Are micropayments the future of podcasting?

Audiences need more flexibility in how they consume content

Readers, I hope you’ll indulge me for a moment, while I tell you about a bee I’ve had in my bonnet for some time now. This particular bee has been buzzing around since around 2017, and it’s that there needs to be more middle-ground between the twin pillars of ads and subscriptions as funding models for online content businesses. 

Subscriptions are great - they’ve got a huge range of benefits for content publishers, and seem to have been forgotten about by many traditional media companies. They provide stable recurring revenue, without the stress and fluctuations of the advertising market, and they allow for a much deeper relationship with an audience. With a solid base of core subscribers, brands can build much more finely-targeted content strategies to meet their needs.

However, there’s historically been a gap in the market - from my perspective, at least - between ad-funded and subscription-based content monetisation models, and that’s this: what happens when readers want to have a more varied media diet? 

Let’s take my own media habits as an example: I often have different preferences for where I get my news depending on the subject. I’m a big fan of the Telegraph’s reporting on the UK tech sector, for example, but I prefer to get my analysis of Silicon Valley from Wired, and while The Times is generally my go-to for politics news, the New Statesman’s long-reads are fantastic. 

If I subscribed to all four of the above publications, I’d be paying more than £70 per month, which seems crazy considering I’d barely be scratching the surface of what each one offers. I could just pick the one that most closely matches my needs, and make do with that, but that’s also an imperfect solution - as is rationing my consumption to make best use of the limited number of free articles that brands allow non-subscribers to access. 

On many occasions, I’ve found myself blocked by a paywall and lamented the lack of a middle road, which would allow me to simply pay a small fee for access to a specific article, rather than having to either stump up for a full subscription or take my free credit round to the tradesman’s entrance.

To my great delight, however, it seems my days of doing this may soon be numbered. Last week, I met with a company which has seen the same problems with the existing subscription landscape that I have, and I’m eagerly awaiting its mooted expansion into the UK market. Sesamy is founded by Måns Ulvesta, Karl Rosander and Markus Ahlstrand, the original creators of Acast, and seeks to offer publishers a platform to support one-off payments for paywalled content. 

The reason I’m talking about it in the first place - other than using my soapbox to complain about my subscription struggles - is that Sesamy’s platform supports one-off payments for podcast content as well as written articles, and this model could be the missing link for many podcasters’ monetisation strategies

Ad-funded models are notoriously low-income for all but the highest-earning independent podcasters, and converting free listeners into paying subscribers isn’t always the easiest task. Newer developments from podcast platforms are making the purchase journey for potential podcast subscribers easier, but you’re still asking listeners to commit to another monthly payment.

With the single-payment model, however, you can give people a chance to sample your premium content without the long-term commitment, making it more likely they’ll convert to full subscribers in the future - and even if they don’t, it’s incremental revenue that you otherwise wouldn’t have gotten. There are countless podcasts, for example, where I’d be unlikely to take out a full subscription, but would happily pay for the odd piece of particularly compelling content a couple of times a year.

It gives podcasters more flexibility in terms of how they deploy their paid podcast assets, too. For example, if you land a particularly enormous guest, that might present a perfect opportunity to offer that episode as a one-off premium product. Sesamy’s founders were telling me about one customer that’s experimented with putting sub-sections within episodes behind a paywall - an innovative tactic that has apparently been very successful. 

One-off payments are something that every media publisher with a podcast arm should be looking into - as the advertising market continues to be somewhat volatile, more and more publishers are returning to the stability of subscription models, but there needs to be a better way of bridging the gap between open-access and paywalled content, and giving users more freedom to dabble might just be a winner.