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Podcasting: taking its rightful place in publishers’ plans

Podcasts should not be seen as a standalone endeavour but as an important and integrated part of a publishing brand’s strategic plans. Chris Phin looks at how publishers are seeking to capitalise on their podcast offering.

By Christopher Phin

Podcasting: taking its rightful place in publishers’ plans
Top row (L-R): Nikki Simpson, Theodora Louloudis, Adam Shepherd. Bottom row (L-R): Chris Stone, Esther Kezia Thorpe.

There are more than five million podcasts to choose from, more if you loosen your description and somewhere around a quarter of the UK population listens to podcasts according to recent research from Ofcom and Edison Research. That research shows there’s not just a solid audience base, but also still a huge amount of headroom to grow too.

Besides, even if there were 10 million shows and 100% of the population listened to podcasts, nobody might be telling your story, your way, and so whether you have zero, one or a slate of shows, we want to give you a snapshot of the sector as you look to your planning for 2023 and beyond.

Growth is one of the major trends in podcasting. At a micro level, numbers might be small for a show, but they’re likely to go up slowly but inexorably, and at a macro level, the increasing familiarity your audiences and teams will have with podcasting means you don’t have to work as hard to ‘sell’ a podcast. “I’m seeing a lot more people warming to the idea in the first place”, Nikki Simpson, the director of the International Magazine Centre, told us. “It was always seen as something that was too difficult or too time-consuming, and now people are realising they can monetise this.”

Making money

And monetisation is evolving. You still can do dynamic ads (though the returns are usually small unless you achieve exceptional scale in podcast terms) and you can still do sponsorships, but there is currently a lot of jostling around direct listener revenue.

“Live events are a great way to deepen your listeners’ engagement and can also provide great audio that feels full of energy for those at home too,” says Theodora Louloudis who was until recently head of audio for The Telegraph. “We’re seeing more and more podcasters putting on live shows and facing their listeners, some of whom they will have gathered over lockdowns. And given they pay for themselves with tickets sales, there’s no real downside.”

But if live sounds like a logistical headache, “platforms like Patreon are an option that many podcasts have successfully explored,” Adam Shepherd, the editor of PodPod tells us. “Given publishers’ pre-existing expertise in subscriptions marketing, this is absolutely something they should be leveraging as much as possible, and podcast platforms are adding more and more tools to support this, whether it’s paywalled episodes, added bonus content or simply allowing listeners to contribute to the show.”

Both Apple and Spotify have added the ability to charge to listen to podcasts, but the challenge remains, though, that because of the open and simple nature of podcasting, there’s no readily apparent way to marry the original vision of podcasting (in which shows are published based on a simple XML format, available anywhere, and listed through directory services such as Apple Podcasts) with publishers’ paywalls. Simply: although roundabout solutions like Acast Access and Supporting Cast are trying to bridge the gap, there remains friction if you want to raise or lower the drawbridge to subscriber-only content for existing customers while having shows publicly available, or to sell podcast content while maintaining sight of your user data.

There is, in other words, a lot of uncertainty in delivery and longevity around podcasting for publishers because the sector is in a state of flux brought about by the recent boom and by concomitant attempts to professionalise the space.

That professionalisation brings other challenges and opportunities. No, you probably can’t get away with recording on a phone and sticking something up unedited, but investments in kit are small, and the sector’s growth is freeing up talent. “Look at what’s happened with the BBC,” says Chris Stone, executive producer for the New Statesman. “Maitliss, Sopel and Goodall have set up their own podcast and Andrew Marr has joined us at the New Statesman. On the production side, I’ve noticed an increase of ex-BBC colleagues active in the jobs market. And it’s not just the BBC. There is a wealth of talent coming out of broadcast and into podcasting, and that creates exciting opportunities for publishers looking to build on-demand audio teams.”

Filming it

Then there’s video – a triggering word for an industry still smarting from the ill-fated pivot to video. Some of the most successful podcasts in the world produce video, especially for social shares, but adding video can change the nature of what you’re producing because you expect people to consume video in a more active way than audio.

