Reader-supported model rather than ad-supported has been winning the revenue battle for many publishers across the world. Now, publishers across Europe are testing whether paid audio is the way forward.
Last week, Anchor.fm, the free podcast hosting platform owned by Spotify and probably the biggest host in the world (in terms of shows, not their popularity), announced it is opening podcast subscriptions to podcasters in the USA.
In April the host introduced the feature as a way for creators to offer paid subscriber-only content on Spotify and other platforms (subscribers get a private RSS to use with a podcast host of their choosing so that it is not exclusive to Spotify).
Until 2023, the program will come at no cost to the creators, they will only have to pay payment processing fees (around 5 %), after that Spotify will take a 5% fee on subscription revenue (so after 2023 it will be ~10% for fees). In comparison, Apple Podcasts takes from podcast subscription 30% in the first year and 15% after that, though it is only available on the platform. (Here is a good comparison of actual revenue podcasters can count on.)
Spotify said international listeners will gain access to subscriber-only content on September 15th, and the company said it will shortly after making the feature available to creators around the world.
No specific date was given, some publishers and creators I spoke to hope it would be this year, I would not be as optimistic. Also, Anchor’s track record of rolling out new features “in coming months” is not very impressive (looking at you, Polls and Q&A announced in February).
Paid podcasts on Spotify. Image: Spotify blog
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Normalizing paid podcasts
Still, the news is significant as Anchor remains also the biggest host where podcasters migrate from other platforms, per Podnews’ podcast host changes tracker.
Few months ago, I wrote that paying for content might become normal as the biggest social platforms are introducing revenue tools for creators and gaming is booming with direct payments at the front.
Normalizing paying for content is crucial. Anchor’s podcast subscriptions might not be a deal breaker for publishers looking to expand their paid subscription offering but with more creators opting into the direct listener revenue model it will be less extraordinary to pay for podcasts.
Some publishers I spoke to hope to use Spotify’s open access feature once it will be rolled out more widely (open access feature allows third-party services with paid content their subscribers to unlock and hear the content right on Spotify as the platform does not support private RSS as a universal delivery platform for most paid podcasts).
In July, Spotify announced 13 pilot partners for the program to test with some European publishers such as the German Der Spiegel and French Mediapart.
For many news publishers with existing podcasts and digital subscriptions would be best to include an ad-free version of the podcasts in the paid offering or add subscriber-exclusive podcasts for an additional fee such as Der Spiegel does.
To do that, publishers have to use a podcast host that allows private feeds. Some notable ones include Acast, Supporting Cast, Supercast, Captivate, Transistor, Libsyn, RedCircle, Spreaker, Blubrry and others.
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Der Spiegel uses podcasts to retain subscribers
In August, a podcast report by the Otto Brenner Foundation was published. It paints a very detailed picture of the state of podcasting in Germany and some data correlate with the development in other countries (the rise of listening to podcasts via Spotify and YouTube, or the popularity of true crime and comedy).
According to the report, only Der Spiegel and Media Pioneer, a publishing house started by journalist Gabor Steingart, offer paid podcasts. Per the Reuters’ Digital News Report 2021, 25 % of Germans listened to a podcast last month.
Der Spiegel introduced Audio+, its exclusive audio subscription, in June 2021 and includes an audio version of the weekly edition of the magazine, a daily news podcast (similar to The Daily by the NYT), a podcast with work-life balance tips and topics on nutrition and mindfulness called CoachingM and “Dein Spiegel Podcast” for children and their parents.
All existing SPIEGEL+ subscribers were given a 12-month free access to Audio+. Without the digital access subscription (SPIEGEL+), Audio+ costs 14.99 euros per month, a joint subscription is 19.99 €.
Subscribers can access the paid audio on the outlet’s website or use its mobile app. According to the report, Der Spiegel also has a partnership with Amazon’s audiobook app Audible which not also contains podcasts. It also puts the four paid podcasts behind a paywall on Apple Podcasts.
Interestingly, per the report, Der Spiegel does not use any technology for automatic advertising. The outlet did not share the listening numbers of its most popular podcast Die Lage (previously known as SPIEGEL Update) that comes out twice daily and each episode has up to 5 minutes.
