Four hands holding money out to a podcast logo

Despite having been around for years, podcasting is still a relatively new medium for many publishers. This in turn means that routes to sustainability in terms of revenue can seem a long way off.

But as with all things revenue-related, some publishers are making quiet strides forward. We were surprised just how many entrants to our 2020 Publisher Podcast Awards had at least some form of commercial strategy in place for their podcast, even if it wasn’t particularly mature.

Here, we’ve pulled out some examples of our favourite ways of monetising podcasts that are working for publishers.

1: Adverts 

Plain, simple adverts are a staple of media monetisation, and podcasts are no exception. Podcast adverts come in a variety of shapes and sizes, and can be slotted in at the beginning (pre-roll), middle (mid-roll) or end (post-roll) of episodes. Normally, ads run between 15 and 30 seconds long.

There are two main types of advert: dynamically inserted, or baked-in.  Baked-in ads, or integrated ads are in the audio file before it is distributed, and can either be something that is read by the host, or another clip from the advertiser which is stitched in before upload.

Dynamically inserted ads are placed automatically by a podcasting platform or host, and make up around 42% of podcast adverts. These ads are often aimed at specific audience segments, so people will get different adverts depending on their age, location and interests. 

Programmatic ads are a subset of the dynamically inserted ad market. Only 4% of podcast ads are currently delivered programmatically, but this figure is expected to grow rapidly over the next few years.

Digiday is one example of a publisher podcast that uses both programmatic and host-read ads. “Our advertiser and sponsor base is new to podcast advertising, our sales team is new to it,” host Brian Morrisey told us, saying that the revenue is good and they experiment with different types of adverts. “We sell enough, we do some programmatic [ads], and I’ve read ads.”

The Economist uses hosting and analytics platform Acast to serve its podcast ads. Revenue from podcast ads increased by 50% in 2018 across its five podcasts, which at the time collectively achieved over 7 million average monthly listens.

“There has been so much demand for sponsorship that it more than pays for itself,” Economist’s Head of Digital Strategy, Tom Standage, told NiemanLab. “The big change is commercial, which is that we had advertisers who started to come to us last year and say, ‘We are only going to buy two kinds of ads next year: print and podcast. What have you got?’” 

The downside is that high numbers are needed to make these sorts of adverts work by industry standard measurements. Podcast ads are often measured by CPM rates (cost per thousand listens), and according to Digiday, podcast ads in the UK can average CPMs between £9-£30 ($11-$39).

However, this shouldn’t put podcasts with smaller audiences off trying adverts – particularly baked-in, where publishers have more control over rates. 500 of the right people listening to a B2B podcast will be far more valuable to an advertiser than 50,000 random listeners. It’s important that publishers pitching podcasts emphasise the high engagement with podcasts; often, audiences are listening to your content uninterrupted for 30+ minutes at a time.

2: Events

Before the pandemic, live events and live podcast tours were one way podcasts with big listener numbers could bring in some solid revenue. 

For Recode, the lines are blurred as the Recode Decode Live recordings slot into Recode’s wider event business. The Recode Decode podcast has had frequent Live recordings, with tickets starting at $40. Similarly, Slate has built a profitable live events business around some of its most profitable podcasts, holding sold-out shows in cities all around the U.S.

“The number one thing is that the audience loyalty has to be there, that connection, that desire to see your favourite hosts live and in person,” Slate Live’s Executive Producer Faith Smith told Simon Owens. “None of my events are break even, because we make money on all of our shows. We have a great audience that really shows up at the box office.”

“But we don’t only look at revenue and the bottom line to determine if an event is a success. It’s really the best way to get to know our podcast audience.”

In the UK, Bauer’s Empire podcast embarked on their first UK tour last year. “The mainly award-losing team behind the podcast arm of the world’s biggest movie magazine are hitting the road for their first-ever tour!” the poster read. “Do come and see a number of giggling idiots talk movies, or it’ll be their last-ever tour!”

Live event recordings can be put out as bonus podcast episodes, or released to subscribers as a perk.

3: Sponsored series

Sponsored podcasts take many forms. We’ve seen great examples of individual sponsored episodes, mini-series, or even whole branded podcasts from publishers. As with all forms of sponsorship, there is a fine line to tread between maintaining editorial integrity and the advertiser getting value out of it.

The Week is an excellent example of a publisher who has come up with a smart solution for branded podcasts. Their flagship podcast The Week Unwrapped releases a new episode every Friday, exploring three under-reported stories from that week and why it’s important for their audience. But they also have a spin-off series called Business Unwrapped.

“It drops into the same feed as the main podcast, and has the same sort of approach to subject matter,” The Week Editor Arion McNicholl told us. “We still look for the under-reported stories, but with a business or financial angle, and in conjunction with a partner.”

The mini-series still has Olly Mann as a host, with panellists and sometimes extra guests taking part. Previous sponsors have included Barclays and Volkswagen.  “We really felt that the show had to be good enough from our perspective, that we were happy to put our name on it,” McNicholl explained.

Some publishers have developed podcasts from scratch alongside a sponsor. Mail Metro Media launched The Wellness Connection podcast in association with Pukka Tea, in order to leverage podcasting’s appeal to younger audiences.

“Knowing that 71% of our audience leads a healthy lifestyle, we seized the opportunity to create a podcast and content series that would promote the product, while providing the health education that our readers love,” Mail Metro Media said in a case study.

The series resulted in 50,000 downloads versus an initial 20,000 target over the 6 episodes, with nearly 1 in 3 listeners buying Pukka teabags or searching for more information. “We are a brand that has a lot to say, and the podcast series was the perfect storytelling platform,” a Pukka representative said.

