Audience Engagement Digital Publishing Top Stories
6 mins read

Podcasts and newsletters: 5 similarities and 1 huge difference

Getting your Trinity Audio player ready...

In the ‘Newsletters’ episode of our Media Moments 2022 podcast series, we touched on the similarities between newsletter publishing and podcasting. We all agreed, for once, that both have played an important part in the continued democratisation of content creation.

Podcasts and newsletters share the same low cost of entry; all it takes is a phone or a computer and you’re in the game. Peter Kafka, writing on Vox, put it like this: “Newsletters, it turns out, are just like blogs and podcasts –  they’re super simple for anyone to create.”

But that is, literally, just the beginning.

Here are five similarities between podcasts and newsletters… and also one huge difference.

Ears and inboxes

Both podcasts and newsletters are very individual media.

Most podcasts are listened to on headphones, creating a perceived intimacy with the podcast hosts that doesn’t exist with other media formats. Researchers call the phenomenon ‘in-head localisation’ with headphones making it sound like the podcaster’s voice is coming from inside your head.

Email newsletters, while lacking the resonant power of a voice in your head, appear in your very own, personal, inbox. Yes, the exact same email might be sent to 100,000 people, but it’s addressed to you and sits there between the delivery notification for your latest online purchase and your TV license reminder.

The direct relationship that podcast listeners and newsletter subscribers enjoy with their chosen media goes way beyond most other content formats, certainly in the digital space. They are opt-in, they are on demand and they deliver regularly on the promise of a direct, personal, communication between the publisher and the audience.

Big personalities

Hosts are a big draw in podcasts – love him or hate him, the Joe Rogan show is all about Joe Rogan. While superstar magazine editors are largely a thing of the past, most hit podcasts are, first and foremost, associated with their hosts. Going back to the voices in your head, parasocial intimacy positions podcast hosts more as friends than media personalities.

Even with smaller shows, people matter. At the Publisher Podcast Summit, editor of Women’s Running, Esther Newman, said that what had begun as an interview podcast only took off once its hosts started speaking more about their own lives. “They became invested in us as people as much as they were invested in us as runners,” she explained.

Similarly, personality is coming to matter more and more in the newsletter space. The newsletter explosion of the last couple of years was sparked by individuals, from Ben Thomson with Stratechery to Culture Study’s Anne Helen Petersen.

And even as the solo newsletter boom slows, publishers are investing in individual creators or raising the profile of their staffers. Guardian head of newsletters Toby Moses told Press Gazette: “There’s been this personality-driven news trend recently. And publishers like The Guardian have seen how well it has done.”

Creating superfans

Both podcasts and newsletters are used to draw in audiences from the free side of the paywall.The New Statesman’s Audio Long Read podcast gives non-subscribers a glimpse of the news and current affairs weekly’s in-depth journalism and most magazines and newspapers offer at least one free newsletter as a gateway to subscriber only content.

Every publication everywhere has a free email newsletter and, for publishers looking to build a reader revenue stream, they are the first point in subscriber acquisition. Regular newsletters are an opportunity to steal audiences back from the social media stream and build a regular content consumption habit.

The New York Times sees its daily The Morning newsletter, with 17 million subscribers, as an important step on the path to converting paying customers. Last year, Adam Pasick, editorial director of newsletters at The New York Time told Digiday: “Newsletters are a great way to grow a subscription business.”

Increasingly, both audio and email are used as a retention tool to build habit with subscribers; subscriber only newsletters are commonplace and early-access to podcast episodes is a tactic used by publishers looking to bolster membership benefits. Quartz went all-in on newsletter content for members in 20021. Magazines like Empire have taken this one step further; its Spoiler Special series is a paid-for podcast, superserving fans that just can’t get enough of what their favourite movie magazine does.

Riches in niches

Apologies to anyone outside the US for the rhyme, but however you pronounce it, the most successful podcasts and newsletters are niche offerings. Most leading newspapers publish a portfolio of newsletters. A recent WAN-IFRA survey found that two-thirds of respondents were looking at launching between one and five newsletters this year; 12% were considering more than 10 launches.

Report author says newsletters give publishers, “new opportunities to recast their net and engage with readers across both tried-and-tested topics, as well as a foundation for creating products for other specific audiences…”. Looking just at The Telegraph in the UK, the paper has 

More than 40 newsletters, from politics to puzzles, football to food and drink.

Podcasting is also, primarily, a niche medium. A survey run by podcast platform Acast showed  80% of its podcast listeners seek podcasts for ‘self-education, self-knowledge’. Australian podcast agency Soundcartel says that number proves people are finding podcasts to ‘deep-dive’ into topics they are interested in.

And from a business perspective, niche podcasts with a small but engaged audience have real earning potential. Speaking at The Publishing Show earlier this year, Christopher Phin, head for podcast at DC Thomson at the time, said the company’s B2B podcast Energy Voice Out Loud, was the publisher’s biggest-earning podcast, making six figures annually from an audience of less than 300 listeners.

Discovery difficulties

Of course not all podcast-newsletter similarities are positive; discovery is a challenge for both formats.

Media commentator Simon Owens wrote recently that ‘podcast discovery is hard’. In an email highlighting a podcast marketing discussion, he said: There aren’t many network effects built into the medium, and listeners have to fire up a designated podcast app just to consume your content. The industry largely depends on old-fashioned word-of-mouth to grow an audience.”

Interestingly, not everyone sees discoverability as a problem for listeners. “They have enough to listen to already. Their days are full, and they don’t have time to listen to anything new,” writes podcast expert Mark Steadman. He’s not 100% serious – great content will always find an audience, and for him recommendations, not technology, are the answer.

That’s why reviews still matter in podcasting and why Substack introduced its recommendation system.

Mark Stenberg told us when he was first writing about Substack, one of the weaknesses he saw was that, unlike blogs, there didn’t seem to be much SEO capability. “When was the last time you Googled something, and it was a Substack post that was the first thing that surfaced,” he asked.

Looking for the silver lining, this is an opportunity for media brands that already have strong SEO skills and large social followings. Media brands have an opportunity to amplify their podcast and newsletter output, unlike most solo creators, who need to leverage their existing social followings to find success, or make it through sheer dumb-luck of virality.

One huge difference

There is one big difference between podcasts and newsletters – audience ownership.

Podcasting metrics are notoriously vague, and although Apple’s ‘privacy’ machinations have made traditional email metrics from Apple devices less meaningful, it is still possible to generate useful metrics.

And while podcasters have no real clue who is listening to their output, newsletter publishers at least own their email lists. If nothing else this allows them to get in touch with their audience directly. Worried about Apple’s changes, the FT generated 78,000 survey responses through its newsletters.

Until the podcasting platforms get their act together, there is a relatively simple solution for podcasters that want to know more about their listeners: start a newsletter to compliment your audio offering.

We learned a lot about our audience from starting a daily newsletter and have come to see our newsletter as part of the wider Media Voices community. If people are interested, keep opening emails, reading and responding, we can work out what they are interested in.

As Esther puts it: “The newsletter is a stepping stone to bringing them in closer to our podcast.”

Maybe just don’t use Revue as your newsletter platform.