Audio: best practices for a new frontier

58% of publishers are planning to focus more on podcasts and content for voice activated speakers in 2018, and with 42% of smart speaker owners describing the device as “essential” to their everyday life, it is clear that audio is the next big frontier for media. But is audio just the new version of pivot to video? Current audio platforms aren’t perfect, with 16% of users stating that the voice activated assistants accurately responded to their commands “not very often“. And the rise of smart speakers has been seen most in the US, with less growth in Europe.

But this is changing, and European publishers should take a cue from the US to be sure they are prepared. One report forecasts a compound annual growth rate of 57% for smart speaker adoption in Europe, leading to 36% of all European homes having a smart speaker by 2021. To help prepare your audio strategy, here is how you can take your first steps into audio and three best practices from industry leaders.

“In all the speeches and presentations I’ve made, I’ve been shouting about voice AI until I’m blue in the face. I don’t know to what extent any of the leaders in the news industry are listening.” – Amy Webb, futurist

First steps into audio

For audio-shy publishers, a good first step is to convert existing text articles to audio. British news website The Canary has started doing this, with an average of 50-70 articles converted each week. 2,000 people listen to these audio articles each day, and 20% of people listen to the end of the article. Now each article has a small audio box that readers can click on to listen to the article instead of reading. The Canary worked with Speechkit to easily and instantly turn its articles into audio. This system also allows for news articles to be automatically uploaded to podcast platforms as well as smart speakers.

Audio flash briefings

Going further into audio experimentation are the publishers who are creating audio native content. Publishers in this group are mostly creating “Flash Briefing” content, which allows listeners to trigger a specific content package, usually about 90 seconds long, with the news of the day. The Telegraph has experimented with this format, offering listeners news updates with a focus on politics and sports. They also have plans to offer a more personalised audio experience in the future, by getting to know listeners’ preferences and then serving more tailored content.

With many publishers experimenting with audio flash briefings, it is important to stand out. In order to best engage your audience, consider how and when they will listen to your content. This means both optimising for time of day, and for the length of the content itself. If a listener only has five minutes, no matter how engaging your content is, they won’t listen to the whole package. To do this, CNN mapped out exactly what their typical listener would be doing, and how much time this would give them for their news briefing.

“We assumed some users would have their device in the kitchen. This led us to ask, what are users probably doing in the kitchen in the morning? Making breakfast. How long does it take to make a bagel? Five minutes. So that’s probably the amount of time a user has to listen to us, so let’s make sure we can update them in less than five minutes.” – Elizabeth Johnson, senior editor at CNN Digital

Grow your subscribers with podcasts

We’ve seen a resurgence in podcasts as well, notably from The New York Times with The Daily, published each weekday morning with interviews and top headlines for the day. The Daily has been successful since its launch in February 2017, with more than 200 million downloads. With this podcast, they have been able to reach both a younger audience (1/3 of listeners are under 30), and a more engaged audience, with a rise in subscriptions credited to The Daily.

“I think the next generation of readers, their first touchstone with The Times will be ‘The Daily.’ That’s a big deal that didn’t exist just a year ago.” – Sam Dolnick, assistant masthead editor at The New York Times

Regional publishers can also get into the podcast game. With inspiration from Serial, Atlanta Journal-Constitution released “Breakdown”, a true crime podcast that follows criminal cases from the area. Even with a more regional focus, the podcast caught on and was frequently seen in the top ten chart on iTunes. While Bill Rankin, the reporter behind Breakdown, had no pervious audio experience, the team knew that readers value the expertise of the paper’s staff, so they didn’t want to bring in someone new.

“I think the only thing Bill Rankin had ever recorded was his voicemail, and his voicemail is not very impressive.” – Bert Roughton, managing editor at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Breakdown came out of a desire to get subscribers to engage more deeply with the paper’s digital offerings. To help this, podcast episodes are released first to paid subscribers and later put behind a metered paywall. Extra content, such as court documents, character sketches, and videos are kept behind a hard paywall at all times.

European publishers are getting into podcasts as well. We can look to Les Echos as an example, with their new bi-weekly tech podcast “Tech Off” that just launched.

Draw in your audience

Audio is a great way to engage with your audience. On smart speakers, your audience is having a back and forth with your content, so in the future we can expect to see publishers creating more ‘experience’ type audio content–think listeners asking their favourite journalist specific questions about a news topic or choosing what level of detail they want for a news briefing.

The Washington Post knows the importance of engaging its audience through bringing added value with its audio projects. For them, this means focusing on what they do best, instead of competing with other publishers for the same audio experiences. They learned this after they developed an Olympics skill on Alexa which allowed listeners to ask who had won medals, only for Amazon to build the same capability into the main Alexa platform soon afterwards.

“That was a really useful lesson for us. We realized that in big public events like these, it made much more sense for a user to just ask Alexa who had won the most medals, rather than specifically asking The Washington Post. We have to think about what unique or exclusive information, content, or voice experience can The Washington Post specifically offer that the main Alexa interface can’t.” – Joseph Price, Senior product manager at The Washington Post

The Washington Post has also experimented with audio news quizzes. Listeners can say “Alexa, ask The Washington Post for a news quiz” and then answer the questions. This quiz also helps listeners remember to engage with The Washington Post on their smart speaker. Since there is no screen, it can be hard for listeners to remember to ask Alexa to first open up The Washington Post and then give a news briefing, but the news quiz helps to solve this problem.

The future of audio

The future of audio appears bright, especially in Europe, with Le Figaro and Mediahuis both receiving funding from Google DNI for their voice projects last year. And just this week better podcast analytics from Apple became available–while some were worried that this new audio boom would prove to be a bubble, the data shows that listeners are the hyper-engaged, super-supportive audience that everyone had hoped for.

The new wave of analytics may prove to be a boon to audio experimentation, with the strong engagement rates and low levels of ad skipping ushering in a new group of advertisers, helping to alley publishers’ fears of unsure monetisation opportunities. It is clear that there is a revenue source for audio, with American digital news outlet Slate in the news recently for its announcement that 25% of its revenue comes from podcasts. This was in part response to Facebook’s declining reach, going from contributing 30% of Slate’s monthly traffic to less than 10%.

In short, with the majority of publishers planning to to focus more on podcasts and content for voice activated speakers, innovative publishers will need to begin experimenting with audio in 2018.

Mary-Katharine Phillips
Media innovation analyst @ Twipe 

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