Lessons learned: How podcasts drive memberships, subscriptions, help subscriber retention, and help with overall audience loyalty.
[This is a written version of the presentation I gave during the News Impact Summit. Find the presentation at the end of this post.]
Exactly three years ago we had a crazy idea in the newsroom and nobody stopped us. While proposing new project ideas for the leadership, I slipped in a suggestion to try this thing The New York Times is doing, a daily news podcast. At that point, the NYT has been doing it for almost 8 months and it seemed to work for them. Why not in a small country in the middle of Europe without a general knowledge of podcasting…. To be clear, people literally didn't know what a podcast was, how, and why should they listen.
I have written about the journey a few times now. So, I am not going to repeat it here. Let's fast forward three years and let me tell you (based on data I & my colleagues have gathered over the years) what has my newsroom learned regarding podcasting and a reader revenue strategy.
Small country, small reach, but big returns
My newsroom is based in Slovakia (Central Europe, 5 mil. people) and three years ago podcasts have been a term almost nobody understood or came across.
Today, 21% of the internet population listens to a podcast monthly and our daily news podcast is reaching around 30-thousand people on average for each episode (if you would count per capita listeners and have our podcast compared to the USA, this would be an equivalent of 2 million daily listeners, The Daily is listened to by 4 million people per each episode in average).
Our podcasting experiment was in black numbers from the beginning. Today we can employ two full-time staff, pay some contributors, and still can be profitable. And that's just the revenue from ads.
Podcasting & subscriptions (memberships)
At first, our goal in connection with our subscription business was to look around and see what others do and by default try to convert podcast listeners to subscribers.
For weeks we were promoting our digital subscription and were explaining to our listeners that subscriptions are the thing that keeps the podcast operation going (at the time, we did not know how this will turn around).
Thanks to that we got hundreds of new subscribers out of tens of thousands of listeners. We were happy.
To track the digital subs attribution back to the podcast listeners we set up a special URL the hosts read and also included special URLs in the descriptions of the podcast episodes. Pretty basic, but it worked.
At one point we stopped with the subscription promotions, we were getting a lot of exclusive ad deals.
When you don’t have data, ask for it & you shall receive.
What the data told us about our listeners
One of the problems with podcasting is, that there is not as much data as you are used to getting for example from social networks.
From the beginning we had a very good relationship with thousands of our listeners through a Facebook Group we set up right in the beginning.
After few months we wanted to know more about our audience, get more detailed feedback on our current and future shows (at that point we had more podcasts and were thinking of launching others), and also get a sense of who is listening.
We created an online questionnaire using Google Forms and gathered more than a thousand replies.
Since then we did it two more times with more and more listeners joining in. This year more than 3600 answers came in.
Now we have a pretty clear understanding of who is our prototype listener:
He (rather than she) is under 35 years of age, has a university degree, listens to podcasts daily, subscribes & listens to 3 to 5, and earns higher than the average salary.
Here are some more detailed data about our listeners:
- young people, especially women under the age of 35
- 92% listen several times a week (60% daily)
- primary listening device: 87% smartphone (smart speakers 5%)
- primary listening place: home (even before covid-19)
- 61% say they don’t mind ads in podcasts
How subscribers feel about our podcasts
Each year we also learned more and more about our subscribers who were also podcast listeners. As I mentioned above, our initial strategy was to convert listeners to subscribers (SME.sk has a subscription business and wants to grow its reader revenue).
When we put together data from various surveys and questionnaires, this is what we got:
- more than 50% of subscribers (of SME.sk) listen to podcasts regularly
- more than 50% say they listen to our daily news podcast
- 20% say they listen to any of our podcasts
- 16% would pay a higher subscription (more content, no ads)
When you look at the data, the message is clear. Among your podcast listeners, there are many of your subscribers, more than half of them. They love the format & content (their words, not mine) and in their understanding paying for the subscription also means supporting the podcast production.
Back in the print time, you also had “content” even though nobody ever called the stories like that. The distribution method was paper. So subscribers understood they were paying for newspapers.
With a shift to digital, it became tricky. Suddenly, you didn't have anything tangible, plus everything put on the internet was free at first. Since then the media is teaching people to again pay for content even though it is digital and they don't get anything physical.
Now a subscription means access to full articles on the website. In our case, it also means to our paying subscribers that paying for a digital subscription keeps podcasts going.
This makes podcasts, as well as newsletters and other tools the newsrooms use to create a lasting relationship with their supporters, a great retention tool.
Our mistake was thinking podcasts are primarily a way to get new subscribers. Podcasts are about retention.
The New York Times agrees
In 2018, the WAN-IFRA — World Association of News Publishers published a report called Engaged Readers Don’t Churn, our version is Engaged listeners don’t churn.
(Churn rate, in its broadest sense, is a measure of the number of individuals or items moving out of a collective group over a specific period. It is one of two primary factors that determine the steady-state level of customers a business will support. Wikipedia)
A lot of organizations, not just the podcasts and newsletters, would think about this. I have someone as a newsletter subscriber. How can I get them to do one more thing to build the relationship with me? They’re newsletter subscribers, but they also listen to our podcast. They’re newsletter subscribers, but they also came to an event or are coming regularly to our events.
How can we get them to do one more thing? Bring them closer to us, so that when we ask them for the next step to support us or donate, they will really care about us and have a good relationship with us on a few different platforms.
Those are the readers who are most likely to convert. So that’s where that comes in. It’s just an additional way to deepen engagement.
And he is not the only one. Other publishers see something similar.
This is how Mark Thompson put it in a recent interview (which is on YouTube and I highly recommend watching it, and not because it was conducted by my editor-in-chief):
The idea [that certain] stories made people into subscribers misunderstands the way a subscription works. Subscriptions seldom happen because of one story. It’s about it’s about a relationship.
And actually, I tell you now, we discovered the diversity of consumption, by which I mean how many different kinds of content people consume. The New York Times is really important. It’s not going to be one story.
It’s actually going to be the person who discovers they love our political coverage. And cooking or and books or and opera coverage or whatever it might be, it’s much more about how you over time demonstrate there are lots of different good things in an organization.
So, that's why I think podcasts are a great way for keeping subscribers subscribed and members staying supporters.
Don't get me wrong, you can have podcasts as part of your acquisition strategy and we have seen it work. But by the time we were doing podcasts we had most of our subscribers subscribed.
Maybe in the future, I will write another blog looking back that we found out that most of our subscribers told us that it was because of our podcasts. Will see.
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