How The Washington Post uses podcasts to drive subscriptions

2021-06-23. The Washington Post’s podcasting vertical sits at the top of the company’s subscription-based strategy funnel. The brand aims to attract (and retain) new subscribers through their free podcasts and subsequently engage them with their journalism.

by Neha Gupta | June 23, 2021

“This is an effective way to attract new subscribers who might not yet be engaged with the journalism at The Post, and retain them,” said Maggie Penman, Executive Producer of Post Reports, during WAN-IFRA’s recent Forum Francophone: Abonnements numériques event. 

The brand’s flagship programme, Post Reports, is a mix of news and narrative stories that is published each weekday. Their other podcasts include: 

  • Can He Do That?: A politics programme that was launched during the early days of Donald Trump’s presidency and is now focussed on the powers and limitations of the presidency.
  • Canary: The company’s first deep investigative podcast launched last year in a seven-part format. 
  • Presidential: A history show that has an episode on every US president.
  • Moonrise: The behind-the-scenes story of the moon landing. 
  • Constitutional: About the US constitution.

Converting listeners to subscribers

The Post’s paying users, who also listen to podcasts, tend to be the brand’s youngest subscribers and fall in the 18-44 age group, thus making podcasts crucial to the company’s overall revenue strategy.

A strategy that works best for converting listeners into paying users is having subscription call outs with personal appeals from podcast hosts. People feel deep connections with the hosts of their favourite podcasts and want to support the work of that particular brand.

“We saw great success with a subscription drive where our host Martine Powers made a specific call out to our listeners and told them how they could support our work and subscribe to The Post,” said Penman. “We created a deal for our listeners, which made them feel special but also allowed us to track which subscribers were coming specifically from podcasts.”

Listener behaviour, metrics for success

The Washington Post’s podcast listenership spiked 20 percent during the pandemic, especially among young listeners. 

“When the pandemic hit and people stopped commuting, we thought our listenership would drop, but it wasn’t affected at all,” said Penman. 

The Post measures podcast growth month over month, downloads, year over year, average monthly listens per user, and top performing episodes. It also tracks engagement by working out what part of the podcast struck a user as interesting – topic, title or related promotions.

The podcast ecosystem, however, is a crowded place. How is The Post reaching those who are not regular users of their content? 

While there is no single factor for success, the company looks for podcast hosts with great personalities who are able to connect well with the audience through deep knowledge of the content as well as having strong storytelling skills.

Since podcasts are an opt-in experience, the common claim of social media not acting as a great attractor of audio consumers holds mostly true. However, The Post uses social media constructively to engage with its listeners and get feedback.

“The Post Reports Facebook group is a community of listeners who talk about our content offering and engage with each other,” said Penman.

Distribution, monetisation, advertising

Apple is still the largest distribution platform for podcasts, but Spotify is growing quickly and experimenting with new features. 

The status quo, when it comes to podcasts, has been free distribution. However, as the podcast ecosystem booms, it won’t be surprising if publishers start putting their offerings behind paywalls. 

In April this year, Apple and Spotify launched subscription platforms that gave creators the ability to charge for podcasts. 

While Spotify has allowed creators to keep 100 percent of the subscriber revenue, minus the payment transaction fees, till 2023, Apple takes a 30 percent cut that goes down to 15 percent after the first year. 

People seek out ease of listening and convenience while opting in for a podcast experience. Understandably, most of The Post’s listeners come from distribution platforms and not directly from the website. 

A Washington Post podcast listener can subscribe to the paid service on Apple and Spotify if they want an ad-free experience. The Post’s podcast ads are dynamically inserted by a third-party service.

A partner who wants to advertise on Post Reports can buy a certain number of impressions for that ad to be inserted dynamically however many times they have paid for.

“This allows us to avoid dynamically inserting ads if we want to put that podcast behind a paywall through Spotify or Apple,” said Penman. 

Inclusive and accessible content

Veering off to a new topic, but not entirely, The Post has begun capitalising on the new space of listening to a textual story.

With this move, the company is not only catering to people who prefer listening over reading, or passively consuming news while doing chores but is also making its content accessible to those with disabilities. 

A “Listen to this article” button is featured on some stories, which allows the user to have the article narrated to them by either a person or through artificial intelligence. 

While advertising is currently the biggest revenue driver for podcasts, paid distribution platforms, sponsorships and programmatic advertising are other possible revenue options that publishers can explore.  

“Podcast advertising is very effective. Since you’re building an intimate listening relationship between the host and the listener, while listening to an ad, a user is more likely to buy that product or seek out that service than if they were to passively see something online,” said Penman. “The ads, ofcourse, have to be strategically placed and should make contextual sense.”

Newsletters for podcast promotion

Much like podcasts, free newsletters are great tools for attracting new people. They also have a lower barrier to entry than subscribing to a newspaper. The Post has a daily newsletter dedicated to Post Reports. 

“A mistake I often see people make is that they don’t hire the staff they need at the outset and choose to figure out a way once the venture kicks off. You only get one shot at a podcast launch. A new show is always going to generate interest especially if it is coming from a creator people are familiar with,” Penman said. 

“Investing on the front end and hiring the right staff, buying good quality equipment, investing in an excellent audio editing service is crucial,” she added. “You need great personalities in a podcast, but you also need great content and striking this balance is crucial, for attracting new users and retaining them.”

Neha Gupta

Multimedia Journalist

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