Audience Engagement Digital Publishing Top Stories
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“Once you come to rely on it, you won’t unsubscribe”: How publishers are using audio stories to fuel engagement and generate revenue

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The increasing popularity of podcasts has encouraged publishers to expand their audio offerings. Many have introduced audio versions of articles. These are generally embedded above the text and allow readers the flexibility to consume articles by reading or listening. 

The goal is to give busy readers an easier way to keep themselves updated – they can consume audio articles while doing daily chores. “We conducted user research and learned that users want to stay informed but are busy,” Emily Chow, Director of Site Product, The Washington Post told The Wall Street Journal’s Katie Deighton. “So they appreciate an option to get up to speed on the latest news developments while cooking dinner, running errands or exercising.” 

“Audio edition is a very effective retention tool”

In the long run, the feature can help publishers build engagement and loyalty, as well as attract new subscribers and generate ad revenue. 

“The success of podcasts has shown that audio journalism, much of it delivered digitally, has a sizable audience, editorial prestige (the first audio Pulitzer will be awarded this year), and — through podcast advertising or subscriptions to audio apps—a potential revenue stream,” writes Gabe Bullard for NiemanReports. “Narrated articles, which exist in between podcasts and text, can achieve these ends, too. The qualities that make audio engaging and valuable are present in both podcasts and narration.”  

Our evidence suggests that the audio edition is a very effective retention tool; once you come to rely on it, you won’t unsubscribe.

Tom Standage, Deputy Editor, The Economist

The Economist has been producing audio editions of its weekly magazine since 2007. Others like The Washington Post, Bloomberg, the BBC, The Financial Times and The New York Times have started offering them in the last few years. 

The Times has even acquired Audm, a company that uses audiobook narrators to convert text-based articles into audio. It had been working with Audm since last fall, creating audio versions of select longform articles before acquiring it in March.

Audm is also used by The New Yorker, Wired, Rolling Stone, Vanity Fair, The Atlantic, and BuzzFeed News among others. Subscribers pay $7.99 per month, or $56.99 per year, to access the entire library. The app is available to download for iOS and Android devices.

Curio and Noa are other apps that offer audio versions of articles narrated by voice artists. The articles are available on the app, as well as publishers’ websites and revenue is shared between both parties (figures were not shared). 

“Transforming into audio had an enormous impact for us”

Some publishers produce the audio version themselves; others rely on tools that convert text into computerized speech. Danish magazine Zetland was struggling with growth in 2016. That changed when it made the decision to experiment with audio based on its readers’ requests. The publisher built an app which hosts both text and audio versions of articles. Initially, it offered a selection of articles in audio read out by its journalists. 

They got a positive enough response to start publishing all articles in audio from 2017 onwards. It was a “great success,” according to Zetland Journalist and Community Organizer, Sara Alfort. “In two months 40% of the consumption was audio, in less than 6 months it was 50%.” 

She adds, “today our members listen far more than they read the articles of the day. 70% of the consumption is the audio version of the articles.”

It turned out that transforming into audio had an enormous impact for us. It has improved retention and member satisfaction. Listeners consume more, they stay longer with each story and it has also brought us an increased feeling of loyalty and commitment.

Sara Alfort, Journalist and Community Organizer, Zetland

“Consuming far more content than they would normally”

The Washington Post which has been experimenting with audio articles since 2017, recently made all its articles available in the audio format on its Android and iOS apps. It is using the text-to-speech features on Android and iOS mobile operating systems to do so. 

“When we first began testing audio articles on our Android app earlier this spring, our thinking was that this feature would appeal to readers during their commutes,” said Leila Siddique, the Post’s Senior Product Manager. “We’ve been surprised and pleased to see steady adoption and use over the last month as many people continue to work from home.”

“The trend is interesting, given that podcast listening has taken a dip since the pandemic began,” commented MediaPost Reporter Sara Guaglione. 

“What we’ve learned from users is that they listen to the news while doing other things, and are consuming far more content than they would normally. We plan to continue iterating on the feature to provide the best quality experience,” added Siddique. 

“Hardly any additional cost to production at all”

The BBC’s Global News is also using automated voice for it articles. Its developer team has built a reader bot meant to sound as human as possible, reported Deighton.

“You can’t have somebody producing a new audio version of one article every time it’s updated,” said Andy Webb, BBC’s Head of Product for the Voice and Artificial Intelligence Team. “But with this synthetic language, there’s hardly any additional cost to production at all.”

The publisher plans to make audio versions of its articles available free for readers. They will have ads running at the beginning and possibly later as part of wider sponsorship deals.

In the long run, the BBC plans to create a stable of synthetic voices with different accents, genders and nationalities for its global audience. It is also looking at introducing voice “moods” to match the tone of stories, Webb told WSJ. For example, a sports report could be delivered using a peppy voice, while an article on the coronavirus pandemic would use a serious tone.

“Daily habit for 121M people”

Tech companies have jumped on to the trend as well. Last month, Apple introduced audio stories on Apple News+ and a daily audio news briefing hosted by Apple News editors. The company said it will produce about 20 audio stories every week across a wide range of interests narrated by professional voice actors. 

Google launched personalized news briefings for Google Assistant in November. The company licenses audio from a variety of news sources and pays publishers to reformat their content to fit with the briefings. 

Source: Apple

Audio promises engagement as well as revenue potential for publishers. “In the US alone, the number of people who listen to spoken-word audio jumped by one fifth in the last five years, writes Bullard. “It’s now a daily habit for 121M people (music listening, meanwhile, has declined 5%).” 

“Audio has kind of quietly emerged…as kind of the preferred way for people to consume content, adds Jim Bodor, MD, Digital Product Strategy, HBR. 

“If audio does become, maybe not the dominant currency of the internet, but if it becomes an even more significant piece, then we have to be prepared for that.”