Audience Engagement Digital Publishing Top Stories
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“We want to be the destination”: Why NRC built its own audio app

NRC is a Mediahuis-owned print and online newspaper in the Netherlands. As part of its digital transformation, it began experimenting with podcasts in early 2017. It has since significantly increased its investment in audio, even building and launching its own audio app.

At Twipe’s Digital Growth Summit, NRC’s Chief Digital Officer Han-Menno Depeweg outlined why the publisher decided to invest in audio, how it’s helping their audio growth, and why their dedicated NRC Audio app is helping future-proof journalistic audio.

NRC is a heritage brand, with a mix of an old subscription base and a newer digital business. “90% of our new influx is digital subscribers,” Depeweg explained. “So we have an old subscription base and a new subscription business, and everything we do in audio is for our new subscription base.”

Since launching their own podcasts, NRC has noticed that the shows are actually the top-performing way that people are brought down the subscriber funnel. Their own podcast app is now the second most effective tool.

Why has their in-house app been so successful, and what can other publishers learn from their experiences?

Why create an audio app

The trajectory the podcast market is taking shares some similarities with other digital endeavours, where distribution is controlled by a few key players. Depeweg pointed out that publishers are now more aware of the dangers of depending on external platforms and algorithms.

“Most of us have been there where there was a new big platform, a new player in the market that says, ‘Come to us. Bring your content to us. This is where your audience is,” he said. “Every time we did that, somebody else made money from us on what we were doing.”

So we thought, let’s not do that this time. Let’s try something different. So we said, okay, we’re going to listen to the users and see what we can do.

NRC publishes its shows to the main podcast platforms, so they are publicly available. But what the NRC Audio app offers is not only all sixteen of the publisher’s own active podcasts, but also hand-picked and reviewed third-party podcasts. This offers podcast listeners a more curated experience. There are still over 275,000 shows available in the app, but the quality is more reliable than the firehose of podcasts available on the major platforms.

Another reason the move into audio was important for NRC was due to the strengths of their team. They were initially trialling video but pivoted a few years ago. “We’re not good in video,” confessed Depeweg. “It’s something we recognised as a company years ago, and that’s okay.

We’ve got great editorial staff, we’ve got great personalities, but putting them in front of a camera doesn’t work. However, putting them in front of a microphone does work. They love to talk about their work, they love to talk about everything. So why shouldn’t we move that whole system from video to audio?

NRC now has a department of 25 people making shows and helping the publisher’s editors with podcasts. It’s an area they see as offering the most potential for subscriber growth and deeper relationships over the coming years. 

One point of interest is that this isn’t NRC’s only app. They also have a news app which also has all NRC’s own podcasts available to listen to, but not any other shows. They chose to create a separate audio app to attract a different audience.

“Getting a younger public to a podcast app is a lot simpler than getting a younger public to an old brand news app,” Depeweg noted. Registration enables login to both apps, but separation allows the team to hone their audio strategy.

A curated experience

The NRC Audio app itself is free to download, although registration is mandatory. Many of the 160,000 app installers are new users the publisher hasn’t seen before across other platforms. Listening is mostly skewed to their own podcasts but there is longer-term value to having other podcasts in there as well, as Dewepeg explained: 

That’s more to be the destination. There’s no excuse not to use our app because you want to listen to somebody else’s podcast. But 9% of what you see is from us.

Discoverability is one of the biggest hurdles facing podcasters right now. A third of respondents to Ofcom’s 2022 UK Podcast Survey said that they struggled to find podcasts that interested them, and 20% of people who had never listened to a podcast noted that they were unsure how to access podcasts at all. 

In this light, it’s understandable why an editorially-curated podcast app from a trusted publisher would appeal.

NRC aren’t the only publisher trying this approach. Towards the end of 2021, the New York Times opened up its own audio app to beta testers. The NYT publishes The Daily, one of the most popular daily news podcasts in the world, and has invested heavily in audio over the past few years. 

When it was announced, New York Times Audio planned to feature its own podcasts alongside narrated versions of news, opinion, and magazine articles across a handful of other publishers. The intention behind the app is similar to NRC; to give the publisher the ability to develop a direct relationship with listeners, as well as potentially playing a part in the Times’ wider subscription strategy.

“Over many years, the Times has figured out a way to both have a huge audience of readers and also have a paying audience of readers. We believe that the same thing is possible in audio,” VP of TV and Audio Stephanie Preiss told Nieman Lab. However, over a year later, there has been no further news on a public launch of the app.

NRC Audio, on the other hand, is seeing success which should be encouraging to any other publishers considering a similar model.

Encouraging downloads

In order to encourage downloading and listening to content in the app, the NRC team practice what they call ‘windowing’ where they put two or three episodes of a new show onto Spotify. The last episode says, “If you want to listen to the rest, please download the NRC Audio app.” This results in a generous bump of app downloads each time, and an immediate encouragement to begin listening.

Podcast statistics across many platforms are still incredibly limited. But by making registration for the NRC Audio app mandatory before listening, the publisher is able to learn a great deal more about their audience than they otherwise would have been able to. “It normally attracts younger people, 50% are under 35,” Depeweg noted. 

Currently NRC’s shows get around 800,000 weekly downloads from 300,000 weekly listeners. There is still room for growth though; according to Depeweg, 20% of current NRC subscribers have installed the NRC Audio app. Encouraging existing subscribers to the newspaper to discover and use the app is now a priority.

Testing monetisation

The next step for the publisher is to establish NRC Audio as a fully-fledged revenue stream. At the moment, there are no subscriber-only or paywalled podcasts, but that is set to change. In the short term, advertising is providing the majority of the revenue, covering between 50-60% of the costs.

NRC Audio only has pre-rolls; they don’t do host-spoken, sponsored or otherwise integrated advertising in order to allow the host to focus on the show. So far it is selling well, with Depeweg noting that there was more demand than they could deliver. But he believes subscriptions are the only viable way of sustaining audio journalism in the long run.

“We’ve launched versions of our app where we are introducing a paywall for the first time on our own podcasts,” he said, revealing that willingness to pay for podcasts was between 10% and 35% in surveys they had conducted. “So some shows will be available, some shows will be behind a subscription fee.”

Depeweg also explained that they aren’t planning to have a separate audio subscription. Instead, messaging will be different depending on where subscribers sign up from. If it’s via the NRC Audio app, the product will be market as ‘Audio plus text’; if it’s via the NRC news site then it’ll be ‘Text plus audio’. However, it is very early days and the team will be testing and learning over the coming months about what will work best.

Fundamentally for NRC, audio is a powerful habit-builder which benefits their subscription-focused business. As a news brand, NRC used to prioritise being with its readers with the newspaper in the morning. But audio opens up the whole day to spend time with them. 

“We want to be there all the other moments, in your ear. Listen up, listen in, be there at the right time,” Depeweg outlined.

Somebody is commuting, someone else is working, somebody’s going to the gym, making dinner. Those are moments that we could also be there.