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Notes on the Podcast-to-Subscription Funnel

"Young people acquisition" strategy.

With the recent launch of the new BBC Sounds app being talked up so much as a ‘young people acquisition’ strategy, it feels like much of the audio chat in the UK recently seems to revolve around how podcasts can rescue legacy media houses with ageing audiences. As if right on cue, up popped this Digiday piece about how the Financial Times — which is said to have a substantial and growing audience for its audio products — is using its shows to convert listeners, often in their twenties and thirties, into paying subscribers of its website and newspaper products. It’s a “fertile hunting ground,*” according to Alastair Mackie, head of audio for commercial at the FT.

* Ed. note: “Fertile hunting ground” for “young people acquisition” sounds like a Blumhouse flick.

Judging by the sprinkling of stats in this interview, I feel like the Financial Times has a similar challenge here to many other existing publications that have started an audio offshoot in recent years. About 60 percent of the people listening to their twelve-strong podcast portfolio are aged between 22 and 37, while two thirds of their total listenership are not paying for any of their other products. It’s a fair guess, I think, that those two cohorts overlap substantially. In short: young people are choosing to spend a lot of time with the FT’s journalism in its audio form, but they aren’t paying for it directly (although some of their shows are monetised by ads and sponsorships run through Acast, so they will bring in some revenue that way).

As a magazine writer and editor who moved into audio within a print publication a few years ago, this is a perspective on podcasts that I’m very familiar with. In my experience, publications are getting very good at identifying podcast listeners as a potential subscriptions goldmine — which is shown in this piece, as Mackie points out: “The majority of listeners to our current podcasts are not subscribers, but they are taking the time to spend 20 to 30 minutes a day on FT content. . . One of the challenges subscriptions businesses have is to engage people to the point where they convert.”

However, I tend to find that strategies for upping those conversions are rather less forthcoming. And indeed, in this piece, the FT isn’t sharing any details for how they plan to capitalise on their young as-yet-unsubscribed audience. Which of course, doesn’t mean that they don’t have them — I’ll be keeping an eye on their efforts. I don’t feel like any UK publication has really cracked this yet, but the FT has a more sophisticated paywall offering than most, so perhaps they have the expertise to make inroads on this problem.

This pain point, where a publication’s podcasts have attracted an audience that then doesn’t naturally start ordering the paid-for product, often has a lot to do with internal structures that haven’t adapted to newer formats. Marketing and subscriptions teams are focused on selling print and digital subscriptions in the way they always have, with adverts and pop ups and email newsletters. The training and collaboration that would help to extend these efforts into audio is lacking, especially when the podcasts are made by overstretched freelancers rather than a properly resourced in house team. Where a paywall or membership scheme has successfully converted a podcast audience, it’s been because the content has been top notch and the audio department has enough head room to develop a proper windowing strategy around it (I’m thinking particularly of Slate Plus and Slow Burn here).

There’s also the question of whether it’s really worth publications like the FT making their podcasts an outpost of their subscriptions marketing at all, rather than pursuing other monetisation strategies. I’m always slightly sceptical when podcasts are seen principally as a means rather than an end in themselves. Great audio is just. . . great audio. It speaks for itself. Legacy publications, especially ones with a primary print product, are prone to thinking that the newspaper/magazine is the only thing that they have to sell. A shift in mindset would suggest that if the desired younger audience is coming to the podcasts, perhaps the best thing to do is keep them there, and find a way to bring in revenue at the point when they are most engaged.

In part, this thinking is perpetuated by the fact that the UK lacks options when it comes to podcast monetisation. Acast and to an extent Audioboom (although the latter less so, since its financial troubles earlier this year) are the only companies offering third-party sales and injection, and in return they take a hefty chunk of the revenue. Without other competitors to turn to, publications have little choice but to split their strategic efforts between ads and selling subscriptions for their other products.