How Tortoise reinvented its app for audio-first content

Curation, data and visual presentation take centre stage in the publisher’s new platform

As a publisher, Tortoise has never been afraid to do things differently from other news organisations. In a world of ever-faster timelines and snackable content, the company was founded with the ethos of taking things slowly (hence the name), with a focus on what it terms ‘slow news’; taking the time to deeply research and analyse a subject, rather than rushing to be the first to publication. 

This focus on thorough, long-form reporting has earned the brand a devoted fanbase. It also fits perfectly with the podcasting format, and according to editor and partner Basia Cummings, the sizeable length of most of Tortoise’s pieces was one of the things that drew the company to the medium. 

Audio content has now become one of its central pillars. Indeed, earlier this year, the company announced that its audio team had started turning a profit in just 12 months, thanks to smash-hit investigative podcasts such as Sweet Bobby, Hoaxed, and Pig Iron - the latter of which earned it a British Podcast Award for Best Documentary Podcast earlier this year. 

In order to support this audio-first approach, the company decided to revamp its mobile app to focus squarely on its podcast content. Although the company launched with an app, its original purpose was to allow members to consume its written journalism rather than podcasts, and over time, these consumption patterns have shifted with more subscribers reading on the website or in their inboxes.

“The app wasn't as fit for audio purpose as we would have liked,” says Alice Sandelson, Tortoise’s commercial director for audio. “You could listen to our audio, but it wasn't the kind of beautifully curated experience that we thought our audio deserved… So it felt like an obvious place to double down on our audio content was on a new and updated app.”

The app has a strong focus on curation, with different series and episodes highlighted depending on what’s in the news that day. Users can create custom playlists and follow the work of their favourite Tortoise presenters, such as Cummings and Alexei Mostrous, and the app also features playlists created by these hosts, which include both Tortoise content and podcasts from outside the company’s stable which listeners may be interested in. 

The podcasting industry is growing exponentially,” says Tortoise creative director Jon Hill. “There's more and more to listen to, there's not enough hours in the day and not enough ears to listen to it - so how can Tortoise help make sense of that?” 

To that end, the app also allows Tortoise to present supporting materials alongside its major investigations. Produced by the company’s data team, this could include elements such as interactive maps or timelines, which Sandelson says offers “a more holistic listening experience”. It’s reminiscent of the ‘reporters’ notebooks’ produced by the Telegraph to give subscribers more insight into the behind-the-scenes journalism of shows like Bed Of Lies.

The process of redesigning the app took around six months, according to Hill, which he credits to the tightly focused scope of the project. He points to the New York Times Audio app, launched earlier this year, which was in private beta for a year and a half: “You can just imagine the cost involved with that, and I felt quite encouraged that we got there quicker.”

“Actually, from my perspective, that was one of the kind of nicest product development processes I've been through. And we have a big backlog of ideas and features that we want to add to it, but I think at the same time, we were pretty pleased with where we've got to in quite a short space of time.” 

Designing its own audio app from scratch also allowed Tortoise to include a number of clever features, such as ‘claps’ - a tool which effectively allows listeners to ‘like’ a specific point within the timeline of an episode.

Not only does this allow listeners to demonstrate engagement with content on a deeper level, it also gives Tortoise invaluable insights into how its podcasts are resonating with listeners at an episode level. The volume and distribution of likes throughout an episode form a sort of heat-map, allowing the organisation to directly gauge which parts are most impactful for listeners.

This is a level of data richness that simply doesn’t exist with most podcast platforms, and because it’s Tortoise’s own platform, the company can track all sorts of different user behaviour signals - including how they’re moving around the app, what they’re listening to, and in what order - all of which reveals a great deal about how its content is landing.

The app is supporting the evolution of Tortoise’s membership strategy, and has allowed the company to introduce audio-only options on its plan, building on its Tortoise Plus subscription for Apple Podcasts.

“That is recognising that for our younger audience who know us and love us for our audio,” says Sandelson, “they might not want the full package of paying for Tortoise, but they will pay for our audio content.”

The app is free to download and use without a Tortoise membership, but with exclusive content and ad-free listening for subscribers, and Hill says that the app is having a positive impact on converting more of the company’s audience to paying members.

One notable absence, however, is video content. While other podcast networks and platforms are racing to increase support for visual podcast content, Sandelson says that Tortoise’s editorial workflows and the style of much of its content mean that video podcasting isn’t as easy as it would be for other publishers that specialise in more chat-based content - although she adds that if video becomes a strategic priority in the future, the app would be capable of supporting it.

“I can understand why certain bits of the industry are pushing it and I can understand why certain newsrooms are just holding the line a little bit,” says Hill. “I'm old, I've been around a few different newsrooms. I’ve been up that garden path once before, at least - maybe twice - and you know, it's not an inexpensive thing to do.”

Tortoise’s new app is far from finished, though. Hill has further plans to expand its functionality and says that he’s interested in the idea of “super-users” being able to curate and share their own playlists, as well as ways of allowing listeners to directly interact with Tortoise’s editorial teams. This is partly to share potential tips and leads on developing stories, he explains, but also to ensure that newsrooms don’t end up in the insular ‘bubbles’ that led to unexpected surprises like Brexit and Trump.

“Ultimately, what we're always thinking about is how we get people in? What are the aspects of the app that are going to excite people enough to download it?” says Sandelson. “What can we offer them that we're not offering them elsewhere? But then once they're in, how can we engage them? How can we make them stay?”