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“We’ve debunked the myth that younger people aren’t prepared to pay for news content”: How Tortoise is using podcast subscriptions to attract new audiences

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Tortoise has been slow to podcasts but quick to subscriber-only audio. The publisher, whose motto is “Slow down – Wise Up”, launched its first podcast at the end of 2019, a weekly investigative show exploring the drivers behind the headlines. Now, it is building out additional reader revenue streams with subscriber-only podcasts.

Tortoise now has a rapidly growing portfolio of podcasts, each aimed at growing different audiences. Daily shows Sensemaker and Playmaker take a story each day about the news or football respectively. Weekly show The Slow Newscast now focuses on a single story each week on everything from atrocities in Mariupol to the downfall of Rishi Sunak. In addition, they have narrative series across a number of episodes – of which catfish investigation Sweet Bobby became a global hit – and have also recently launched Slow Politics and The Backstory with Andrew Neil. 

In fact, Tortoise now calls itself an audio-first publisher, with its podcasts reaching almost 3 million monthly downloads in December, according to Press Gazette

“What we found is that our journalism, our slow, narrative-led stories, is a formula that lives better in audio than on a small screen as a long-read,” Liz Moseley, CMO at Tortoise told WAN-IFRA. “It’s kind of obvious now I say it, but it took us a long time to realise that was going be the case.”

How the subscription works

Tortoise is well known for its membership offering. Articles are gated by a metered registration wall, with full membership granting access to the full site, ThinkIns, daily emails, podcasts, and member-only invitations. They also have offers for students and pay-it-forward memberships which makes it difficult to gauge exactly how many paying subscribers they have. A recent estimate from Flashes and Flames’ Colin Morrison puts the figure at around 55,000, with a further 40,000 holding free membership.

Now, the publisher is building an additional reader revenue arm through Apple Podcasts’ Subscriptions tool. Listeners can buy a subscription to Tortoise’s gated podcasts via Apple without paying the full membership price. Full Tortoise members get early, ad-free access to the podcasts via the member-only app as well as a host of other member benefits. But being able to offer a smaller slice of content at a lower price point is a smart tactic to bring in a wider audience with less commitment.

“It became clear as we were publishing Sweet Bobby, our hit show about a catfishing scam, that we were building a large off-platform listenership,” Tortoise Editor Basia Cummings said in an interview with Apple Podcasts. “Building a relationship with our audience – whether through a Tortoise membership… or through Apple Podcasts Subscriptions – is crucial to us at Tortoise as a business and as journalists. Subscriptions enabled us to bring those listeners closer to our newsroom.”

So far, the experiment has proved a success. “We’ve been delighted to discover how young our listeners are,” noted Cummings, when asked what information they have gathered from the Apple Podcasts Subscriptions test. Tortoise’s average membership age is much younger than many other publishers; 39 compared to 55+.

“One of the things that we’re particularly proud of is that our average listener age is 29,” she said. “In the world of news, that’s really important. Through our membership and our audio subscription, we’ve debunked the myth that younger people aren’t prepared to pay for news content.”

Slicing up subscriptions

For publishers exploring the possibilities of subscriber podcasts, there’s a growing pile of evidence to suggest that – despite 83% of people saying they wouldn’t pay for a podcast – it is actually possible to build paying audiences. Other publishers in the UK are testing subscription podcasts – most notably Immediate Media – but it’s too early yet to get a comprehensive picture of how these are performing for brands.

The more interesting point to note is the segmentation of products. As the subscription race hots up, asking readers to commit to a full membership with only a nominal relationship is becoming increasingly challenging. 

It’s a point Toolkits co-founder Jack Marshall touched on when he appeared on the Media Voices Podcast. He predicted that audience segments would supercharge the next stage of subscriptions for publishers.

“This may ultimately lead to publishers having multiple subscription products,” he explained. “So saying, look, we’ll slice this little portion of content off… which ultimately benefits everyone because the product that you’re buying is way more targeted.”

“There’s less wastage, you’re not paying for content that you’re not interested in. But it still enables you to grow your top-of-funnel audience, and grow your brand.”

This is what we’re seeing the beginnings of at Tortoise. Some of the podcasts are free, with ad-free and early access benefits for members. But with subscriber-only podcasts, Tortoise is able to enter into a paying relationship with an additional segment of the audience who otherwise wouldn’t have signed up to full membership. 

It’s something the FT is trying out with its new FT Edit app. The hope in both cases is that eventually readers will pay for the full thing. The analogy of dating, engagement and marriage is often used in this scenario; few would jump straight into a marriage after a first date. By allowing a smaller portion of content for a lower price point, it allows an ‘engagement’ without the need for the full financial commitment.  

As consumers grow more price-sensitive in the current economy and competition for reader revenue intensifies, publishers should consider whether they can segment their subscription offerings to begin building relationships with a wider audience.