‘It’s a fertile hunting ground’: The Financial Times sees podcasts leading to paying subscribers

For the Financial Times, audio is proving an effective way to attract young audiences. So much so, that in the last three months the publisher has ramped up its marketing of subscriptions to its podcast audiences, 60 percent of which are aged between 22 and 37 years old, according to the publisher.

The FT publishes 12 podcasts, including the FT News podcast, which has doubled its listeners to 1 million people since January, according to the publisher. The FT wouldn’t reveal an overall figure for podcast listeners, but two-thirds of its audio listeners are non-subscribers. The aim is to continue engaging with those non-subscribers with new types of audio storytelling formats, with the view to converting them into paying subscribers in the long term.

To that end, the publisher has extended its audio strategy to include smart speakers, starting with Google’s voice-command platform Assistant. On Saturday, the publisher launched its first interactive audio experience called “Hidden Cities” via Google Assistant, which can be accessed via Google’s smart speakers, as well as on Google and Apple smartphones.

Hidden Cities is an ongoing documentary-style editorial series that lives in the FT Weekend magazine supplement, and whose previous iterations have included virtual reality experiences, via Google Cardboard devices. Berlin is the city of choice, and listeners will be able to hear in-depth audio interviews that delve into the city’s cuisine, club scene, and other cultural highlights. The FT’s Berlin bureau chief Guy Chazan has narrated the series. An illustrated map of Berlin, which highlights how readers can engage with the experience, will feature in the FT Weekend Magazine.

Listeners will be encouraged to interact with the smart speakers, by requesting information and asking questions such as “take me on a tour of the lakes.” They will be prompted with questions to ask in order to visit different audio files, by the Hidden Cities narrator. The FT plans to monitor closely how people respond. A total of 90 minutes of content has been created across 9 separate stories.

Three of the FT’s staff have worked on creating the audio products, along with four people from the publisher’s audio partners Rosina Sound and two at Reduced Listening, and technology support from Google.

“The majority of listeners to our current podcasts are not subscribers, but they are taking the time to spend 20 to 30 minutes a day on FT content,” said Alastair Mackie, head of audio for commercial at the Financial Times. “One of the challenges subscriptions businesses have is to engage people to the point where they convert. So to have a fertile hunting ground [for conversions] of highly engaged people, many of whom listen to 70-80 percent of the podcasts, is good.  You’ll see a lot more of us trying to refine that. There is a big opportunity in using it to drive subscriptions.”

The Financial Times regularly engages with a 10,000 panel of subscribers who volunteer to give feedback on new products. Of that 10,000 around 30 percent either own smart speakers, or have access to one, according to the publisher.

The Hidden Cities series has always been open for access — as are all the FT’s audio products. A small percentage of audio products have gone behind the paywall, after being converted from text article to audio. Given the Hidden Cities content will live on Google’s platform, it’s unlikely it will ever be paid for. The FT’s plan is more to use what it learns from people’s propensity to interact and engage with the product, to inform future interactive audio storytelling formats on other smart speakers, such as Amazon’s Alexa, according to Mackie.

“This is a smart acquisition strategy,” said Joseph Evans, senior research analyst at Enders. “The paper is getting into the news consumption routine of its listeners, in a high-attention context where it can demonstrate the authority of its journalists. Forming habits around content is key to any subscription offering.”

There is some evidence of people paying for ad-free podcasts with bonus content, according to Evans. “We’ve counted nearly 100 podcasts on user-payment platform Patreon with at least 1,000 paying listeners, averaging about $5 [£3.80] per subscriber per month.”

Podcasts alone aren’t necessarily enough to boost subscriptions — but a unified audio offering for subscribers including podcasts, audio versions of articles, and flash briefings, such as the FT provides, is far more likely to attract new subscribers and reduce churn for existing ones by becoming part of people’s daily and weekly routines, according to Evans.

Currently, the FT’s plan is to use the content to continue attracting young non-subscribers, with the view to converting them to paying subscribers later on, as well as provide additional value to existing subscribers. But there are also native advertising opportunities with this kind of audio format, which the FT will explore, added Mackie.


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