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Why I’m more optimistic than ever about the future of podcasting for publishers

Esther Kezia Thorpe has spent the past four months listening to almost a hundred podcasts as part of the Publisher Podcast Awards. Here, she explains why the awards have given her hope that podcasting can be a part of a sustainable future for publishers.

Earlier this week, I finished listening to the last of a long list of podcasts. My latest batch of listening has been to determine the overall winner of the first-ever Publisher Podcast Awards from each of the category winners, and these final twelve have been whittled down from over 130 entries.

That’s a lot of listening. Whether it’s documentary-style episodes (or my new favourite term ‘podumentaries’) about how engineering is saving the planet, deep discussions about how to perfectly crisp roasted potatoes, or emotive conversations around male mental health, each podcast clearly brings something special to its intended audience.

The fact that publishers are good at storytelling will be no surprise to anyone. In fact, it’s one of the reasons Chris Sutcliffe, Peter Houston and myself founded the awards.

Anyone can start a podcast from their bedroom, but the careful consideration and planning all publishers go through to release a podcast which is reflective of their brand deserves celebrating. Few can afford mistakes around quality, as audience expectations are rightly higher than those around independent podcasts.

Inside the podcast explosion

Podcasts aren’t a new format, but they have exploded in popularity over the past three to five years thanks to advances in mobile connectivity, streaming, easier discoverability, and an influx of high-quality content.  

Tech companies like Apple and Spotify have helped, with a heated competition vying to be the single point of listening for podcasts. Both are making great strides in addressing discoverability; one of the biggest obstacles still in the way for those that don’t listen to podcasts yet.

But the number of people that listen is only rising. According to the Reuters Digital News Report 2019, 36% of people worldwide listen to a podcast at least monthly, which rises to half for those under 35. In fact, listeners in the US now spend over six hours each week on podcasts, listening to seven episodes a week on average.

The opportunity for publishers

Podcasting is not a silver bullet for revenue woes, nor will it replace advertising as a revenue stream. But what publishers are proving is that they can bring in healthy income as part of a diversified revenue strategy.

Many of the podcasts who entered have fledgling commercial strategies, reflecting how new the format is for them. Some have annual sponsorship deals with other companies, others use live events as a way to get revenue directly from readers. 

We even have a category dedicated to the best podcast episode or series produced by a publisher in partnership with, or sponsored by a brand. Each of the shortlisted podcasts in the ‘Best Branded Podcast’ category stand alone as superb pieces of content, but also have strong ties to both the publisher and the sponsor. It’s a difficult balance, and each one of these has achieved well.

A growing number of publishers are even using podcasts as a way to draw in new subscribers even though the podcasts themselves aren’t revenue generators, or having specific podcasts available exclusively to members. We’ll be launching a specific category next year dedicated to innovative commercial strategies, and are looking forward to seeing this aspect mature.

But money aside, the other aspect that has stood out strongly throughout the process has been how publishers have leveraged their existing audiences to innovate with podcasts. Most podcasts starting out end up failing because they don’t have a strong enough proposition, or because it takes too long to build an audience up.

Publishers already have very strong brands, with a ready-made audience, established marketing channels, and most importantly, trust.

A new way of storytelling

All the shortlisted podcasts have – in many different ways – provided each publisher with an opportunity to tell their stories in a new way that is otherwise limited by words on a page. Whether that’s deep dives into a relevant topic, news and updates from specialist industries, or simply a chance to touch base with readers in a new way, the potential is limitless. 

I know there’s a great deal of industry scepticism about podcasting. Although the technology has been around for decades, many of the best publisher podcasts are just a few years old. That’s a point worth remembering when we look at longer term strategies, especially given few will make the 7 or 8 figure incomes achieved by the podcasts at the top end.

But what the last few months have taught me is that quietly, behind the scenes, the podcast movement is picking up the pace. Publishers are finding new ways to use podcasts to reach existing and new audiences, and innovative ways to make money from the format.

As podcasts mature and integrate to become a full part of publishing strategies, I’m optimistic that the next decade will be a golden one for the format.