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Podcasters test offering more bonus content and additional features to grow subscriptions

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After launching subscription podcast services last year, QCode, Tenderfoot TV, NPR and Acast are investing in their offerings by adding more shows and experimenting with the way bonus content can serve superfans, add value to the paid product and provide complementary, recurring revenue.

STATS FROM THE STORY

  • Apple Podcast subscribers increased by more than 300% since June 2021
  • More than 25% of top 100 of Apple’s “Top Shows” offer subscriptions
  • QCode now offers over 25 shows, with 30 more in development
  • Tenderfoot+ offers over 200 episodes
  • NPR will soft launch its podcast bundle at 34 local stations before going nationwide

The number of podcasters offering a paid product is growing — as is the number willing to subscribe. Since June 2021, the number of Apple Podcast subscribers increased by more than 300%, and over 25% of the top 100 shows in Apple’s “Top Shows” chart offer a subscription, a spokesperson said, though they did not provide exact figures. In addition to bonus content, podcast subscriptions usually offer ad-free listening and early access to content.

Bonus content around specific shows 

QCode, known for its scripted fiction podcasts, moved into the unscripted podcast space earlier this month, with five shows added to its network. The company now has over 25 shows, with 30 more in development, said QCode chief strategy officer Steve Wilson. A few more will go live in the next couple of weeks, he said.

QCode is no. 14 in Apple Podcast’s “Top Subscriber Channel” chart, which launched earlier this month. Wilson declined to share the number of QCode+ subscribers.

QCode is experimenting with subscriptions around specific, unscripted chat shows, Wilson said. While all of QCode’s scripted fiction shows are available under a channel subscription on Apple Podcasts, the company plans to introduce individual show-level subscriptions “tailored to the benefits of that specific audience and what they’re looking for and getting more from those always-on shows,” Wilson said. 

“Different kinds of content is what we think will really win in subscriptions to give fans more,” he added.

For example, QCode’s recently-added show “Tooth and Claw” about real wild animal attacks has the “Griz Club” for $9.99 a month, which provides subscribers with bonus episodes, access to a server on the group-chatting platform Discord and early access to merch — a subscription model with additional benefits that could be replicated for other QCode shows.

“We’re candidly still figuring out exactly what the benefits, pricing and timing of subscriptions will be but we think they can be really bespoke to each show,” Wilson said. “Then we can have a blended model between advertising and subscriptions to really support these projects.”

Similarly to QCode, true crime media company Tenderfoot is offering bonus content to its Tenderfoot+ “on a show by show basis, and really trying to think about what works for this particular show,” said Tracy Kaplan, head of operations & partnerships at Tenderfoot. Both QCode+ and Tenderfoot+ have their subscriptions on Apple Podcasts. QCode+ costs $3.99 a month or $28.99, while Tenderfoot+ costs $4.99 a month or $49.99 a year.

Four shows were added to Tenderfoot+ this month, including the company’s first weekly true crime show. Over 200 episodes are available on Tenderfoot+, Kaplan said. She declined to share the number of Tenderfoot+ subscribers.

Wondery+, the top subscriber channel in Apple Podcast’s chart, is experimenting with early access to content, windowing and exclusivity “to further incentivize the habitual listeners” to pay for content, Neel Ketkar, head of product management at Wondery, said in an email. This summer, the Amazon-owned podcast studio released full seasons of popular weekly serialized shows exclusively to subscribers, including “Business Wars: Diet Wars,” “American History Tellers: The Manson Family Murders” and “American Scandal: The Midnight Crew.”

Additional benefits to come with NPR’s podcast bundle

Most of NPR’s individual podcast show subscriptions give readers sponsorship-free listening. But when NPR goes live with its podcast bundle membership program in November, NPR will “start to roll in additional features, some bonus content,” said Joel Sucherman, vp of new platform partnerships.

This may range from an “audio reader mail bag” where a host answers subscriber questions,  extended interviews, early access to live events or discounts at the NPR shop, he said. The NPR podcast subscriptions for “Planet Money” and “The Limits with Jay Williams” have already tested out some of these features, he said.

The bundle is planned to soft launch at 34 local stations, before expanding across the U.S. in the first half of 2023, Sucherman said. The bundle will include NPR podcasts that offer individual subscriptions and make them available to those who sign up for a local station membership. Once the bundle becomes available, NPR listeners will have the option to cancel single podcast subscriptions and prorate a refund for the remaining time left on the existing subscription. Existing subscribers can upgrade to the bundle, which will have over a dozen shows, and pricing will change from its current $2.99 a month to a $8 a month or $96 a year tax-deductible donation, an NPR spokesperson said.

The largest source of NPR’s podcast show subscriptions — which are available on Spotify, Apple and NPR’s own platform — come from Apple, Sucherman said, though he declined to share exact subscription figures.

More monetization options for Acast+ 

Acast+, an independent podcast subscription platform, expanded its podcast monetization capabilities last month with the option for podcasters to ask for one-time payments. Podcasters can set a one-time price for a certain number of episodes or bonus content, rather than ask for recurring payments. The option is meant for podcasters who produce a seasonal show, who want to test their audiences’ appetite for paid content or who may not be able to handle the workload of offering bonus episodes at a regular cadence, said Stacey Goers, who was promoted to director of product at Acast this week. Bonus content on Acast+ often ranges from outtakes, Q&As or audio from listeners, she said.

Another “benefit” Acast is adding to its subscription platform is an integration with Meta coming this fall, Goers said. Paying podcast listeners will get access to private Facebook groups, where they can communicate with each other and podcasters.

A subscription really serves superfans. I’m not expecting that it ever would replace our ad efforts.
Tracy Kaplan, head of operations & partnerships, Tenderfoot

Podcasters will also be able to test charging more for different podcast subscription tiers that provide access to additional benefits like the Facebook groups, Goers said. Goers did not share how many podcasts hosted on Acast’s platform offer a subscription before publishing time. She said the product is still relatively “nascent,” and that there are “hundreds of podcasts” on Acast+.

Revenue as a ‘complement

All of the execs interviewed for this story said podcast subscription revenue was a complement to advertising revenue, not a replacement.

“A subscription really serves superfans. I’m not expecting that it ever would replace our ad efforts,” Tenderfoot’s Kaplan said. Acast’s Goers said podcast subscriptions are “just a separate revenue stream. It gives you that separate degree of security.”

NPR has seen “modest success” from its individual subscriptions, Sucherman said. “This was never about a get-rich-quick scheme. It’s always been a multiyear program that aligns public radio around success and NPR podcasts with a way of bringing in new support from the listeners who love our shows,” he said.

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