With listenership for podcasts skyrocketing and the podcast ecosystem about to flood, news publishers will have to evolve strategies and differentiate content from today’s mostly generic offerings, panelists told the INMA World Congress of News Media in New York Thursday.

Listenership for podcasts has increased sharply, with 35% of Americans aged 12+ listening to them monthly according to Edison Research, said Hernan Lopez, founder and CEO of independent podcast publisher Wondery.

While the average audience age of podcast listeners is much lower, Lopez said they still have a lot in common with newspaper readers. Quoting Christopher Gofford, writer of the successful Dirty John podcast, Lopez said it comes down to engaging storytelling: “It’s about the story. Now and always.”

Henry Lopez emphasised the importance of voice and marketing for podcasts to be successful.
Henry Lopez emphasised the importance of voice and marketing for podcasts to be successful.

Wondery has produced wildly successful podcasts with wide listenerships, like Dirty John and Dr. Death. Lopez shared lessons he and his team learned along the way:

  • A firm launch date: “I know it’s not typically done in the world of news media, particularly when you’re working on a long-form story. In the podcast world you need a firm launch date.”
  • Less is more: “Many companies that try to get into the podcast space know correctly that many podcasts have very few listeners. So they decide that the right way to build an audience is to launch tons of podcasts to launch all at the same time.”
  • Voice matters: “All of the most successful podcasts that we’ve done have been done by print reporters.”
  • Marketing matters a lot: “For Dirty John and every podcast since, we’ve designed a campaign that looks like a movie campaign, with a tagline.”

Lopez said there are many things that can go wrong on the path to creating a hit podcast, but they can be avoided with a focus on the story and by making sure marketing is given proper attention.

“There’s nothing that can be left at random, and the reward when all things are well is you end up with a product that not only is profitable but that the news side and the business side are happy with,” he said.

While Lopez spoke about serial, narrative podcasts, Marguerite Howell, co-editor at The Economist Radio, gave insights into a news podcast her team publishes five days a week.

The Intelligence targets an American audience with a perspective that reflects the values of The Economist’s magazine.

The Economist’s podcasts reflect the values of the company’s magazine, explained Marguerite Howell.
The Economist’s podcasts reflect the values of the company’s magazine, explained Marguerite Howell.

“Sometimes I feel that news media here gets very focused on domestic issues, and we are specifically, very intentionally, global,” she said.

Motivation for creating The Intelligence lies in the company’s aim to shift away from over-reliance on ad revenue. By encouraging people to build a daily habit, they will build a relationship with the brand that may develop in future subscriptions.

“We’re looking at this as a longer user journey to get people engaged with our brand and eventually start subscribing,” Howell said.

Prior to the launch of The Intelligence, The Economist’s podcast averaged at about 7 million streams per month. It is now averaging between 13 million and 15 million streams per month.

With 10 times the competition since 2016 in the podcast space, building that audience is now considerably more difficult, said Dave Shaw, executive producer at Politico Audio. Publishers need to evaluate where they have an unfair advantage against others to win. The answer lies at the intersection of content they create best, content people want, and content sponsors want to be part of.

Dave Shaw shared insights into advertising experiments Politico has conducted on its podcasts.
Dave Shaw shared insights into advertising experiments Politico has conducted on its podcasts.

“Our audience strategy is to think about that niche and lean into it,” Shaw said.

Shaw shared two advertising experiments on Politico’s podcasts. In a post-roll ad experiment, the team put a plug at the beginning of the podcast for an ad at end of it and measured how many people listened. The completion rate was unchanged between shows with or without ads. Shaw said ads are best if they are in the form and tone of the show.

In a sponsored content experiment, Politico produced a series of four editorial episodes in-house for a brand partner. The download and completion rates were in line with the rest of Politico’s podcasts series. Quality and trust were crucial, Shaw said.

“We told people it was coming and they went with us because they trust us,” he said. “That piece of trust is important, maybe the most important part.”