October 19, 2021

Owning Your Audience May Not Work With Audio

Anyone that has heard me talk about media has heard me say the phrases “own your audience” and “don’t build on rented land.” I find that companies that live by these rules tend to do pretty well for themselves. And why wouldn’t they? When you are building on your own platform and own the means of communication with your audience, you’re far less likely to be impacted by sudden changes in algorithms.

But there comes a time when that advice doesn’t always work. Take, for example, in the world of video. Many publishers have tried to push video on their sites. And from time to time, they see a video get some viewership, which results in some ad revenue. But what really happens is these publishers start pushing outstream video players, trying to get more video impressions even though the user experience is pretty crappy.

My guess is that it’s only sites like Bloomberg, CNBC, and those outlets that can basically put a video into every news article that generate any sort of on-site revenue. For the rest of us, the only way to build a legitimate video product is to rely on where most people go to watch video: YouTube.

I was thinking about this as I saw the announcement from The New York Times that it was going to launch an audio app.

Now, The Times is working to incorporate that audio journalism into its digital experiences. Today we are beginning recruitment for testers to participate in a new experience called “New York Times Audio.”  Curated by Times journalists and editors, “New York Times Audio” is an app that will help listeners engage with the latest news, ideas, criticism and stories that matter to them.

“New York Times Audio” will provide an accessible and authoritative way to understand the world, pulling from Times podcasts, Times articles, premier magazine publishers like New York magazine and Rolling Stone, new audio formats from The Times newsroom and more. The product will also feature the archive of “This American Life,” encompassing 25 years worth of episodes from the iconic show that pioneered a new form of audio narrative journalism.

Now, I am not going to rag on the idea because maybe it works. Rather than just creating an app for its network of podcasts, it is trying to create a destination for in-depth and curated stories across its owned and operated and partner websites. Because it owns Audm, it can transform longform articles into narrated audio in a pretty straight forward way.

So, for The New York Times, it could actually be interesting. But we can quickly learn the wrong lesson from this. I think an example of that is this story in Adweek where the author suggested:

If The Times builds a standalone audio product that succeeds in attracting repeat listeners, it could mark a new era in the audio industry. The last decade has bred a reticence amongst media companies to rest their content strategy on algorithmically driven third-party platforms, but publishers have largely ceded control of their audio distribution to companies like Spotify, Apple Podcasts and Amazon. In testing the willingness of its audience to seek out its content on a standalone app, The Times is gauging the viability of an owned-and-operated audio product, which could reduce its reliance on intermediaries, as well as offer a host of data and advertising advantages.

If the product proves successful, which remains a sizable unknown, it could prompt other publishers to follow suit. Media companies with large audio stables, such as Vox Media, could build their own audio platforms, turning the podcasting landscape into a series of fiefdoms, not unlike the world of connected television.

However, The Times has no plans to paywall its podcasts or remove them from larger distribution platforms like Spotify, Preiss confirmed, so the resulting landscape would still remain accessible. Regardless, it would lay the groundwork for an audio ecosystem with far more parity than the one that exists today.

On the surface, the idea seems really good. Of course The Times should want to own the platform where its audio is distributed. If it can reach any semblance of scale, perhaps it can generate more advertising revenue or push users to other paid products.

The issue is that it doesn’t take into consideration user behavior. If we believe people listen to individuals, it’s possible they’re going to listen to podcasts from a variety of media companies. That means we’d be asking them to open an app to listen to one podcast and then open a second app to listen to a different podcast. That’s not a delightful experience. And even then, it’s not how people discover audio projects.

Users that listen to podcasts find them in one of two primary ways. First, they interact with the talent on a social media platform of some sort and then make their way to their podcast platform of choice. Second, they find a podcast a bit more serendipitously on the actual platform.

That second way is why it is so important to get some love from the Apple and Spotify editors/curators. Getting them to give you promotion in the podcast app is the single biggest way to get people listening to your podcast. Otherwise, it’s depending almost entirely on the first way.

It’s the same, by the way, for video. Users either find it because a clip was shared on social and then they make their way to YouTube or they go directly to YouTube and search for something. There’s a reason YouTube is the second largest search engine in the world after its parent, Google. A ton of people have been trained to search right on YouTube.

Part of the reason this is the case is because these tools are both passive. If you’re an Android user, YouTube and Google Podcasts is downloaded for you when you turn on your phone. And with iOS, Apple Podcasts is automatically downloaded. Very few other apps have gained as much brand recognition as to warrant download. Spotify is one; Netflix is another.

For the rest of us, the only real way to build these audio/video projects is to depend on the platforms.

I’m not saying this because I like depending on the platforms. Rather, because resources are finite in media and, therefore, we have to choose our projects carefully. Perhaps for The Times, it makes sense to try this out. For most media companies, trying to “own your audience” and “building on rented land” are simply not arguments that are easy to make for this type of media. Therefore, we need to focus our resources on projects that will actually move the needle.

Instead, we need to deploy strategies that make us less dependent on them from a monetization perspective. And it’s also why we should try and encourage people who listen to our podcasts or watch our videos to sign up for newsletters. At least that way, we can rely on the platforms to help us grow our owned communication strategy.

To be clear, this opinion isn’t just for audio and video. I actually think apps remain a doomed area of focus for most publishers irrespective of content, but especially news. Research has shown that users under-35 couldn’t care less about apps. In 2019, Nieman Lab wrote a piece about a study from the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism. In it, Nieman summarized:

On those 20 young people’s phones, Instagram was the primary app: Every one of the 20 had it and spent the most time on it daily. News apps, by comparison, received much less usage. Apple News is pre-installed on iPhones, which helps account for its relative prominence here — but “no news app (with the exception of Reddit) was within the top 25 apps used by respondents…For two of the four individuals who had the BBC news app on their phone during the two-week tracking period; the app represented less than 1 percent of usage time for both.

This is why email is so important. It allows you to own your means of communication despite the fact that you don’t actually own email. We don’t have to own the platform to own the means of communication so long as the user gives us their email address.

The only way that I believe an app makes sense is if there is utility behind it. For example, if the app has data and deeper interaction, perhaps it could be something worth building. I imagine many sports publishers are building gambling apps because that’s got utility.

But for everyday content, whether it’s text, audio, or video, investing in apps just doesn’t make sense. Users don’t want them.

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