On or Off Platform?
How can media companies build a successful audio app?
The key tension with most audio companies I meet is the worry of whether they should try and get consumers on their own platform vs maximising reach by distributing content far and wide. Indeed, probably the biggest response I’ve had to a blog post touched on that issue when I mused about the challenge of podcast exclusives.
In Succession there’s a scene where the boss of the successful tech company says to Roman Roy something along the lines of “sometimes I just open your streaming app to see how long it takes to load”. The fact the traditional media business can’t get its act together is deemed an accurate enough trope to include in a mainstream TV drama.
The problem for the Roys (like many media companies) is that they play at being tech companies, but it just isn’t in their skillset.
There’s two ways to get traction in app/service.
Make it genuinely good so that people want to use it.
Find ways to force them to use it, even against their better judgement.
In the media sector, successful apps have access to great content, with an enjoyable UX and have a brand that users want to align themselves with. They generally are not just utilities.
A consumer’s choice between Apple Music, Spotify or Tidal says something about them. Even though they deliver a similar product. Netflix’s position in the market is of course partly due to its content, but the fact many of its big shows are re-runs of 90s and 00s comedies show that its success is broader than just what you consume on it.
The problem for many media company audio apps is that they clone poorly the existing features of the market-leading apps, they shoe-horn in a webview rather than native material, and the ‘special’ content may be voluminous, but it is rarely premium.
Where there is the occasional something special - a concert, a series - it lives locked in the app, a tax on the consumer’s actual interest.
Really, it’s perverse that they make it difficult for consumers to get the stuff they actually care about or remember the brand for.
The other thing I think audio brands get wrong is that they think of their content as must-have, when for most people, lots of it is replaceable by something else. A dance music stream, or an interview with a popstar is not a Squid Game or a Mandalorian.
Because of this, most audio apps end up being a subset of their broadcast users, rather than a product that genuinely reaches outside to new people.
Successful apps are brands with high utility - genuinely solving a problem for a user - and delighting them along the way.
A white-labelled dating service shoved into an app with a branded logo will never be a competitor to Tinder. Getting the team to make some videos and buying in some content will never compete with TikTok. Some radio stations and podcasts put together is unlikely to make much of a dent against Spotify.
The true test is how many people audio companies have working on these apps and services? The bosses may have high hopes for these operations, but where is the talent and money in their business put? What percentage goes into the new hero product?
Apps are not successful through luck alone. If your good content is available via broadcast (and syndication), combining that with some average additional content churned out by too few people will never be enough.
For many heritage audio companies, the problem with the digital world is that on the face of it, it makes no sense. They have existing, successful businesses, with good margins that are super-efficient. They apply, what they see, as the appropriate spending based on the actual returns. The result is too few developers and too few ‘digital’ content people able to make anything that’s truly impressive.
The issue is that the new entrants aren’t playing by old media rules. Spotify, today, is a really poor business. It generally loses money and is making wild acquisitions that will be difficult to break-even from. It’s using good-will, momentum and IPO cash to build a business for tomorrow. It’s a ploy that’s served Netflix well too. They spent billions of dollars on content, building up a large debt, to get them into a position where their model worked. Disney has torpedoed successful businesses - syndication and channels - to put Disney+ at the heart of what they do.
In my mind, audio companies have two options.
If they truly want their platform to be bigger than their current audience, rather than jut a subset of it, then they need to work out how to find the money to play with the big boys and really invest in content and development. Merely forcing their existing consumers to pay their app tax is not something likely to create a successful platform.
Properly double-down on existing consumers
Radio groups, for example, have good relationships with many of their existing listeners. Instead of providing a thin amount of additional content, find ways to provide deeper connections. Make ‘premium’ the relationship, rather than the content. Unlock every reason why a listener likes your brand and find ways to extend that in-app.
There is little reason to fight Spotify (or Netflix) on their own turf. Of course you will lose that battle. Surely the trick is to find something that’s genuinely special which only you can deliver?
I’m interested in the new New York Times audio app they’ve started testing. It combines their podcasts with some great archives (Serial and This American Life) alongside spoken word versions of articles from the paper and a decent number of similar sorts of publications too. Plus there’s a layer of curation that highlights new and archive based on what’s happening now.
It all sounds very NYT-ish. Elements of this are available in the popular podcast apps, but the different content types, and the packaging is very on-brand and unique. Who knows if it will work, but it’s more sensible than just say, creating their own podcast app, that leans towards promoting their own content.
Also, I dare say, it solves a problem for consumers, particularly fans of the NYT, giving them high quality, curated and fresh news, information and features in audio-form.
If any of the existing audio apps from media companies disappeared tomorrow, how many users would truly miss out on that much?
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