FEATURE 

Podcast growth continues – but publishers need to be clear why they are podcasting

Podcasting is, by pretty much every measure that matters, the fastest growing publishing platform of the moment. Consequently, podcasts are definitely worth doing, writes Peter Houston, but you need to start with a plan.

By Peter Houston

Podcast growth continues – but publishers need to be clear why they are podcasting
Photograph: Israel Palacio on Unsplash.

There are more podcasts than ever before – over one million shows and 30 million episodes according to Apple Podcasts data. And the number of podcasts is growing exponentially; Apple says there were more than 63,000 new shows released in March this year compared with just over 25,000 additions in September 2019.

And, as the number of podcasts available increases by more than one new show a minute if Apple’s numbers are right, there are also more podcast listeners than ever before.

According to the benchmark digital media study for the United States, Edison Research’s annual Infinite Dial Report, online audio listening has doubled over the last ten years to reach almost 70 percent of the population. In that context, podcast listening has more than doubled, with monthly podcast listening growing by 16% in 2019.

The 2020 Infinite Dial study recorded 100 million monthly podcast listeners for the first time, noting that more than half of the US population, 55%, had some experience of podcast listening. For regular monthly listeners, the number is 37%, and 24% of survey respondents make time every week to listen to a podcast. The most dedicated weekly listeners in the United States are listening for 6 hours and 39 minutes across an average of six podcasts.

Here in the UK, weekly reach is lower than the US but the only audio sector growing faster is on demand music according to RAJAR. The Spring 2020 MIDAS Survey (Measuring Internet Delivered Audio Services) reports that over 10 million people are listening to a podcast every week in the UK, averaging 18% of the adult population, up 4% YOY since spring 2019.

It’s interesting to note the difference in listening habits across age groups in the UK. Overall listening figures are significantly depressed by the older end of the audience. In the 55 and older age bracket, just 9% are listening to a podcast weekly. For younger audiences, that rises to more than 20%, reaching 27% in the 25 to 34 age bracket.

Growth in podcast listening took a clear hit through the peak of the lockdown as ‘Stay Home’ orders interrupted regular listening patterns. With RAJAR reporting as much as 44% of podcast listening in the UK happening while driving or travelling and peak podcast listening time around 8.15 am, the loss of the commute cut overall podcast audience numbers by as much as 20%.

However, the Digital News Report (DNR) 2020 from the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism cites evidence to show that the initial drop in listening for many podcasts returned to ‘normal’ levels in April and May as people adapted to new routines.

Over 10 million people are listening to a podcast every week in the UK.

The money metric

The one remaining podcast growth metric to consider, and probably the most important for publishers, is revenue. And, as always, this is where things get complicated.

There is no question that global podcast revenues are rising. In their 2019 study of podcast advertising revenues in the US, the IAB and PwC reported steep growth; podcast advertising in the world’s most developed market was worth $479 million in 2018. The growth of more than 50% recorded from 2017 is expected to slow to 20% going forward but the sector is still forecast to reach $1 billion by 2021.

The ever familiar DIY read-through ads have started to give way to dynamic ads as the industry grows and platforms like Spotify and Acast begin to set the pace for the future of podcast advertising. This means rather than have that one mattress ad stuck forever in the middle of an episode, ad content can change over time, even listener to listener. According to 2019’s IAB / PwC report, almost half of US ads were dynamically inserted.

Some publishers are doing very well from scale-based advertising. The New York Times, perpetual poster-child for all things innovative and digital, has earned more than $10 million from its ‘Daily’ podcast. The Financial Times, now publishing nine podcasts a month, has tripled ad revenues across its portfolio. The Economist has seen a 50% revenue increase in 2019.

Larger magazine publishers are eyeing the news publishers’ success and setting a copy-cat course. In May, Meredith Corp started on a launch programme to bring podcasts to Allrecipes, Parents, Travel + Leisure and Southern Living.

Alongside direct ad buys, publishers are also working with advertisers to create podcasts in partnership with their advertising and sponsorship clients. The podcast team at The Week created the ‘Business Unwrapped’ bonus series of podcasts to run alongside its regular ‘Week Unwrapped’ news podcast. Episodes were solely sponsored by Lombard Asset Finance.

The danger for publishers in seeing only the growth in podcasting, is the temptation to jump in without knowing why.

