Audio articles: the next frontier in edition strategies

For close to a decade at Twipe we have been advocates for edition-based publishing strategies. We have defined what an edition is in today’s world, explored how digital editions help create new reader habits, and learned from successful launches of new edition products.

Recently we have also started to explore the role audio plays in edition strategies. The popularity of podcasts can be seen as the innate desire of audiences to have finishable, bundled packages of content. This comes typically in contrast with more FOMO based experiences like newsflows or the recent boom of Clubhouse as David Tvrdon argues in The Fix. This year, more publishers are expected to invest in their audio experience, audio articles or creating full ‘audio editions’ for their subscribers. Join us as we explore this trend!

What is an audio edition?

It seems once The New York Times had success with The Daily, every publisher launched their own daily, rundown podcast. Briefings for smart speakers also had a heyday in recent years with companies like Les Echos in France or BBC in the UK creating specific editions for Amazon Alexa or Google Home. Podcasts and smart speakers quickly became overcrowded and publishers had to find a clear way to set their audio offerings apart. That’s why audio articles are an interesting opportunity, as they face less competition today.

There is also a clear audience appetite for such ‘spoken word’ offerings. In the US, spoken word’s share of audio listening has increased by 30% in the past six years. This growth has continued even during Covid, with 75% of the US population having listened to spoken word audio in the past month.

“Our users have been voicing their wish for more audio content. Classical podcast formats are not enough anymore .”

Rouven Leuener, former Head of Digital Product NZZ

Audio editions are the bundle of audio articles, created from already existing content. By simply reading aloud the written journalism, publishers are able to enter this audio space with less investment needed than for creating new podcasts for example. Audio articles are still fairly easy to produce when compared to other audio offerings, such as podcasts and smart speaker briefings, which have higher production value and more dramatic audio.

Improving retention with audio articles

The Economist has indeed been a forerunner in the audio edition space, since they first launched their audio edition as a word-for-word audio recording of the print edition in 2007. While only 10% of The Economist’s app users listen to audio, these are the consumers who are the most loyal. During the pandemic, they have seen a record number of streams/downloads and unique listeners, so they have further invested in their audio edition, due to the strong, positive impact it has on retention.

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

On the other side of the Atlantic, The Washington Post had planned to launch audio articles for commuters early in 2020. When work from home became the norm, there was a concern about how this would impact adoption of this new audio product. However audience research found their busiest subscribers still appreciated being able to catch up on the Post’s journalism while doing daily chores. They have continued to see steady adoption, with a positive impact on retention as well.

In Denmark, Zetland has seen success with audio articles for a while now as well, offering all articles in audio form since 2017. Since launching, news consumption quickly shifted towards listening to articles rather than reading — today 80% of consumption is in audio form rather than written text. This trend only accelerated during the lockdown time in Denmark, with the audio articles helping Zetland gain 2,000 new members. Zetland’s research has shown that audio articles are a key retention tool, with more members finishing the full article in audio form (90% listen-through rate) than via text. This also helped to improve member satisfaction and loyalty. Non-members can listen to the articles for free on the website, however they have limited functionality available. In the app, which only paid members have access to, they can rewind, fast-forward, and enjoy the full audio experience.

Another audio pioneer, The New York Times made headlines early last year when they acquired Audm, a platform that turns longform journalism into audio content. In Europe we have seen similar platforms such as Curio and NOA that have partnered with leading titles including The Telegraph and The Guardian. In Germany, Audicle has partnered with German-language publishers such as Handelsblatt and Die Gazette to offer ‘quality journalism for the ears‘.

Audio is important tool for habit formation

The importance of audio is nothing new to most publishers, but it is only more recently that we are seeing publishers incorporate it into their edition strategies. On our edition distribution platform especially, we see publishers making use of voiceover for individual articles, which can provide a different news experience while also improving accessibility for a variety of subscribers.

Such audio editions also help readers maintain their product interaction habits. For example a few years ago The Economist was facing a growing sentiment among its subscribers that they could not keep up with their journalism. Instead of seeing this as a positive, that they received more content than they could consume each week for their subscription, the piling up of editions served as a reminder of what they had left unread. The Onion even lampooned this feeling, with a satirical headline stating “‘The Economist’ To Halt Production For Month To Let Readers Catch Up”. The audio editions offer subscribers a way to keep up, during times when they wouldn’t be otherwise consuming news content, such as while commuting or doing chores.

We know that readers are time-pressed and feel guilty that they have not read enough of a given week’s edition before the next one arrives. Offering audio content sends the message: we know you are busy and are willing to pay for high-quality information. So, here’s a handy feature that will help you ensure that you get value from our journalism.

Tom Standage, Deputy Editor, The Economist

The Washington Post also identifies audio as key for habit formation. They note the importance of making this easily and broadly available as simplicity of action is one of the 4 main drivers of habit forming products. They offer audio versions of all their articles and see that subscribers who listen to audio articles spend three times as long in their apps.

We are excited about the habit-forming nature of audio. But it’s hard to build those habits if you only offer a limited number of articles. Our readers know they always have an audio option, across all articles, which really reinforces its availability.

Kat Downs Mulder, Managing Editor at The Washington Post

The team at both The Economist and The Washington Post has been successful in creating new audience habits with their audio articles by not attempting to change habits but instead allowing readers to embrace their existing habits.

But audio articles are clearly an important opportunity publishers can take to develop new audience habits. Of the 43% of Americans who listen to spoken word audio daily, they listen on average for 2 hours per day. Contrary to other audio platforms such as smart speakers, news is the main reason people listen to spoken word audio, with 62% listening to news spoken word audio.

Team Twipe

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