Publishers Increasingly Want to Put Their Money Where Alexa’s Mouth Is

The Washington Post, NPR and others are lining up to partner with voice-activated devices

Most publishers haven't monetized their voice activations, but the low barrier to entry makes the platform one worth testing on. ChefBoyRG
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As consumers grow more comfortable with talking to voice-activated devices, media organizations want to say something back. From The Washington Post to NPR, publishers have been lining up to partner with smart speakers to entice viewers and create a new revenue stream. The relatively cheap cost of entry (especially for those with audio content that can be easily repurposed), the rapidly growing consumer interest and what they can offer advertisers in this space make these technologies the hottest new thing media organizations want to get a footing with—even if it’s only proven lucrative for a handful of publishers.

“The pace of innovation in this area is breathtaking. This is not just the latest shiny object,” said John Hassell, svp of content and editorial director for Advance Local, one of many publishers that has been aggressive in the space.

The Washington Post helped lead the way, developing its first skills for Amazon’s Alexa in 2016 (Amazon’s chief executive, Jeff Bezos, owns the publication) and becoming the first publisher to sell ads against flash briefings, which are a quick look at the day’s news read over a smart speaker. “Voice platforms and the rise of voice interactions have the potential to help us deliver our journalism to new and existing audiences in new ways,” said Jessica Stahl, director of audio at The Washington Post.

The Post has continued to grow its offerings for these devices, but Stahl said more experimentation is needed in the space to realize its full potential.

“The pace of innovation in this area is breathtaking. This is not just the latest shiny object."
John Hassell, svp of content and editorial director for Advance Local

Though Amazon controls most of the smart speaker market in the U.S. (70 percent, compared to Google’s 24 percent and Apple’s 6 percent, per an estimate from Consumer Intelligence Research Partners), a separate study recently found that Google Home shipments outpaced Amazon Echo over two consecutive quarters.

Conscious of the difference in listening patterns and device preferences, NPR has experimented with multiple voice-activated offerings after launching a flash briefing for Echo devices in 2014. It released an interactive quiz earlier this year and grew its smart speaker listening base to 3.3 million weekly listener hours. “Our goal is to be wherever users choose to tune in and listen,” said Joel Sucherman, NPR’s vp, new platform partnerships.

NRP’s corporate sponsorship for smart speakers was expected to reach seven figures this fiscal year, which is still “a very small percentage” compared to its podcast portfolio, said Bryan Moffett, COO of National Public Media, a sponsorship subsidiary of NPR. The publisher’s smart speaker sponsorships have garnered interest, such as one from Lagunitas Brewing Co., which appeared at the end of a flash briefing and saw a 0.35 percent clickthrough rate to the brand’s landing page via voice devices.

Advance Local has flash briefings in six of its 10 primary local markets, and has attracted 10,000 listens per month at its property. The opportunity allows the company, without a legacy in audio, to connect to its audience in new ways, said Hassell.

The number of smart speaker users in the U.S. is forecasted to continue to grow, from 16 million in 2016 to 76.5 million in 2020, according to the latest estimate from eMarketer. That continued expansion drove Kiplinger to put its newsletter, The Closing Bell, on smart speakers. “We don’t know if there’s a lot of money to be made yet, but you don’t want to not be exploring these new options and these new things,” said Sarah Stevens, vp, content, Kiplinger.

Similarly, Bloomberg Media is experimenting with voice-activated devices, but doesn’t see them as a guaranteed “home run” in revenue, said Julia Beizer, chief product officer at Bloomberg Media. Instead, she said tech companies have made adoption of voice so easy that it’s worth it for publishers to enter the space without knowing whether consumers will buy in.

The price point to advertise on a voice-activated news briefing varies from publisher to publisher, but they often include it as part of a comprehensive ad buy that could cost upwards of $250,000, a media buyer, speaking anonymously, told Adweek.

A growing pain for voice-activated devices, as well as other emerging technologies, is the challenge of measuring the success and impact of the ads that appear on them. Media buyers are relying on publishers for those voice-device metrics, but even those outlets aren’t getting the full level of detail from the respective platforms. “We have a sense of how many times it’s been heard and downloaded, and a sense of what the audience looks like,” said the buyer, “but it’s still limited compared to what we see in the rest of digital media.”

This story first appeared in the March 18, 2019, issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.

@SaraJerde Sara Jerde is publishing editor at Adweek, where she covers traditional and digital publishers’ business models. She also oversees political coverage ahead of the 2020 election.