US magazine Slate knows that around half of the people who pay for its content do so because they were enticed by its podcasts. So now it is pushing its own Patreon-styled podcast platform, Supporting Cast, inviting third-parties to make it their home with the promise of boosting revenues all-round. Here Slate sounds off to The Drum about its plans to improve podcast marketing.
Slate, a title which began life with an emphasis on the written word, is rapidly ramping up its podcast plans after data showed that half of the 60,000 members of its Slate Plus premium tier signed up to access bonus podcast content and ad-free shows.
After growing its own podcast content library, the title turned its attentions to building a range of tools and its own proprietary platform which it is now opening up to outside creators. They've been joining Supporting Cast, as their audio home.
The recent expansion comes as Slate faces stiff competition from the likes of Spotify muscling the top end of the market to rival publishers like the New York Times using financial heft to acquire much-loved titles like Serial.
David Stern, vice president of product and business development at Slate and founder of Supporting Cast, says that opening up the platform to outside creators last year was essential to making it viable. He tells The Drum: “Growing subscription revenue through Slate Plus is a top priority. By building Supporting Cast, we were investing in Slate Plus’s future, giving ourselves new tools to provide a great member experience that might not have made financial sense if Slate were the only user.”
Slate’s putting down a solid foundation for its own podcasting product, but the more third parties it attracts to the platform, the more it can learn about what lands with paying customers and program accordingly. “We share the lessons we’ve learned from Slate Plus with our clients, we advise on promotional strategies and even offer sample host read and email copy. In cases where there’s a good editorial fit, we’ve done co-promotions between Slate shows and Supporting Cast shows,” he says.
Stern and co are not the first to notice the depth and loyalty podcasts instill in an audience. “A few other publishers coming from a text journalism background have gone deep into podcasting and had strong success translating to a new medium, as we have — the New York Times and Vox come to mind. I think the thing that’s striking for us at Slate and a number of Supporting Cast clients is that podcast audiences tend to be smaller than web audiences, but that our listeners are so incredibly engaged. They’ll join a subscription program at much higher rates.”
This intimate relationship is where Slate’s putting in extra time to improve the sell, leaning on the “persuasive power” of the hosts, whether that’s to sell an advertiser’s product or a subscription product.
And this is where Supporting Cast should come to the fore. Its standout feature is dynamic subscriber messaging. In plain English, podcasters can record and deliver audio to specific audience segments before each show, be it thank-yous for joining, warnings about expiring credit cards, invitations to upgrade to higher priced tiers, or even targeted pleas to check out other shows. This is all identified and delivered based on the status of the logged-in listeners. And it will do so in the voice of the host, something no other services are offering yet.
“The ability to escape from the limitations of the email inbox and connect in more personal and timely ways with listeners is one of the most compelling parts of our service,” says Stern.
When was asked how many sign-ups Supporting Cast needs to be classed as a success, Stern deflects and says his focus is “getting podcasters to a level of revenue that’s meaningful for them". That’ll differ on a show-by-show basis and is dependent on a greater many more factors than paying audience.
“We hope they can get to the level where they’re generating between a third and half of their total revenue from their membership offering. That gives them a level of stability to expand, to take risks, or to weather a recession.”
For independent podcasters there is a hope to raise around six figures in subscription revenue per year. “We’ve got a bunch of independent shows at that level, like The Greatest of All Talk (GOAT), Scriptnotes, The Cycling Podcast, and a number of others. The total membership you need to reach that revenue level is going to vary depending on your price point, of course [which Slate will take a “small share” of.”
The team has been sitting on the idea for a “long time”, building to it brick-by-brick. "We’ve invested a lot at Slate and Supporting Cast in our automated transactional emails – welcome emails, credit card expiration notifications etc – and those are important. But email has never seemed like the ideal medium given that our members are so used to hearing the hosts’ voices in their ears. We expect members to be a lot more likely to listen, to feel a connection, to take action. This should have a huge positive impact on retention, and ultimately podcasters’ bottom lines.”
Going forward, there are some ideas Stern can’t “talk about” yet for fear of having them lifted by a competitor. But to make the integration as seamless as possible for podcasters he’d like the platform to play better with the tools they use to listen, host and deliver their podcasts. “We recognize that we may just be a piece of the puzzle for these folks.”
Like many publishers, Slate’s mission is to diversify its revenue stream. It hopes Supporting Cast will better drive subscriptions and retention of its podcasts – and have a knock-on effect for those licensing its tech. But it is just another arrow in its quiver, alongside the earlier launches of the digital marketing firm SocialCode and podcast publishing platform and advertising network Megaphone.