The big reason to consider video right now is YouTube. It’s a huge discovery surface for podcasts – and you can expect more developments from the platform following an initial foray – but there’s sadly no clear playbook on whether you need to produce a full video show (which can get complex and costly) or can get away with sticking a still graphic on some audio to create a video. The team at Media Voices auto-publish its podcast to YouTube via a service called Headliner. One of the hosts, Esther Kezia Thorpe, tell us, “It takes a newly-published episode and creates a video from it with waveforms and our logo, so with zero extra effort or cost on our part, we’re actually now seeing some of those do far better than we expected on YouTube.”

Telling a story

In the face of such significant changes in podcasting, publishers are necessarily having to amend their strategies. Narrative podcasts – especially those made with an eye to generating IP for the likes of Netflix and Amazon – are increasingly becoming a focus. Theodora Louloudis again: “A few years ago, we moved into the narrative space at The Telegraph, followed by The Times and Tortoise. More recently, The Guardian and The Economist have added to their offering in this slate. Those funded entirely by selling ad space in their podcasts, such as some production companies, can struggle to fund narrative series. It’s much easier to pitch a feel-good weekly series with a more proven audience to a brand than a dark investigation, which risks not finding listeners, but publishers’ audio is rarely funded solely by ads. At The Telegraph, we were funded largely by paying Telegraph subscribers, so we could put the content first.”

Part of the plan

The quality has to be there, though, and companies are learning they need to invest a little in kit and invest a little more in specialist skills. And we’re seeing people take podcasting more seriously across the strategic plan for a brand too, whether that’s in ensuring its content and impact aren’t siloed in a podcast, or making sure podcasting is a first-class citizen alongside other reifications of a brand. “Even if they’re starting with a limited pilot project, publishers should be thinking from the outset about how to support podcasts as part of a larger long-term initiative,” advises PodPod’s Adam Shepherd.

Blithely replicating magazine or news content into audio, or just chucking up unedited transcripts of audio online, even though that can be useful for SEO, often doesn’t play to the strengths of either medium, but think smartly about how each can support and extend the other.

“Any opportunity to reuse content – such as the New Statesman’s Audio Long Reads, or even using interviews as source material for articles – should be looked at,” says Media Voices’ Esther Kezia Thorpe. “The biggest boost to our listener numbers has been producing articles based on what someone’s said in an interview, sometimes even months after the episode goes live. Podcasts are quite hard to ‘try out’ so if someone reads an article that appeals to them, they’re much more likely to listen to the episode subsequently.”

A more considered strategic and cross-media view is one area publishers should be focusing their resources on as the podcast space shifts into a new era, as should ensuring you’re investing appropriately in the content at the start of that journey. Chris Stone again: “If you’re serious, invest in production staff. A dedicated producer will help your journalists sound their best and provide focus and structure to stop conversations rambling. There are loads of good freelance producers if you’re not in a position to recruit full time.”

Finally, marketing. Most of us are still awfully guilty of focusing on the editorial or commercial aspects, so set yourself the goal of spending as much time marketing a podcast as making it. There will be lots of people who tell you there is a perfect formula for marketing a podcast, but the approaches will vary wildly depending on the style and aims of your show, so part of that time will be figuring out the right approach for you. Remember that activities such as creating written content spun off from a podcast episode count as marketing, as well as furthering other goals.

Podcasting – some dos & don’ts

  • Do listen to podcasts – including those not in your niche
  • Do invest even a little in kit and expertise
  • Do think about what your brand really means, and play to those niche strengths
  • Don’t dumbly replicate what’s in your title, but consider reuse if it works for audio; what would audio-first sound like?
  • Do make podcasting a first-class citizen in your mix
  • Don’t expect journalists to be flawless broadcasters
  • Do make internal pilots and iterate
  • Don’t assume that if you build it, they will come
  • Do calibrate your expectations
  • Don’t get lost in analytics
  • Do make it sustainable, through process or commercialisation

Watch Chris expand on these do and don’t tips and share more from the people he talked to in researching this article, on our YouTube channel:

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