4: Branded episodes

But publishers don’t have to go all-in on mini-series or branded podcasts to bring value to advertisers. Standalone branded episodes are widely-used by small and large podcasts, and can either be produced as part of regular programming, or published in addition to the normal podcast.

The Olive Magazine Podcast has done both sponsored mini-series and standalone sponsored episodes. One example of the latter is their sponsored episode with the Pink Lady Food Photographer awards.

“We had David Loftus, who’s a really respected food photographer [and head judge for the awards] on the podcast and we had such a brilliant time,” Food Director and podcast host Janine Ratcliffe told us. “That was sponsored…but it didn’t feel at all like we were shoehorning something in. It just felt really natural that we were celebrating how food photography has evolved.”

“It’s about finding those natural partners where you can both get something out of it,” Ratcliffe emphasised; a valuable lesson for anyone looking to monetise their podcast this way.

This is the monetisation method that has worked best for us at Media Voices. We don’t have advertising or sponsorship in the weekly podcast as we want to remain free to say what we think in reaction to the week’s media news. Instead, we have a separate sponsored show called ‘Media Voices Conversations’; standalone episodes which are released in addition to our weekly podcast. 

One fear is that sponsored episodes won’t attract as many listeners than the regular show. But in our experience, if the topic for a sponsored episode is one that genuinely resonates, there’s no reason it shouldn’t do just as well as normal episodes. In fact, our second most-listened-to episode ever is a sponsored one!

5: Selling subscriptions

Using podcasts as a way to entice listeners into a publisher’s wider ecosystem is a common strategy that can work across both print and digital subscriptions. 

The Economist uses podcasts both as a subscription driver and as a retention tool. “Podcast listeners tend to be very curious and very engaged with their interests, which is also true of Economist readers, so podcasting is an ideal way to reach out to potential new subscribers,” Tom Standage, The Economist’s Head of Digital Strategy told Which-50

“As well as helping us attract new subscribers and retain existing ones, podcasts also cover their own cost of production. So it’s a good deal all round,” he added, explaining that they also utilise preroll and midroll advertising to monetise.

Immediate Media’s History Extra podcast has brought huge benefits to the publisher in terms of marketing their print magazine, BBC History Magazine. “We drop in subscription messages every now and then, but try not to be too heavy-handed about it,” Content Director Dave Musgrove told us

“A lot of our [print] audience comes from people who have listened to the podcast. I get a lot of contact from people saying, ‘I listen to your podcast, this is the first time I’ve heard of your magazine, and I really like it, so I chose to subscribe.”

These conversions don’t have to be intangible either; promotional codes and custom landing pages can help measure more accurately just how hard a podcast is working as a subscription driver.

6: Subscriber-only podcasts

Subscriber-only podcasts are a relatively new way of monetising audio, as the technology to build paywalled podcast audiences has lagged behind. These types of podcasts are good to offer as part of a membership or subscriber package, but otherwise may struggle to gain listeners on their own due to their closed nature.

One publisher trying out these is Bauer. Empire launched a subscriber-only spin-off podcast from their main Empire podcast, which produces two new episodes a month as well as access to the previously-free archive.

Although Bauer haven’t shared figures on the number of people paying to access the podcast, Empire’s Spoiler Special saw a boost of 77% in listeners during lockdown.

The Athletic has taken a hybrid approach. It originally launched a number of subscriber-only podcasts, but now most of its 120 total podcasts run at least some episodes for free, as a way of building audiences. The Athletic co-founder Adam Hansmann told Digiday that podcast ads fetch $25 CPMs, making a freemium model more attractive than typical display ads.

7: Publisher-owned podcast networks

One tool to monetise podcasts which strongly benefits publishers is podcast networks. Not the traditional big-name distributors that acquire content, but networking together a publisher’s own podcasts. This means sponsorship or advertising can be sold across a publisher’s podcasts as a bundle, either to target specific audiences, or to reach larger numbers than individual podcasts would do.

Vox Media’s Podcast Network is one of the more well-known examples of this. The network brings together over 200 shows from Vox Media’s 14 brands, from Pivot with Kara Swisher and Scott Galloway to Vox’s flagship Today, Explained daily news explainer. The network now generates over $10 million a year, and they are aiming to double that figure by the end of 2020.

Even publishers who aren’t bursting at the seams with podcasts can do some clever bundling to make more niche shows appeal to advertisers.

Bauer’s Terri White outlined some joint sponsorship deals that had been done across their Empire and Pilot TV Podcasts. “Pilot is the second biggest magazine podcast within Bauer, and Empire is number one. Put those two together and you’ve got a really powerful proposition of covering off TV, film, men and women from 20-45” she told us.

8: Promoting other publisher revenue streams

This is an easy monetisation tactic to overlook because it can be hard to measure, but this is actually one of the most common ways publishers indirectly get value from their podcasts.

Whether it’s mentioning an upcoming event or referring to other products across a portfolio, a bit of self-promotion can help make podcast audiences – who are often a little different to online or print ones – aware of what else you offer. A podcast audience is a particularly strongly engaged user base, and is likely to be extra responsive to messages that fit their interests.

Digiday’s Brian Morrisey made a similar comment to us about Digiday, explaining that they market their membership programme and events via the podcast. “We sell enough [through advertising]…but we also use [the podcast] to promote different things we’re doing, because we have a really engaged user base.”

There is always a balance to be struck here, and publishers should be rightly cautious about over-filling podcasts with promotional messages. But done well, there is room for podcasts to be a real support to other revenue streams in the business.

Are you a publisher with a leading commercial strategy for your podcast? ‘Best Commercial Strategy’ is just one of the many categories available to enter (for free) in the Publisher Podcast Awards 2021. Entries open 14th September 2020.

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