strategy includes doing its best content — content people and sponsors want to be part of.
Politico's winning strategy includes doing its best content — content people and sponsors want to be part of.

“The first break-out genre was true crime,” Shaw commented, “and people are still very interested in this.”

He shared the two most important characteristics of the individual podcast: it must be essential or beautiful — or both.

“If a person has a lot of options and is overwhelmed by choice — and you want to serve them with something — they need something that fulfils their life,” Shaw said of the essential aspect. As far as beauty: “It should also take advantage of media technology and production values to be beautiful. Audiences are more discerning about low-production values.”

The next question for Politico became what to do with its existing shows, which consisted of one short form podcast, one roundtable, and five interview formats.

“What we’re in the process of doing is moving away from the weekly interview format and toward a more narrative, storytelling approach that we’re doing with our journalists,” Shaw said. The team isn’t getting rid of the interview format shows entirely, just doing fewer of them. The newer approach will also mine one of Politico’s greatest resources: their journalists.

Many of the podcasts are broken down into ongoing series to take advantage of the medium. “We are taking our audiences and serving them in a new way that matches the publishing environment we’re in now,” Shaw added. 

Shaw explained why he’s such an audio evangelist.

“If you think about the way people consume audio, it’s often through earbuds,” Shaw said. “There’s nothing mediating, or getting between, the audience and the speaker’s voice. The existential threat that’s facing journalism right now is lack of trust. And the intimacy of audio and that type of storytelling can go a long way towards rebuilding that trust.”

Content and business strategy

Podcast strategy is not one size fits all. Each organisation will be different, but Shaw presented a couple of key points to think about:

  • Partnership with non-editorial teams.
  • New products for clients (Politico’s included post-roll ad on short-form content and episode-length sponsored content).

Politico has seen completion rates for most of its post-roll ad experiments, though these are lower for ads that sound as if they were just repurposed from television. They need to be in the tone and style of the podcast to be effective.

Post-roll ads can be effective if they adopt the tone and style of the podcast.
Post-roll ads can be effective if they adopt the tone and style of the podcast.

Politico’s sponsored content has been successful because it was very high quality, it built on the existing relationship and trust with the audience, and the team let the audience know it was coming.

Sponsored content must be high quality, built on trust, and expected.
Sponsored content must be high quality, built on trust, and expected.

“That was our proof of concept. Now we’re doing it in a more robust way,” Shaw said, referring to a new podcast, Global Translations. “We’re serving our existing audience in a better way by essentially looking at America’s place in the world.”

Building a content business strategy

The key components to a successful audio strategy, Shaw said, lie in three areas:

  1. Figure out what you can offer of value and what you do best.
  2. Empower someone from your newsroom to become a podcast evangelist, like Shaw is. “If you don’t have an evangelist [in house], you’ll need to go out and hire one.”
  3. Iterate. Newsrooms must constantly evolve because the field keeps changing.

“We have a long way to go to get that yellow line up to where it’s a majority of Americans who are using this [podcasts] every week or every day,” Shaw said. “I ask the other publishers for help in doing this.”

Specifically, he asked other publishers to do three key things:

  1. Educate your audience about what a podcast is and how they listen to it.
  2. Experiment. Who knows what news organisation will come up with that next great idea?
  3. Grow the pie. “That’s how we’re going to turn this into a robust and sustainable ecosystem.”

Q&A

INMA: Is there a way to quantify the next 12 months in the podcast ecosystem? And is what’s happening in the United States happening in other markets around the world?

Shaw: Consolidation, professionalism, the big money that’s coming into on-demand audio. You’ve seen Spotify make some big acquisitions, and I think you’re going to see more of that. On-demand podcasting audio is going to shake out a set of “haves” and “have-nots” in the next 18 to 30 months. I also think you’ll see more partnerships. News organisations are usually rich in IP and do have a way to reach audiences, and I think you’ll see more of them partnering with production houses.

INMA: What resources should be used to measure audience engagement?

Shaw: If you think about the big hurdles holding podcasting back, they are discoverability and measurement. Podcast is essentially a piece of RSS feed. So the thing we can most reliably measure is the number of times that that piece of audio was accessed by a listener’s device. We don’t have a lot of information about what happens after that, although this is changing.

One thing that’s super heartening is that, for example with our Nerdcast (40-plus minutes long), we saw that the completion rates were low. So we realised that people didn’t want to listen to that show for that long — 27 minutes was the perfect time. So we changed the show to be 27 minutes, and we now have a 90% completion rate for that show.

INMA: Can you talk about the analytics around podcasts?

Shaw: If I could wave the magic wand, we’d tear down the whole infrastructure and build something new. It was built for an era (the iPod), when you needed to connect with a wire to stream the audio. It’s completely different today. So we’re basically back-building the technology to match today’s devices. The vast majority of podcast listening is still happening on Apple platforms and/or devices.

INMA: What about best practices for marketing your podcast?

Shaw: I think of this in terms of a numerator and a denominator. The numerator is all the people who already know how to access and listen to podcasts. So you can advertise your show to them on other shows. It makes sense to advertise your show among the people who already know how to download a podcast. The denominator is all those people who haven’t yet discovered how great of a medium this is. We’ve had success at putting an audio feed on our home page and showing people how to integrate it. Social media is great for visibility, but it’s not good for actually converting your audience to podcast listeners.

INMA: What strategies has Politico implemented to make podcasts a benefit for paying customers?

Shaw: The short answer is we have not done that yet; it’s on the roadmap. We have a three-part plan.

First, we have to figure out how we attract sufficient revenue from audio to prove that it’s a significant advantage. Phase two is to start thinking about short-form (under two to five minutes) that will meet our audience with content that’s really essential. Phase three for us is to do something that a lot of publishers want to get to, which is that beautiful, long-form audio documentary. Politico could possibly become the home of political documentary.