Listen up: audio articles are growing as an engagement tool for publishers

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A growing number of publishers are developing functionality to enable audiences to listen to their articles, rather than simply reading them, in a bid to grow engagement, retention and revenue.

The takeaways:
  • The Washington Post announced that audio versions of all articles would be available in the WaPo app, after surprisingly steady adoption.
  • The New York Times recently acquired Audm, a company that specialises in hiring professional voice actors to convert text-based articles into audio. Audm is also used by the New Yorker, WIRED, Rolling Stone, Vanity Fair, and others.
  • The BBC’s Global News team has built a reader bot to provide automated audio for its articles. Not having a human reader significantly reduces conversion costs.
  • Apple News+ is producing audio stories in partnership with a number of publishers, including Esquire, New York Magazine, and Time.

Many publishers are keeping audio articles ad-free and behind paywalls, or as a subscriber perk. The articles are cheaper to make than podcasts as they don’t need production ad-ons, and the content is pre-written.

Background check: The rise of audio stories is largely a result of the explosion in popularity of podcasts. 55% of the US population has listened to a podcast this year, up 51% from 2019. The core reason cited is that listeners can go about other daily tasks, like running or cooking, whilst listening. Audio articles are a way for publishers to adapt to this behaviour whilst also making use of existing content.

  • In the US alone, the number of people who listen to spoken-word audio jumped by a fifth in the last 5 years. It’s now a daily habit for 121 million. 

When audio overtakes reading: Danish magazine Zetland was an early adopter of audio articles. In 2017, they built an app that hosts both text and audio versions of articles, and by the summer of that year, they were publishing all articles as audio. Each journalist would read their own story.

The long game: 
  • Engagement: For Harvard Business Review, a quarter of the 32,000 listeners stayed tuned for 90% or more of the audio version in initial trials.
  • Retention: The Economist’s experience is that the audio edition is an effective retention tool. “Once you come to rely on it, you won’t unsubscribe,” said Deputy Editor Tom Standage.
  • Revenue: Subscriptions to audio journalism apps and the growing willingness of brands to pay for ad slots in podcasts and audio opens up potential revenue streams for publishers who don’t want to keep audio as a subscriber-exclusive.

The bigger picture: Audio isn’t going away any time soon. eMarketer have predicted that podcast ad spending will surpass $1 billion next year in the US, and although audio articles are a more awkward fit in this space, the interest is there from advertisers. 

  • Worth noting too is Google’s expansion of Ad Manager for programmatic audio placements, where text-to-speech news articles have been mentioned explicitly as part of their development plans.

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