FT's hunt for interactive audio and voice 'sweet spot' begins with Hidden Cities: Berlin

Financial Times's Hidden Cities feature

The Financial Times has released its first interactive audio experience on Google Assistant. It hopes the early adoption of voice journalism will help sell subscriptions to its audio listeners, a segment that is 60% millennial and 60% non-subscribers.

Hidden Cities: Berlin is the title’s nine-part interactive, human-voiced, audio documentary series, launched in partnership with Google. It is available on the Google Assistant app and allows listeners to inquire their way through the cultural nuances of the German city of Berlin using the app's voice to text technology.

It is effectively an ambitious documentary where users can branch through into different content using voice prompts. Alastair Mackie, head of audio for commercial at The Financial Times, admitted that the effort is an “experiment” but one he hopes will enrich the company with information about listener habits.

Mackie said: “These voice platforms are very sophisticated and allow you to do really exciting things, whether that is audio services, with audio to text, we can allow people to interrogate the FT. There is a sweet spot between programming and services where we can create high quality human voiced-documentary radio and audio experiences that are interactive.”

The FT is claiming a first with the series, stating that no other commercial publisher has developed a similar product for voice interfaces.

This ties into a wider digital strategy. With 12 podcasts already under its belt, including the FT News Podcast which has doubled its listener base to one million per month since January, and a recently launched daily news update going live each morning, The Financial Times sees an opportunity to convert free listeners into paying subscribers.

The legacy title continues to swell its volume of digital subscribers amid an industry-wide shrinkage in print distribution. 17 years after erecting a digital paywall, it is set to breach the psychologically important 1 million figure, with around 80% of subscribers in for the digital rather than print proposition.

With this effort, the FT is looking to add a layer of interactivity to capture a new, likely younger audience.

“You can't just sit back and listen to it, it is very much a leaning forward experience. We will learn a lot about how people interact with this.”

In Hidden Cities, users can explore everything from the Berlin nightlife to the ambitious plans to resurrect an imperial palace. Users selectively inquire their way through interviews with real Berliners keen to highlight the cultural nuances of the city. The project was led by the title’s on-the-ground bureau chief Guy Chazan.

This will inform future pieces using the format, Mackie said: “We can collect data around actions like how long people listen, whether they want to listen to an hour or 90 minutes, or whether they want to dive in and out – this will vary depending on what platform they are listening on.”

Smartphone users will notice that imagery accompanies the experience, and this is one of the platform variances. “We expect to see two different use cases. People on mobile may dip in when they have downtime for 10 or 15 minutes, in the home they might use it longer. Understanding more about that will be really useful.”

The feature runs across the FT’s media, encompassing online content, an interactive Berlin map and a pullout in the accompanying FT Weekend.

By meeting a demand for high-quality journalism in the audio format, FT hopes to bring in new subscribers. Mackie said: “They spend 20 or 30 minutes a day with our journalism, they are well engaged. One of the challenges is converting people to subscribe. That is an interesting opportunity.”

Tracking the effectiveness of this content in converting sales are special use discount codes for audio listeners which have provided “very encouraging results” so far. After identifying how listeners convert, the next job is in optimising that user journey and providing something smarter than a bog standard link to a sales page. Further baiting the proposition would be a system that could identify user listening preferences, suggested shows, relevant links and access to background about the hosts. The data could inform its marketing promotions much in the way the Wall Street Journal is buying both digital and digital out of home ad spaces based on subscription and audience habits.

The Times is also experimenting in the space, using an Alexa Skill as a marketing channel to promote its podcasts during World Cup 2018. The Times sports editor Alex Kay-Jelski branded the channel as a marketing tool and expressed a hope it would funnel more users into its podcasts - and inevitably brew enough loyalty and brand equity to catalyse subscriptions.

While both expect to make gains from their respective voice activities, It is no small undertaking to launch in interactive audio. Mackie was honest about the difficulties in getting the series running.

“The resources required for this were fairly significant, it has taken a lot of work. We had to do a lot from scratch and we had an alpha where there was dummy audio in it. We were talking to readers on a one-to-one basis to refine the experience. That was extensive. Once we learn more, it will be easier to replicate.”

The feature was led by the FT Weekend which ran a vivid marketing campaign recently to outline the breadth of its content beyond the markets and finance. It was particularly innovative in the way it rallied around mag content for the coming issue, posing thoughtful questions like 'Is mind control the tech industry's biggest innovation?'

Join us, it's free.

Become a member to get access to:

  • Exclusive Content
  • Daily and specialised newsletters
  • Research and analysis

Join us, it’s free.

Want to read this article and others just like it? All you need to do is become a member of The Drum. Basic membership is quick, free and you will be able to receive daily news updates.