How The Guardian is making podcasts pay off

The Guardian is seeing its investment in podcasts pay off, buoyed by a new daily show that it’s using to increase ad revenue, but also drive people to its membership program.

Last November, the publisher launched a 25-minute daily news podcast “Today in Focus,” which has become one of its most popular shows, accounting for a quarter of all total listens. Average daily listens for the show have grown fivefold since launching, based on first-week listens compared to last week’s listens. The publisher also said that audience figures have grown 30 percent month-on-month but was unwilling to share more specific figures.

The Guardian has 10 active podcasts.

High listen and download numbers are useful to show advertisers, but in the last few weeks, the publisher has used the format to drive people to its membership scheme, by running ads within the podcasts. It says it’s working, but it’s too early to share results.

Numerous publishers are moving podcasts higher up the value chain as audiences grow and ad revenue continues to show promise: Ad rates overall have stayed buoyant while demand is still high, audiences tend to be younger and focus on the show. While there’s a wealth of podcasts out there, only the top tier with listen numbers in the six-figures can get meaningful ad revenue.

“Podcasts are not just a story on memberships; they have been successful on ad slots — they are a mix of revenue streams,” said Christian Bennett, executive editor of visual journalism at the Guardian.

“Today in Focus” covers one big news story and one shorter story less tied to the news cycle. The second-most popular episode to date has been on climate change, a story that media organizations struggle to tell effectively. Trump and Brexit also pull in big numbers but the podcast has also covered stories like racism and the healthcare industry.

“‘Today in Focus’ humanizes our journalism and brings it to a new audience,” said Bennett. “There’s a gap in the morning to have a clear in-depth look at a story and have it talked out in front of you. The judge is it’s interesting whether you know about a story or not; we try and cover it in a way that’s different.”

The daily news podcast has eight people working on it, as does The Economist’s version. “We went into this thinking it will be a very important property, eventually as important as paper, this isn’t secondary,” said Bennett.

The daily news podcast space is a busy one and publishers like The Financial Times, The Economist and The Washington Post have released daily news podcast. According to podcast platform Acast, in 2018, there were 230 million listens to daily news podcasts on its network, 6 million of these were in the U.K. The Guardian broadcast a daily news podcast from 2006 until 2010. The monetization of podcasts has matured since then, making it a more viable product.

“You need a clear identity and branding to offer something different in this space, but there’s enormous room for growth,” said Susie Warhurst, global head of content at Acast. “People are only just waking up to the possibility of podcasts, and it the deeper engagement from a daily rhythm.”

The Guardian runs 30-second geo-targeted audio ads that are run across Acast’s network, as well as sponsorship ads that are produced by the Guardian for specific podcasts and audiences from advertisers like Bose, which fetch a higher premium.

“That’s two bites of the cherry,” said Howard Bareham, co-founder at audio media buying and creative agency Trisonic, adding that sponsorships are the fastest area of growth in audio ads because they maintain the sense of endorsement from the brand. There are no public figures for the size of the podcast market in the U.K. — Bareham estimates about £25 million ($33 million) — so it’s a small but rapidly growing market.

According to an Acast research study from 2018, 76 percent of listeners take action after hearing a podcast ad, which could be visiting a site, making a purchase or taking out a subscription.

As with all routes to subscriptions, there are obvious limitations with attributing the sale to the final format before conversion. For the Guardian, “Today in Focus,” and podcasts in general, offer multiple revenue streams.

“Podcasts are additive to the relationship with the audience; people listen to podcasts when their hands and eyes are busy,” said Bennet. “‘Today in Focus’ is a big investment and a big audience; we want to seriously invest in the opportunity.”

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