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How paid podcasts fit into The Economist’s subscription strategy

October 12, 2023 | By Esther Kezia Thorpe – Independent Media Reporter@EstherKeziaT

The Economist is a media brand that has led the way in subscription-based access to its content. But when it was reported by Axios last month that the media company would put its podcasts beyond a paywall, the industry took notice. As one of the first publishers to make such a move, insight into the strategic decisions around the launch are particularly valuable for any other publishers considering doing the same.

Claire Overstall, SVP, Global Head of Customer at The Economist spoke to us about the thinking behind the decision, how they have communicated the change to their millions of listeners, and what the company hopes to achieve with podcast subscriptions as part of its wider subscription strategy.

A value-add and a separate offering

The Economist’s paywalled podcasts will be available to full digital subscribers at no extra cost. “That is entirely in keeping with the general direction that we’ve taken over the last few years where we’ve been increasing the amount of things that are included in your subscriptions,” Overstall explained. “We’ve put all of our newsletters behind a paywall. We now do subscriber-only events. We’re just increasing the amount of value and the amount of things to engage with.”

The podcast subscription is being used by The Economist as a value-add for current subscribers, but also as a separate product offering. This is an unusual move; The Economist hasn’t had a separate product available to subscribe to since launching Espresso, an app which gives five short articles and a global news briefing each day. The decision to create a separate podcast offering – Economist Podcasts+ – is because of the millions of listeners the publisher has accumulated across its 18 different shows.

“There’s a whole audience there that for whatever reason enjoy our journalism but don’t want to pay the full $20 a month to subscribe,” said Overstall. “But in keeping with our belief that subscription should be the way that we fund our journalism, and making everything strategically match, we’ve decided that you can buy a podcast-only subscription in the hope that that might entice some of those millions of listeners who don’t want to pay for the full-fat product to support our journalism through paying for podcasts.”

The podcast subscription is currently the lowest cost offered by the publisher at $4.90 a month, or $49 a year. There is also currently a pre-launch half-price offer for the full year. Overstall noted that although there is every chance they may not have got everything right at launch, the pricing feels fair in comparison to the full-price subscription. “So far, we’re pleased with the response that we’ve seen,” she said of their pre-launch sale.

“There is a business benefit to upselling of course, and moving from one product to another, but also down-spinning; if people no longer have the time or the money for the full-fat products, having somewhere for them to go,” said Overstall of the lower costs options. “But in reality, the most important thing is that we’re meeting the customer at the level that they want to receive us, and with the right amount of information and the right price for where they are.”

Prioritizing the audience experience

The main reason few publishers have tried paywalling podcasts is that the technology to do so smoothly across platforms has only emerged in the past 18 months. It was important for The Economist that people were able to listen wherever they wanted.

“It’s been really, really important to us to make sure that we don’t disrupt the customer experience,” Overstall explained. “If they want to listen on Spotify, if they want to listen on Apple that’s where they should listen. We shouldn’t force people to come on our site or listen on our app if that isn’t where they’re already listening to our podcasts.”

Although Spotify has had tools to work with third-party subscriptions for some time, Apple has only recently introduced the ability for users to connect publisher subscriptions within its Podcasts app in iOS 17. Apple has also implied it may help audiences discover publishers’ paywalled content by surfacing it across the app, mitigating one of the biggest risks for others looking to follow in The Economist’s footsteps.

Since the launch of Apple’s own podcast subscription tool last year, a number of publishers such as Tortoise and Immediate Media have developed subscriber-only offerings (shows, episodes and series) as a way of warming podcast audiences up to paying. In the case of The Economist, however, the transaction is not processed through a third party, such as Apple. Instead, the subscriber signs up through The Economists site and they are then seamlessly connected through their listening platform of choice. 

The pre-launch sale of the Podcasts+tier went live on September 14th ahead of a full launch this month. So far, Overstall says the response from audiences has been positive, despite paid podcasts not being commonplace.

“It completely aligns with our strategy. paying for journalism was one of the things that we led with very early; The Economist has been doing that a lot longer than many of our peers,” she said. “So that’s well-embedded in people’s minds, the way that we’ve articulated how this is supporting our journalism.”

“Even if people are choosing not to pay for it, a lot more understand the need to pay for journalism… and that’s a sea change from where we were 10 years ago where people just didn’t believe in paying for news.”

What success looks like for Podcasts+

The podcast team is keeping an open mind around the paywall, and will be carefully watching the response. Crucially, their daily flagship podcast The Intelligence, which has had more than 630 million downloads since launching,  will remain free. “We are hoping that that continues to be a funnel, and then we increase listenership to that, who then convert to full paid podcast subscribers,” Overstall explained. She also said that they will do sample episodes for the paid podcasts in The Intelligence feed in order to give listeners a taste of the paywalled content.

But for The Economist, longer term success won’t be all about paid subscribers, but also about continued growth to the free-to-access The Intelligence.  “I think how well we are able to swell our listenership of The Intelligence is probably more likely our health indicator,” said Overstall. “If that suddenly dwindles away to nothing, then we may have done an amazing thing right now, but how are we going to continue to grow?”

Podcasts also provide The Economist with a means to broaden its audience base. Therefore, Overstall says that “one of the things we’re also hoping for is that it will begin to diversify our subscriber base as a whole. Podcast listeners skew younger and more female in general, but also specifically our podcast listeners do as well. So we’re hoping to diversify our audience base and reach more people with this subscription.” 

“Fundamentally,” she says, “we are producing good products and hoping that people pay for them. So I think the primary metrics will shift more towards engagement and conversion.”

“Keeping an eye on The Intelligence, and trying to glean any data or customer surveys or anything like that on how many people are listening to sample shows and converting from those, that will probably be a key performance indicator.”

KPIs will also change for new shows the publisher develops. “Our priority of metrics will change now and will probably be on a show-by-show basis rather than just aiming for as many people as possible for every show,” Overstall speculated. “For The Intelligence, getting as many listeners as possible will still be key. But for shows like The Prince, we’ll debate as they come up and as we make them, and how many episodes we choose to sample for non-subscribers.”

Podcast listeners are known to be highly engaged, with more than a third listening daily. This gives Overstall hope that retention for this particular group of customers will actually be fairly straightforward. “[Listening is] natural, it’s already embedded. This is something they have really opted into,” she said. “Being a first mover means that anybody opting in really genuinely does want your content enough to stay. So I’m hoping that retention will be reasonable.”

For publishers like The Economist with hard paywalls, making audio content available for free may have felt at odds with the broader subscription goals. However, given that the technology to enable payments and subscriptions have grown more publisher-friendly, the media brand is able to extend its subscription-first philosophy to its audio offerings as well.  Crucially too, audiences are much more accustomed to the reasons why they should pay for professionally-produced content. Still, given the vast listener numbers (and ad revenue) The Economist’s podcasts have garnered in the past and the relative lack of paid podcasts on the market so far, the move is not without risk.

As a brand, The Economist has not shied from making the clear correlation for its audiences between subscriptions that support its quality journalism. With the addition of premium podcasts, Overstall believes that the brand will continue to make this case, and enrich the value of its subscription bundles as well. 

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