Advertising alternatives

But, although podcasting has made it to the mainstream, there are questions about just how far marketers are willing to embrace podcast advertising. Monthly podcast listenership accounted for almost 40% of all online audio listenership in 2018, but just 15% of advertising revenues.

And if you’re not a world beating publishing brand like the New York Times, you’re not going to be able to secure big-tickets sponsorships or generate the sheer volume of listens needed to return real revenue from programmatic ad networks. That has led small and medium sized publishing brands to look beyond advertising for podcast revenue.

Mirroring broader publishing trends, podcast producers are looking directly to their audience for cash. Recent research carried out by Variety magazine in the US says one in five podcast listeners have paid to listen or donated money to a podcast. A similar number plans to do so in the next twelve months.

Reuters Institute’s DNR 2020 shows an even higher willingness to pay for news podcasts; in the US, 38% of survey respondents said they would pay for a news podcast. Similar levels of intent are reported in Australia and Canada, but the numbers are significantly lower in the UK where just 21% said they would pay. The report’s authors put this down to the ready availability of free podcast content from the public broadcasting sector.

Paid podcasts may grow in importance as people develop long-term relationships with their favourite shows. More likely, people who have an existing subscription with a newspaper or magazine will get exclusive podcast content as part of their subscription. Or there may even be opportunities for a podcast upsell with established audiences offered exclusive paid-for episodes or series.

Equally, podcast content can be a powerful driver for broader digital subscription efforts. According to John Wilpers, co-author of FIPP’s 2020 digital innovation report, podcasts are a powerful subscription tool. “While relatively inexpensive to produce, podcasts are extremely effective, while also providing lucrative revenue sources and acting as proven subscription-drivers,” he said during a recent FIPP webinar.

And publishers from The Athletic to Digiday have used podcasts successfully to drive subscription or membership revenue. The Athletic, with all its regular sports content behind a paywall, used freely accessible podcast content as a lure to push site subscriptions. And although Digiday allows some access to its digital-media industry content, it sells memberships hard throughout its weekly podcast.

Digiday editor-in-chief Brian Morrisey says he takes advantage of the amount of time people spend with Digiday’s podcast to get the membership message across. “It’s really unique to have people spending, on average, a half hour plus on a piece of content. So you can market different services; we market our membership programme,” he explained.

Overall listening figures are significantly depressed by the older end of the audience.

What job is your podcast doing?

The danger for publishers in seeing only the growth in podcasting, is the temptation to jump in without knowing why. In a Publishers Podcast Awards interview about the lessons to be learned from award winning podcasts, Brian told me it was really important to ask what job your podcast was doing.

“Some things do a straight monetisation job. Some things you do just to build the brand, some things you do… just because it serves a community reason. Some things are to drive memberships, some things for ads.”

The beauty of podcasts is that they can do several jobs; the challenge is in being clear on your priorities as your podcast develops.

Jeremy Enns, a podcasting expert, writes about the importance of sticking with your podcast. He says it can take two years before the investment in time and money starts to pay off. His advice is simply: “Put the time in. Show up consistently, week after week with a new episode.”

Whether your podcast makes any money, directly through advertising, sponsorship and audience contributions, or indirectly through subscription and membership sales, you have to keep producing to see any returns. Even to see listener numbers grow, you need regular, consistent output.

Initially, the financial returns may not be enough to justify the time spent. And one of the most depressing statistics in podcasting is the number of podcasts that have stalled. Of those 1 million podcasts on Apple Podcasts, less than half published a new episode in the last 90 days. And statistically, seven episodes in, most podcasters will abandon their efforts and their aging feed will only serve as a warning to listeners tempted to subscribe.

This phenomenon, known as podfade, is the consequence of launching a podcast without working out why you are doing it. So, if you’re planning on getting on the accelerating podcast bandwagon, and you absolutely should, make sure you have an actual plan.

The money might not be there yet, but it will come. And, right now, podcasts facilitate strong brand and community building efforts. The Reuters Institute reported that half of DNR 2020 survey respondents said podcasts provide more ‘depth and understanding’ than other types of media.

For publishers keen to engage their audiences on a deeper level, they represent a real opportunity, but only if you take the time to think about what you’re doing and why?

Put the time in. Show up consistently, week after week with a new episode.

This article was first published in InPublishing magazine. If you would like to be added to the free mailing list, please register here.