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InContext / An inside look at the business of digital content

Podcasts are booming. So, what are the revenue models?

March 14, 2019 | By Bryson Masse—Independent Journalist @Bryson_M

If someone asked you five years ago which type of digital media would be seeing its renewed heyday, the podcast might not have been on the top of your list. But indeed, the format – still firmly connected to its broadcast radio roots – is in the midst of a renaissance.

Achieving new heights of popularity means that publishers of the audio-only medium have started to experiment with new business strategies to find a path to monetization.

We’ve seen some innovative approaches in the podcast sector like digital ad insertion, or having ad slots be dynamically filled by more up -o-date or geolocated content. But analyzing the recent business moves gives us an idea of what’s coming next in podcasting revenue.

Will Revenue Follow Audience?

In early February, Spotify purchased podcast publisher Gimlet Media for a cool $230 million. In a conversation with Recode’s Peter Kafka, Gimlet co-founder and president Matt Lieber explained that Spotify wasn’t just its second largest partner but also its fastest growing partner. He went on to say the reasons why the acquisition made sense was a “disconnect between the number of people who are listening and the amount of shows they’re listening to, and the amount of money coming into podcasting.”

With the size and scope of Spotify, Gimlet saw opportunity to overcome one of the fundamental challenges of podcasting: discovery. The competitive landscape means that to have your podcast’s needle found in the metaphorical hay stack, you either need to be lucky or know how to appeal to the right audience.

Lieber told Recode that the data found at the Swedish streaming platform (and its 96 million subscribers) would help with that process. The lack of relevant listener and audience data has held back the podcast industry in the past. Platform controllers like Apple weren’t releasing detailed enough listening data. This made it it difficult to fine tune advertising budgets and understanding your audience.

Value Proposition

That’s not to say this new found access to audiences will change the fundamentally open nature of podcasting at the publisher. While there will be most certainly exclusive productions on the streaming platform, Gimlet’s most popular offerings won’t disappear from other podcast platforms. At the time of the announcement, Spotify said they had no plans on putting the content behind paywalls.

Similar to this approach, there are efforts like the premium Stitcher service which removes ads from their free shows and offers bonuses to subscribers.

Subscription Business

So what about the companies who do want to publish content behind a subscription fee? Podcast publisher Luminary has set its sights on being the Netflix of podcasts. With a planned launch date of June, the service will charge $8 a month to get access to podcasts from the likes of Trevor Noah, Conan O’Brien, and Malcolm Gladwell. The media start up hopes the draw of big names will have people opening up their wallets.

Although, there are those who are a skeptical of the reach of direct to consumer efforts.

“Well everybody wants scale and they want people talking about [their show] and to engage with it,” said NPR’s senior vice-president of programming and audience development Anya Grundmann. “So you haven’t seen a lot of subscription [offerings] from the very beginning when trying to build audience.”

Grundmann pointed out that podcasts often end up being the “carrot” that drives consumer purchasing of subscriptions to news publications. Recently, the Guardian began running podcast ads in the shows they produce for their membership program, which seems to be having positive results.

Reaching the Masses

However, there’s also a drive to reach as many people as possible, much like its predecessor, broadcast radio. “I don’t see us putting our stuff behind a paywall,” said Grundmann of the public broadcaster. “Our goal is to reach as many people as we can and not just people who have money.”

That doesn’t mean NPR has not benefited from new ways to monetize the format. Grundmann said it has extended its podcast-related events business because there’s “so much energy of people wanting to meet people and be part of a community.”

Whether through the draw of exclusive content for power users or listening experiences without ads, direct to consumer offerings from podcast producers are beginning to emerge. But it’s also obvious that the traditional subscription model might not be the best fit for the resurgent industry, as many producers are hesitant to go all the way and lock content behind paywalls. Creators will need to continue to experiment and test strategies to determine the best ways to monetize the connections with their audiences.

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