Gareth Hickey is co-founder and chief executive of NOA, a Dublin based audio-journalism company that transforms articles from some of the world’s leading publishers into professionally narrated, spoken word stories. These audio articles can then be streamed by time-sensitive consumers across their mobile and smart speaker devices, and republished to the digital properties of NOA’s partnering publishers.
“One of the most precious commodities that we have is our time, so if we make it convenient for people to do things… I think there’s a huge market in that for pretty much everything” – Spotify chief executive Daniel Ek, 2012
In the summer of 2013, I began searching for a solution to a problem that I was experiencing. Almost daily I stumbled across online articles that I had every intention of reading – I just couldn’t find the time. I found a solution in an app called Pocket. It let me save article URLs across my smartphone, work machine, and my personal laptop so that I could read them later. Problem solved. Sort of!
At the time Pocket had about 10 million users; so 10 million people were experiencing a similar problem to me. They didn’t have the time to read the stories that they found interesting so they saved the URL to read them later.
Before long though, I faced a new problem; finding the time to read the stories in my Pocket list. Weekends usually worked well, but the list continued to grow faster than I could get through it. As good as Pocket was, it was really only ever a band aid on the wider problem of being short on time.
Fast forward to May 2017. That was when my friend and fellow co-founder, Shane Ennis, and I launched NOA – News Over Audio. We wanted to provide a more immediate solution for people who were faced with a busy schedule and as a result couldn’t find the time to read.
“We want NOA to become a personal assistant that people can turn to in order to become fully informed about the topics that interest them, regardless of their background knowledge or a busy schedule. Audio, AI, and voice-controls will be at its core.”
Our theory was that most people chose the ‘read it later’ option because they were too busy (or too distracted) to read, but that by providing them with the ability to listen to the story while they were in the car, walking, cooking or at the gym, for example, their problem would be solved.
Audio books provided a convenient solution in the book publishing market and today the result is widespread adoption and increased engagement. Advances in mobile computing power and data connectivity made audio book consumption very practical while on-the-move – the perfect use case. To Shane and me, the timing seemed perfect. We wanted to do the very same for great quality journalism – the type of stories that people rely on for concise, well-rounded insight, analysis and perspective on the topics that matter to them. (No, radio and podcasts – while fantastic – do not meet this need!)
With the big two mopping up online advertisement spend, having an engaged audience is key to the success of any digital offering. Unfortunately, the level of engagement that quality journalism enjoys online is not where it needs to be.
Since launching NOA the results have amazed us. Listenership continues to grow and article engagement times far exceed those of their text-based online equivalents – typically 600% to 1000% more.
The simple fact is that reading takes time. Chartbeat analysis reveals, however, that the average amount of engaged time spent on an articles page is just 44 seconds (and we’ve saw and heard of far lower). A typical reader might get through 150 words in that amount of time – and that’s assuming they begin reading from the moment the page loads, withholding from viewing any images or ads, etc. – whereas the average journalistic article is closer to 750 words in length. (For this piece, you’ve read about 650 words so far.)
Chartbeat chief executive Tony Haile, summed it up like this:
“The more pageviews a site gets, the more people are reading, the more successful the site. Or so we thought. Chartbeat looked at deep user behavior across 2 billion visits across the web over the course of a month and found that most people who click don’t read. In fact, a stunning 55% spent fewer than 15 seconds actively on a page.”
Engagement on NOA is significantly higher. In fact it’s where it needs to be for quality journalism to attract and retain paying subscribers. For the month of December 2017, our average article completion rate (i.e., [user listen duration/article playback length]) was 83 percent. This average has continued to remain above 80 percent on a monthly basis despite significant user growth. In short, when someone presses play on a NOA article, they tend to stick around and listen.
Context, not content
One important takeaway for the team since launching NOA is that our users will happily listen at length to stories that provide them with added narrative. In fact, the data indicates that our listeners love opinion and analysis style pieces. (Many of them have also told us as much.)
Their relationship with news, however, is one of lower engagement. A news-centric headline is unlikely to attract as much traffic on the app. And this is despite the fact that turnaround times during our morning and evening recording sessions are often as low as 30 minutes.
Today, news has turned into a commodity that competes on both timeliness and cost. While this is a market segment that publishers must serve, the successful players will marry this coverage with stories that go beyond the headline to provide insight and perspective (the ‘oh, wow’ or ‘I never thought of it like that’ factors).
Our editors work with NOA’s partners to select the stories that go beyond the headline and provide additional context about a wide array of topics, with a strong emphasis on those that are of high societal importance today. We complement this with a selection of lighter and more timeless pieces spanning lifestyle, careers, sport and the arts.
Listen anytime, anywhere
NOA’s team of readers work to tight deadlines and begin recording from late evening right the way through to midnight, and again from early morning to ensure a timely offering. They are a hard-working, dedicated bunch with voices that lift the words from the page and deliver them as the author intended; whether sharp and snappy, with a pinch of sarcasm or slow and business-like, with emphasis where needed. The result is a high-quality, timely narration of the top articles that will appear in tomorrow’s paper, app, and homepage.
For our listeners, they can create a playlist of the audio articles that are of interest to them and begin listening anytime, anywhere – including offline.
2018 and beyond
Daniel Ek put it best when he stated in a 2012 interview with Charlie Rose that our time is precious and as a result, products and services that make things more convenient for people will have a huge market. Audio-journalism does just that. We want NOA to become a personal assistant that people can turn to in order to become fully informed about the topics that interest them, regardless of their background knowledge or a busy schedule. Audio, AI, and voice-controls will be at its core.
2018 will be a year of growth for both NOA and the wider on-demand audio market. There are a number of fantastic services on the horizon, including Otto Radio and Spotify’s soon-to-launch Spotlight podcasting service – a podcast with a twist. The Economist have been bundling an audio edition of their print magazine with digital subscriptions for over a decade – 2018 is the year in which others catch up.
Advances in text-to-speech technologies will also accelerate the acceptance of voice assisted products and services. Whether they can ever replace human narration when it comes to storytelling remains to be seen. The development by Google of WaveNet represents a significant step forward in this space, however.
We look forward to the day in which journalism is seamlessly integrated across CarPlay and Android Auto, Alexa, Home and HomePod, and mobile and web. This combination will allow people to read or listen, depending on their use case. Availability increased our consumption of Coca Cola, and it will do the very same for quality journalism.
For NOA, our objective over the next 5 years is to become the global home of audio-journalism. We see a bright future for publishers and journalists that can stand above the click bait and provide insight, perspective, and analysis. By partnering with some of the world’s leading publishers we will provide them with a valued income stream and grow the market for their content across all channels (text and audio) thanks to the convenience with which people can begin to consume and identify with their stories.
The opportunity presented by audio-journalism is to grow the market on an engaged, paid-for basis, not to compete within its current confines. Making journalism more convenient to consume is a leap in the right direction.
Gareth Hickey will be speaking at newsrewired on 7 March. There are still some places available for the event. Register here.