In the scramble to serve Facebook, publishers have pivoted to video, with some disastrous results. Not Slate. It is betting big on text and podcasting this year, supported by new hires, ad strategy and site design.
“The big story is, we’re pivoting to words,” said Julia Turner, editor of Slate. “We’re going to be experimenting with all media, but we spent lot of 2017 looking at the fundamentals of the business of the written word and podcasting and found a strong case in investing in both.”
Slate has been doing podcasts for a dozen years and now has 24 under its belt, which it said account for 25 percent of its business. This year, Slate is doubling its dedicated podcasting staff from five to 10 with plans to launch a few more shows, including a second season of “Slow Burn,” its hit show about the history of Watergate; and a new one with star author Michael Lewis called “Against the Rules.” In 2015, it used its podcasting know-how to create Panoply, a podcast network for media brands, authors and personalities. This year, it will separate its Slate-branded podcasts from the rest of Panoply so it can fully control ad sales of its premium shows. Video, in contrast, makes up less than 10 percent of Slate’s content.
Slate is also increasing its text-based staff by 20 percent, contrary to a lot of publishers that laid off writers to staff up for video. These priorities will be evident in a new site design launching Jan. 16, which will feature new ways to promote podcasts (and eventually a player so visitors can sample shows without leaving the site) and stronger navigation to make it easier for visitors to see all the journalism Slate offers.
All these moves seem prescient now, given how the distribution landscape has changed. Legacy text publishers now realize that producing video people want to watch and monetizing it is harder and more expensive than it looks. Publishers’ video strategies have largely been driven by Facebook, but a solid monetization model from the platform has yet to materialize. Facebook just announced it would de-emphasize news in the news feed, which will be a blow to publishers that depended on the platform to help their content find an audience.
“There was a bubble,” Turner said. “Publishers saw distribution was free; they could get huge really quickly. You saw people scale up and suffer when Facebook decided to change the rules. In the wake of the Facebook announcement, [the redesign is] kind of perfect timing because we’ve been moving from the last few years to understand the depth of engagement with our readers. Everything we’re doing is around maximizing engagement.”
Slate has been moving in this direction for the past couple of years since it realized it was too dependent on Facebook traffic and started taking steps to optimize for reader loyalty. It made moves like producing more news-driven cover stories, revamping its newsletter to drive people to the site and doing more podcasts like “Trumpcast,” which help drive membership of its premium program, Slate Plus, because some bonus-segment podcast content is available only to Plus members.
In that time period, Facebook has gone from contributing around 30 percent of Slate’s monthly traffic to less than 10 percent, while Slate is offsetting that with increases in traffic from Google and Apple News. Direct traffic to the site, a proxy for loyalty, represents nearly 30 percent of visitors. It now uses engaged time as its internal yardstick for success and counted 2 billion minutes spent reading and listening in 2017, an 18 percent increase over the year before. Membership to Slate Plus, for which die-hard fans pay $49 a year to get perks like fewer ads and bonus content, grew 45 percent in 2017 to about 40,000 members.
Apart from benefiting reader engagement, Slate also sees a revenue case for text and podcasting. Audio and programmatic are its fastest-growing ad revenue segments, driven by the audience demographics and programmatic tweaks like adding demand partners and improving site speed.(The separation of Slate podcasts from Panoply means that direct-response advertisers that Panoply was calling on for all the shows will now be called on by Slate sales staff, too. Charlie Kammerer, Slate’s CRO, said the purpose of the new structure was so Slate and Panoply can each focus on what they do best, which for Panoply is selling audience across its network and which for Slate is creating and selling premium content for a premium audience.)
“Both text and audio attract a super-premium audience,” Kammerer said. “We know we can monetize the written word if we do it really, really efficiently just with programmatic.”