Why Publishers Have the Upper Hand in the Growing Podcast Market
You know podcasts are really a thing when the former Vice President of the United States has one.
If you’re interested to find out what ‘Joe wants you to know’, you can listen in to his five to 10 minute episodes on iTunes, Spotify, and Google Home or just shout out, “Alexa, enable Biden's Briefing.”
Unlike the one-channel President that replaced his boss, Biden scans a spectrum of news outlets for his daily news Briefings. From Bloomberg to BuzzFeed, MSNBC to Vice, he selects the stories he thinks it’s ‘important to spend some time thinking about’ and talks about them in his podcast.
The appearance of the former VP on the podcast circuit may heighten concerns that we really are approaching peak podcast, but for publishers podcasting is still very much a developing opportunity.
For one thing, audiences still have a long way to grow.
According to the Edison Research 2017 Infinite Dial Study, overall familiarity with podcasting has reached 60% in the U.S. and the monthly audience for podcasts is 67 million listeners. That’s up 21% year on year.
Growth has slowed -- about 4 points down on the previous year -- but as Nick Quah of industry newsletter Hot Pod wrote when the report was published in March:
“We’re still talking 10 million new Americans actively listening to a medium that (a) is still propped up by a barely evolved technological infrastructure, (b) has only seen a few instances of significant capital investment, and (c) still sees its industry power very much under-organized.”
Podcasting Still an Immature Market
However you look at it, podcasting is not a mature medium and if you peer at Edison’s numbers through the other end of the telescope, there’s still 40% of the U.S. population to win over to podcasting and more than three quarters that haven’t yet developed a monthly podcast habit.
Growth in the medium really began in 2014 with the runaway success of NPR’s Serial. The show’s episodic investigation of a 10-year old murder case rocketed podcasting, then a decade-old online audio format, into the mainstream.
At it’s height, each Serial episode had 1.5 million listeners. S-Town, also from the Serial-NPR stable, posted 10 million downloads in its first four days.
Successful podcasts like Serial have spawned thousands of independent imitators, but have also given credibility to a nascent production infrastructure that now includes podcast production studios and networks Gimlet, HowStuff Works, Dgital, Radiotopia, and Wondery. As smartphones have removed barriers to podcast listening, these companies have grown their output to satisfy the average listener’s appetite for listening to five podcasts a week.
They have also begun to attract venture capital, nowhere near the values reserved for Silicon Valley start-ups or social networks, but real money that suggests investors might be starting to see future returns.
Audience growth explains some investor interest, but increases in advertising and sponsorship revenues are the real driver. At around $70 million in 2015 and $120 million last year, podcast advertising revenues aren’t huge, but they are on the up. Forecasts from an industry-funded study produced by the IAB show revenues reaching $220 million by then end of this year.
Publishers Can Master Professional Podcasting
One of the joys of podcasting is that anyone can do it; you can make a podcast on your phone. That fact underpins the biggest opportunities for established, trusted, credible publishing brands -- it’s easy to make a really bad podcast on your phone.
There are 400,000 or so podcasts listed in Apple’s podcast store. Hot Pod’s Quah has estimated that just 1% of those can claim the 50,000 downloads an episode considered to be the benchmark for a competitive, commercially viable show.
A ratio of 100-to-1 commercially viable podcasts is the definition of amateur hour. Publishers that can tap professional content creation talent and marshal print and digital audiences at scale, must have a shot at pushing aside some of the 396,000 underperforming podcasts currently clogging up the marketplace.
What Publishers Are Doing Now
The podcasts currently produced by publishers large and small are many and varied.
Most publisher podcasts sit squarely with the publication’s core subject matter: Podcasts from movie magazines feature movie chat. But echoing niche newsletter strategies, some publishers are zooming into a specific area of audience interest -- the U.K.’s Metro newspaper producing a mental health podcast, for example.
The Guardian’s ad-hoc “Long Read” series takes longform articles from the paper and reads them for listeners. At the other end of the spectrum, The New York Times fires out “The Daily” every morning and is currently sat near the top of Apple’s podcast charts.
Other publishers like finding new ways to exploit historic assets. “The Esquire Classic” podcast series was built around interviews and commentary focused on classic Esquire reportage, from Tom Junod discussing ‘The Falling Man,’ his article on the infamous 9/11 photo, to the influence of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s ‘The Crack-Up’ first published in Esquire in 1936.
Tips for Making Podcasts Work
For publishers not yet in the podcast space, or in the space but not seeing the returns they would like, here are a few things to think about.
Content – The breadth of podcasting content is matched only by the breadth of published content in print and online. The tighter the niche the more loyal the audience will be, but just like elsewhere in media, the secret is to create a podcast with content specific enough to be adored and broad enough to attract an audience at a scale that is commercially viable.
Length – With podcasts, as with most media, there’s no such thing as too long, only too boring. Many podcasts makers have targeted 20 to 30 minutes as the ideal time slot, tying in with the average commute, but shorter, snappier daily shows are starting to show up especially in news, politics, and business. There are also plenty more sanguine podcasts running to an hour and longer, especially interview shows.
Frequency – Daily, weekly, every two weeks, once a month -- podcasts are launched on all sorts of schedules. The trick is to fix your schedule according to the information cycle in your market. It’s also important to consider how difficult it is to research, record, and publish your content. Producing a ‘chat show’ takes a lot less time and effort than the types of audio dramas being sponsored by GE.
Discovery – The direct contact of email newsletters and social media are currently the secret to podcasting’s discovery problem. With echoes of the discoverability nightmare publishers endured with digital magazines in Apple’s Newsstand, podcast stores are not the easiest to use. This is where publishers have a huge head-start on podcasting pureplays; converting existing audiences to listeners is easier than finding them fresh.
Revenue – There are programmatic advertising networks like Acast that offer an easy entry into promotional revenue. But for a publisher with established advertising sales resources and relationships, direct sales offer a more profitable route. Sales staff may need to engage in some new-format client education, and manage expectations around reach, but long-term, opportunities to develop tailored advertising content within a podcast will support audience engagement.
Related story: The Podcast Opportunity for Publishers
Peter Houston runs Flipping Pages Media, an independent consultancy and training firm, helping publishers build multi-platform success. He has run Guardian Masterclasses, spoken at Google’s ThinkPublishing and was formerly Editor-at-large for The Media Briefing. He now co-hosts the Media Voices Podcast, delivering a weekly take on the media news and guest interviews with senior players at a leading media organizations, from Facebook to Nieman Lab, The Economist to CNN.