How The Financial Times is using audio to drive subscriptions

The Financial Times is the latest publisher to launch an audio daily news briefing on smart speakers like Google Home and Amazon Alexa.

“The FT News Briefing” launched Oct. 22 as an eight-minute overview of daily business news stories and will also be distributed on usual podcast platforms like Acast, Apple and Spotify. The show will go live each weekday at 5 a.m. U.K. time to catch early-morning commuters. According to the FT, the majority of its audio listening happens before 9 a.m.

The FT also found that over 60 percent of its listeners are millennials, overall podcasting and audio audiences skew younger too, with the majority of its listeners not being subscribers.

“At the intersection of those two points, there’s a real opportunity for us on the subscription and advertising side,” said Alastair Mackie, the publisher’s head of audio for commercial.

Mackie expects “News Briefing” to be one of the FT’s top-performing podcasts. The publisher has previously said it produces around 20 podcasts a week across its 14 different shows, all available to non-subscribers. The “FT’s News in Focus” audio show, which looks at one topic in depth each morning, has 1 million listens a month, he said, with 15 percent of listens coming from Google Home devices.

Since this summer, the FT has been inserting offer codes into its audio shows driving people to dedicated URLs where they can subscribe. Mackie said it was too early to share the conversion rate, but audio is driving subscribers at the same rate as other formats and platforms. The next step will be in customizing the conversion paths based on the audio show to show off the breadth of the FT’s content. Audiences who listen to its politics show will see a landing page featuring its content on Brexit, for instance.

According to Mackie, the FT’s audio ad revenue has tripled in the last year. International energy company Equinor has a yearlong deal sponsoring the “News Briefing.” The FT has a clear church-and-state divide with its audio ads, opting to run pre-rolls rather than host-read ads. These are shorter than 30 seconds in keeping with the concise eight-minute long format. “We have the opportunity to monetize 2 million monthly listens through subscriptions and ads, and hopefully a blend of the two,” said Mackie. Across its podcasts, the FT has an average listen-through rate of 75 percent, he added, but third-party podcasting platforms are typically stingy with sharing more granular data.

For a lot of publishers, audio formats fall in the experimental bucket partly because measurement is tricky and monetization is limited to sponsorship and ad insertion. Being able to link audio to driving subscribers is valuable. Publishers like The Telegraph, Slate and the Guardian have waded into more general news audio shows.

“Voice is the next marketing frontier. Gartner predicts that after Christmas half of U.S. households will own a smart speaker,” said Jim Cridlin, global head of innovation and partnerships at ad agency Mindshare. “Adoption is faster than any other tech before; it’s natural for publishers to take advantage given the quick scale achieved.”

Developing “News Briefing” natively for smart speakers is a natural evolution in the FT’s podcasting strategy, rather than a big bet. Although recording another daily show involves two producers in New York who also draw on the wider editorial, commercial and product teams. Keeping the content relevant and discoverable on smart speakers will also be key.

“Building an Amazon skill is like buying a puppy,” said Cridlin. “It takes care and feeding to keep up to date.”

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