FT launches podcasts for smart speakers after jump in share of listeners using device and ‘substantial’ growth in audio ad revenue

The Financial Times has launched two new podcasts built for smart speakers, such as Amazon Echo and Google Home, after research on its podcasts found that 15 per cent of listeners now used the devices.

The FT launched its Hidden Cities podcast today, which allows listeners to choose their path through nine stories in Berlin, and first broadcast the FT News Briefing last month.

News Briefing gives listeners an eight-to-ten minute rundown of the news through their voice assistants every weekday from 5am.

“When people are using their smart speakers, they’re expecting something headline driven,” said FT multimedia producer Aimee Keane.

“We have done some research on our global podcast audience and a lot of our listening takes place in that pre-9am window.

“Our listeners are more likely to work in financial services and so on – they’re up at around five or six in the morning for market opening, so that has driven a lot of the decisions we have made on News Briefing in terms of content.”

‘A completely different listening experience

The podcast is made by three editorial staff – two based in New York and one in London – who spend most of their working days producing the show.

Keane said it was designed with voice assistance and smart speakers in mind, adding: “It’s just a completely different listening experience than you might have with a podcast while you run or even on a subway.

“I might not want to stand in my kitchen for more than eight or ten minutes to listen to a podcast. It’s about the timing.”

To keep the show short, the producers usually open on three headlines and run a more in-depth short feature on a story appealing to its business audience such as a preview of a company’s earnings report.

Stateside producers focus on what will be in the morning bulletin, while the London producer marshals FT correspondents and editors to appear for short sound bites.

FT head of audio for commercial Alastair Mackie claimed the show was “growing rapidly”, but declined to provide exact listener figures.

Unlike News Briefing, Hidden Cities is an interactive show that listeners can engage with by speaking to their devices.

Mackie said: “It will still be our correspondents telling the story, but it will be interactive in that sense.”

Asked why the newspaper had decided to make podcasts for voice platforms, Mackie said research on the FT’s audience conducted a year ago found that roughly 20 per cent of readers had access to a smart speaker.

As voice assistant platforms have improved, the share of FT podcast listens coming from smart speakers has leapt from zero to 15 per cent.

Global data analytics firm Nielsen published figures earlier this year showing that 68 per cent of US smart-speaker owners used their devices to listen to the news at least once a week.

The 2018 Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism Digital News Report found that 43 per cent of smart-speaker users accessed news through the technology.

Major news outlets such as the BBC, NPR in the US and the Washington Post have taken to voice platforms.

The Guardian announced this week that it has set up an in-house team “dedicated to experimenting with storytelling and delivering journalism through smart speakers and interactive audio”.

Guardian Voice Lab, which is funded by Google, is scheduled to run for six months.

Podcast revenue has ‘trebled’

Mackie said advertising was the primary source of revenue for FT podcasts and this had grown “substantially” since the start of the year,” adding: “I think it has almost trebled since last year.”

The FT is keen to diversify its income from audio by looking at how it can turn listeners into subscribers. 

The majority of people tuning into FT podcasts are not subscribers, according to Mackie. Some 60 per cent of them are millennials.

“These are hard to reach people who are already quite engaged in FT content,” said Mackie. “What we’ve been trying to do since the middle of the summer is really promote FT subscriptions to that audience.”

Promotions include announcing special offer codes to those listeners, which can be tracked when redeemed on FT.com to show how many new subscribers it is driving for the newsbrand.

Mackie said he was keen to improve “welcome maps” on the FT website for listeners, “so that if they come from having listened to a show about politics, they might arrive on a page that talks about what subscription they can buy and also other content we do around politics”.

In November last year, the FT said it had surpassed 700,000 digital subscribers and 900,000 “paid-for readers” overall.

FT News Briefing is sponsored by the Norwegian energy firm Equinor, formerly known at Statoil, which has a 12-month partnership deal with the newsbrand.

Mackie would not reveal how much the FT received from the deal, but said it was the FT that approached them with the idea. In return they are given a short ad “sting” at the beginning of every podcast and an ad slot.

Mackie added Equinor are not given any editorial control over what goes into the briefings as part of the sponsorship deal.

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