Paywalls and podcasts: What’s going on?

Former Editor & Content Director

More and more podcast creators and distributors are making moves to ensure consumers – not just advertisers – pay for their audio content. How will this play out as tensions between platforms mount and audiences have to decide which voices in their ears deserve the money from their wallets? Radio Today’s Vivienne Kelly explores the latest developments and tensions, and speaks to Mamamia’s Holly Wainwright about the launch of MPlus amidst the madness. 

Even people who purport to have been into podcasting before it was cool can admit that the path to effective monetisation hasn’t been easy.

However as we head into the deep depths of 2021 and the medium becomes more mature, we are seeing more and more publishers and distributors effectively create branded podcasts which reach genuine and engaged audiences, as well as more sophisticated ad insertion techniques, tracking capabilities, measurement and commercial offerings.

So now, the focus appears to be shifting to extracting dollars from those who have long seen the value of podcasts: those who consume them – fans, listeners, consumers, friends, members of the club, or however you refer to them.

At the moment, much of it is focused around individual creators. Consumers will pick a podcast they particularly like, and can pay additional money to access the content early or, perhaps, gain access to additional content not available to those unwilling, or unable, to front up the extra cash.

This is the model Acast recently rolled out, with Acast+. Creators can sign up to Acast+, and then offer paying podcast subscribers ad-free streams, exclusive content, early access and more. As it stands, the offering won’t work across Spotify, and is available for listeners accessing content via Apple and Google Podcasts.

Acast+ will help podcast creators monetise their content and offer exclusive paid subscriptions

Acast+ faced a similar Spotify-shaped roadblock when it partnered with subscription payment platform Patreon last year in a bid to offer member-only content to paying podcast super fans.

This tension (at best) or all-out war (at worst) is surely only set to intensify as platforms compete for consumers’ dollars, and listeners decide which platforms, podcasts and people deserve their monetary contributions.

“We believe all podcasters, of all sizes, deserve to make money from their craft,” Henrick Isaksson, regional managing director for Acast across Australia and New Zealand, told Radio Today.

“With the introduction of Acast+, we’re further supporting our local creators. Our podcasters such as Osher Gunsberg (Better Than Yesterday, DadPod and Idle Australians) will now have additional ways to engage with their listeners and build stronger relationships with them, all while choosing their revenue streams.

“At the very heart of Acast, we are the home of independent podcasts. We’ll continue to provide our podcasters with the tools they need, while respecting their right to make choices that fit their shows best.”

This month, Apple also got in on the grind, revealing a podcast subscription product which will be available from May. Similar to Acast+, the paid product will offer consumers ad-free listening, access to additional content, and early or exclusive access to new series.

The new offering is billed as a “global marketplace for listeners to discover premium subscriptions offered by their favourite creators”.

But it’s not just the global giants who are seeking to tap into consumers’ passion for audio.

Last week, women’s publisher Mamamia – which has recently boasted about its extraordinary podcast growth and engagement – launched a paid audio offering.

Head of content at the publisher, Holly Wainwright, tells Radio Today, that the innovation should not be thought of as a ‘paywall’, as it’s not locking people out, or blocking something in. Rather, it’s about bringing in a community of people who want more.

“This isn’t really a paywall and it isn’t really a subscription offering either,” she says of MPlus. “It’s a membership. So we’re not taking anything away from our audience at this point. All of our audio offering remains free, the website content remains free. But it’s more. It’s extra and closer. That’s the idea of MPlus.”

She says it made sense to charge for additional audio content, as Mamamia’s audience was craving an even deeper connection with its podcast hosts, as well as the community that tunes in each week. Plus, she notes there is increasing screen fatigue, and podcasts offer the ability to engage in a deep connection while also completing other tasks.

“Over the past year, particularly with our audio offering, [it] has been growing and growing and growing. And we now do our flagship show Mamamia Out Loud three times a week. We’ve got more than 30 podcasts on our network that are available to everybody.

“We are always being asked for more… [And] it seemed like a good a time as any to listen to our audience and give them what they wanted.”

The platform only launched last week, however on Friday, Wainwright revealed memberships were already in the four-digit arena. Members can pay month-to-month, or sign up for a full year. So far, Wainwright says, over half of those signing up had done so for 12 months, “which is really exciting for us in terms of the confidence that shows in what we’re giving”.

MPlus will offer members additional podcast episodes and exclusive series 

This connection and faith between the publisher and its audience will be key to MPlus’ success, Wainwright said.

“One of the things I think that’s a strength at Mamamia is how closely we listen to our audience, and that comes across whether we’re listening to them in the Facebook groups, whether we’re listening to them directly when they’re filling up our submissions inbox as they often are with what they’re thinking about at the moment, or whether they’re calling into our pod messages,” she explains.

“So we’re going to be very much listening to them and making sure we’re really close to the audience in terms of what they want. So at the moment, they’re getting bonus episodes of Mamamia Out Loud and two entirely exclusive podcasts, and videos and a newsletter and a recommendations model, but we are hoping and planning to surprise and delight them with new tings all the time.”

People may listen to Mamamia’s audio offering across multiple channels, however, the exclusive MPlus content will only be available within Mamamia’s four walls – the app or the website itself.

This exclusivity is possible because of the strength of Mamamia’s brand, Wainwright says.

Jessie Stephens, Holly Wainwright and Mamamia co-founder Mia Freedman front Mamamia Out Loud

It’s also increasingly where other podcasters are moving, with Spotify recently nabbing PodcastOne’s Em Rusciano, making her Emsolation podcast – previously available everywhere – a Spotify exclusive.

Rusciano says her podcast, despite now being accessible on fewer platforms, will always be free.

This won’t however, be the case for all podcasts consumers have grown to love.

Further moves from podcasters in this exclusive, and increasingly, paid, environment are sure to unfold in the coming weeks and months.

For her part, Wainwright notes the mutual love of audio between publishers and consumers is what makes all these commercial steps forward possible.

“You genuinely feel like you’re in a conversation with the audience, and I think that for some brands, it’s scary to listen to feedback, but that’s never really been part of us. It can be challenging at times, but I absolutely love that direct connection with the audience and getting a real gauge on what Australian women are talking about, thinking about, wanting. I absolutely love it.

“And I also think that chemistry and dynamism of audio content is unrivalled. I think you can explore content and you can explore topics with a bit more nuance sometimes… I just think that audio has kind of taken our relationship with our audience to a higher level.”

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