The report gives numbers of Der Spiegel’s other most popular podcast called Eight Billion, a weekly show on foreign affairs that had 55-thousand listeners of each episode in February 2021.
Paid podcasts are seen by the publication as a way to keep paying subscribers and podcasts overall are a very important component to Der Spiegel’s ‘U30 strategy’ said audio director Sandra Sperber. (The ‘U-30-Strategie’ is a special effort by the paper to grow significantly the number of under 30-year-olds that pay for digital subscriptions, first announced in September 2020).
With the arrival of paid subscriptions on Apple Podcasts on June 15 also Die Zeit set up a paywall around its podcasts on the platform and added audio articles accessible for 5.99 € a month, altogether 19 shows.
Der Spiegel’s podcasts. Source: Der Spiegel
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In Poland, paid audio has been around since 2015
TOK FM was originally founded in 1996 under the name Inforadio, had several owners and was acquired in 1998 by Agora, the publisher of Poland’s leading national daily Gazeta Wyborcza. The name was changed the same year.
The full name to this day remains Radio TOK FM with a radio broadcast but has its own digital platform (launched in 2010) and mobile app with paid subscriptions that include exclusive podcasts.
In 2015, paid subscriptions were introduced for the TOK FM platform. The idea came from Adam Fijałkowski, a board member of the publishing house, Jarosław Śliżewski, the chief digital officer of the radio division, told The Fix.
The live radio stream is free for listeners anywhere (web or app). You pay for the ad-free experience and exclusive programming. Paid shows appear in the player online next to free ones, and once you try to play a paid show a paywall will appear (see image below).
The subscription called TOK FM Premium has three tiers – Basic (1.84 € / month), Standard (2.75 € / month) and Multi-access (3.74 € / month).
With each package, subscribers get access to exclusive podcasts and the ability to listen to both radio and podcasts online without ads. With a standard subscription, a subscriber gets access to the mobile app on one device while with multi access has up to 4 devices and also an RSS feed with podcasts.
As of the second quarter of 2021, according to financial results of the Agora Group, Gazeta Wyborcza has 258,2-thousand subscribers and additional 25,4-thousand subscribers to TOK FM Premium.
Also, Gazeta Wyborcza has three tiers of its subscription offering, the highest called Club costs 10.91 €, includes three months free access to TOK FM and 50 % discount for more.
“We are two organisations, of different scale, with different formal status (two companies), slightly different audiences. There is no decision to have one “ruling” subscription product yet,” told me Śliżewski.
There is some cooperation going on as Gazeta’s podcasts are available on the TOK FM platform and in its app, but so far there is not a bundle like SPIEGEL+ and Audio+.
According to Śliżewski, the most popular podcasts will remain ad-supported but they want to keep experimenting with a paywall. TOK FM is preparing to offer a subscription within Apple Podcasts that should launch sometime in September.
In 2020, podcasts reached 31 % of the Polish population monthly.
TOK FM’s paywall. Source: tokfm.pl
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In France it is not only news publishers experimenting with paid podcasts
When Apple announced on June 15th the launch of paid podcasts on its platform, it had several podcasts creators signed up in different countries.
In France, you would not find big news publishers among the pilot partners. It was a bunch of independent creators, podcast studios and one radio station.
Louie Media, Paradiso, Europe 1, Nouvelles Ecoutes, Bababam, Binge Audio and Pénélope Boeuf were the first French publishers to offer paid audio offers within Apple Podcasts.
They are using different strategies to grow their subscribers but have one thing in common. Unlike most big news publishers in France, they do not have a paywall on their websites so there is no need for them to consider how to make it work cross-platform.
Previously, I mentioned Der Spiegel has a subscription for audio that also includes paid podcasts. Subscribers via Apple Podcasts cannot easily bundle their podcast subscriptions with SPIEGEL+ for a more favorable price. What they get is access to paid audio content they can listen to on the platform / app they are used to, unlike others that have to use Der Spiegel’s app.
Bababam, a podcast production studio from Paris calls its Apple Podcasts subscription Bababam+. For 1,99 € a month subscribers get ad-free shows with early access to new episodes.
