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Text-to-speech is the audio opportunity no one’s talking about

November 5, 2020 | By Charlotte Ricca – Independent Media Reporter @Charlotte_Ricca

Audio articles are making quite a noise in publishing. Podcasting may be hogging the headlines. But creating features and news that your audience can listen to is an audio opportunity that should not be ignored.

While offering articles in an audible format is nothing new, this type of content is currently enjoying a massive boom, as time-strapped audiences look for convenient ways to consume online media.

A boom

In the U.S. alone, spoken word’s share of audio listening has increased 30% over the last six years and 8% in the last year alone. And when multi Pulitzer Prize-winning titles jump on-board, you know that audio content is a serious business. In July, The Washington Post announced plans to make audio versions of all of its articles. And a few months earlier, the New York Times acquired Audm, a platform that turns longform journalism into audio content.

Other big brands using Audm’s audio services include The Atlantic, BuzzFeed, Wired, and Rolling Stone. Similar platforms Curio and Noa ­– which are based in the UK and Ireland respectively – have signed up the likes of the Financial Times, The Telegraph, The Economist, and The Guardian.

What’s even more interesting is that listener numbers have risen since Covid-19. In fact, 75% of the U.S. population has listened to spoken word audio in the past month.

The Washington Post began testing text-to-speech capabilities on its Android app in early 2020, assuming the feature would appeal to readers on their daily commute. But Leila Siddique, senior product manager, said they have been surprised to see steady adoption rates, despite people working from home.

“What we’ve learned from users is that they listen to the news while doing other things. And they are consuming far more content than they would normally,” she says.

It’s not just the U.S. that has seen a boom in audio articles during the pandemic. England’s The Economist has offered audio editions of its weekly magazine since 2007. However, according deputy editor Tom Standage they are currently enjoying “record numbers of streams/downloads and unique listeners.”

Engagement

Listener figures are still way below the numbers of people who read text online, with the New York Times enjoying in excess of five million subscribers across its print and digital content. However, audio content isn’t just about numbers, it’s about audience engagement.

Reading takes time and focus – which is in short supply with modern audiences. According to Chartbeat, even the top stories only engage readers for around two-and-a-half minutes, while 45% of readers leave within 15 seconds. In contrast, Noa cites an 84% average completion rate for stories

“Completion rates are higher because people are generally busy doing other things while listening. So, it’s less convenient to switch away from something,” says Standage.

Basic value

Despite the fact that these platforms use professional narrators, audio content is still fairly simplistic compared to podcasts, which often require dramatic story-telling and high production values. The key to audio articles’ success is convenience – and quality journalism.

“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,” says Standage. “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.”

Publishers, in turn, get more value from their audience. While The Economist hasn’t shared numbers for the performance of their audio content, Standage says figures suggests the audio edition is an effective retention tool. “Once you come to rely on it, you won’t unsubscribe.”

The Washington Post’s managing editor Kat Downs Mulder agrees the convenience of audio is a “huge benefit” to both their subscribers and their subscription numbers.

“We know people love listening to news – our podcasts show that,” she comments. “Opening up more audio content and making it easier for them engage with The Post helps draw them into our ecosystem even further. That improves retention rates.”

Offer more

Interestingly, while most publishers create a limited number of long-form, analytical audio articles, The Post is using the text-to-speech features on Android and iOS to offer audio versions of all its articles. The 143-year-old paper has been experimenting with audio since 2017. However, Downs Mulder explains that they decided to offer automated storytelling across all its content.

“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,” she says. “Our readers know they always have an audio option, across all articles, which really reinforces its availability.”

Feedback from users is positive so far. Downs Mulder says subscribers who listen to audio articles spend three times as much time in Post apps.

Niche and personal

It’s not just the big brands getting onboard. Audio is a great way for niche brands to engage with their audience and create loyalty. Danish startup, Zetland, launched its audio model in early 2017 and has since grown an incredible 650%.

Just like The Post, all Zetland articles are available as audio. However, they only produce about three longform articles a day. This means they can offer a far more personalized audio experience, with each article read out by the journalist that wrote it.

“The personal voice of the journalists is quite important to the success of our audio products,” explains Zetland CEO, Tav Klitgaard. “We originally tried using professional voice actors, but it sounded too perfect. We like to build what we call a ‘human product’, including all the glitches and quirks of human beings. It is important for us that our content conveys honest passion and curiosity, and we’ve found that to be done best when the journalist narrates.”

This personalized approach certainly seems to be working. They now have more than 18,500 paid members, whose consumer habits are around 75% audio. What’s more, engagement levels are impressive, with close to a 90% listen-through rate.

“We’ve learned that once we get people to hit play on that first piece of content, chances are they listen to the end,” says Klitgaard. “They also have a higher usage frequency and subsequently membership retention, than those who do not listen.”

Audience appeal

In addition to increased retention, audio is also a great way to reach out to new audiences, as it is traditionally consumed by a younger demographic.  According to Klitgaard, more than 30% of their paying members are under age 30. And The Post says their audio audience is “generally younger” than their average reader.

As with all content, creating a successful audio model is all about knowing your audience. You need to recognize their needs and match the user experience accordingly. Whether that’s long-form analytical content, or easy-to-access daily news, audio is proving to be a highly effective way to engage, retain and attract audiences.

“Audio isn’t about changing user habits, it’s about embracing their habits,” states Downs Mulder. “Our goal is to convert causal listeners into dedicated listeners, by opening them up to getting news from us in other ways. And audio is proving to have an enormous importance to the news-interested public.”

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