When I asked Pierre Orlac’h, CEO of Bababam, about it, he told me they were not optimistic about the podcast subscriptions. Paid podcasts might have existed since the birth of RSS, but most podcasters have used ads, sponsored episodes and other forms of advertising to make money with podcasts.
Orlac’h wouldn’t tell me how many subscribers do their 12 podcasts on Bababam+ have but hinted they are quite happy with the outcome as they are not offering exclusive content.
According to Reuters’ Digital News Report, 28% of the French population listened to a podcast in the last. In 2021, Apple Podcasts remains the top podcasting app in France with a 43% share, followed by 20% of users listening via Spotify.
If a podcast creator decided to do exclusive paid podcasts only for Apple Podcasts, they would be missing out on the better half of podcast listeners even if Apple’s share is huge.
At the moment, Orlac’h is interested to see retention figures in one year, and told me it is too soon to say whether it is working or not. He also thinks traditional news publishers did not join as they want their subscribers to be their own and not subscribe to the platform.
Still, the team at Bababam is most excited about Podinstall a web player they are offering to publishers. They call it the simplest solution to broadcast your podcast on the web and is pulling data from a podcast’s RSS feed.
One of their clients using Podinstall, 20 Minutes, a free daily newspaper aimed at commuters in France averages 300- to 400-thousand listens a month and “near totality of their monthly listens are via their own site (with Podinstall)” Sarah Toporoff, the publisher manager for Podinstall told The Fix.
Their aim with Podinstall, she said, is for the publishers to get as many listens as views of their websites. The team is also working to build paywalled audio into the subscription model of one of their clients.
Mediapart, an independent French online investigative journal, is also popular for its paid podcasts offering. It was chosen by Spotify as the first French media to pilot the open access feature which will allow Mediapart subscribers to listen to paid podcasts also on Spotify.
Podcast subscriptions on Apple Podcasts. Source: Apple Podcasts
Examples from UK (Tortoise Media), Denmark (Zetland) and Sweden (Podme)
Tortoise Media launched in the UK in 2019 and by June 2021 amassed 110-thousand paying members. Tortoise aims to be “audio first” and by the name you might have guessed it is a slow-news outlet.
Tortoise had built its product offering on exclusive events (called ThinkIns), newsletters for members, members-only app and access to audio versions of the newsletter and articles.
Audio and podcasts have especially made the outlet popular in recent months. Members get early access to the audio stories and without ads.
“What we found is that our journalism, our slow, narrative-led stories, is a formula that lives better in audio than on a small screen as a long-read. It’s kind of obvious now I say it, but it took us a long time to realise that was going to be the case,” told Liz Moseley, CMO and Partner at Tortoise Media, participants of a WAN-IFRA event in May.
Going “audio first” has been a surprising experience for the Danish magazine Zetland. According to the magazine, the move in 2017 improved retention and member satisfaction.
Zetland exceeded 23-thousand members (Danish population: 5.8M) by the latest results, and has been financially sustainable since 2019.
They describe the decision to go “audio first” as a bottom up request from members. In 2016, the magazine was struggling to grow just as the second wave of podcasting hit the country so audio was “hot”.
Members wanted to listen to the stories so Zetland built an app with audio and text side by side, and quickly started publishing all articles as audio. The journalists read their own stories.
Zetland says that 80 % of the consumption of their content is via audio and the pivot helped them accelerate the member growth. You won’t find their audio on podcast platforms, members are using the app primarily to listen and anyone can listen on the website with limited functionality available.
In June 2021, Schibsted (the publisher of the Swedish tabloid Aftonbladet and other media) obtained control over the Swedish premium podcast company PodMe by increasing its ownership interest from 48% to 91% through acquisition of shares.
Podme was created in 2017 with an ad-free subscription model and access to exclusive podcasts.Monthly subscription costs 79 Swedish Krona which equals 7,75 €. Subscribers can listen on the web or via mobile apps. Last October, Podme announced it exceeded 50-thousand paying subscribers. The goal at the time was to have one million paying subscribers by 2024.
Schibsted said in the recent financial filing that Podme will be central in its strategy for subscription-based podcasts. It’s very early days but it is safe to assume podcasts subscriptions will be used to boost overall news subscriptions, help with retention and possibly get existing subscribers to upgrade to a higher tier with access to all the premium audio.