Podcasting platform Acast has announced a new RSS-based “technical infrastructure” to help podcast publishers easily distribute their paywalled content across any podcasting app.

By way of a brief recap, Stockholm-based Acast offers a far-reaching platform that joins the various dots between creators, listeners, and advertisers. It does so through consumer mobile apps, analytics, cloud storage, and programmatic advertising smarts for marketers. Acast has raised nearly $70 million in funding to capitalize on what can only be described as a fast-growing content industry.

While Acast has already supported paywalled content through a service called Acast+, that only allows publishers to distribute their premium content through the Acast app and means they would have to make separate arrangements with other apps — assuming they supported paywalled content at all. Acast says it has seen some success with Acast+ in terms of helping convert ad-supported listeners to paid users for certain podcasts, but feedback it garnered suggested listeners would be more willing to pay if they could listen to paywalled episodes in their own app of choice.

In other words, people didn’t want to be forced to consume their premium content through Acast — a directive that became the genesis of Acast Access, which officially launches today in partnership with two big-name publishers: the Financial Times and the Economist.

The business of podcasts

Podcasts, it’s fair to say, are big business. Earlier this week, Spotify confirmed that it has already spent $400 million acquiring podcast-related companies in 2019, a move that helps it not only branch out into more original content but also boost its ad-supported revenue.

“We expect the revenue from podcasts to accelerate through 2019,” Spotify said in its Q1 financial report. “Over time, our ambition is to develop a more robust advertising solution for podcasts that will allow us to layer in the kind of targeting, measurement, and reporting capabilities we have for the core ad-supported business.”

Advertising has long been the monetization model of choice for podcasters, but paywalled podcasting is on the rise — podcasting platform Stitcher, for example, has a $5/month premium service that includes ad-free original programming, among other perks.

Last month, New York-based Luminary launched after raising $100 million in funding with a freemium app that features the usual library of shows aggregated from myriad publishers. Luminary also offers an $8/month subscription that unlocks exclusive and original podcasts sans advertisements. There was lingering angst in the podcasting community over whether such a heavily VC-backed company — a self-proclaimed “Netflix for podcasts” — might end up creating a walled garden and destroy the free, ad-supported model that has propelled podcasting’s growth. The general idea is that Luminary will use the free content to lure people on board and then push hard to get them to sign up for a premium subscription and lock them in.

Things got a little ugly, too, when it emerged that Luminary served its shows through a proxy, thus concealing key monetizable audience data — such as location — from publishers. A number of popular podcasters removed their shows for that reason, shortly after other notable withdrawals from the Luminary platform, reportedly over insufficient permission to host certain shows.

Accessible

It’s against this backdrop that Acast is rolling out its new paywall-focused offering today. On the one hand, Acast Access acknowledges that podcasters are looking to monetize through alternatives to advertising — at the same time, it doesn’t want to lock users into a single app.

“We believe the most important thing about the podcast medium is that it continues to be public and accessible and independent of any one platform,” said Acast CEO Ross Adams. “We built Acast to be independent and to bring value to podcasters by allowing their content to be shared on any device, app, or player. Acast Access takes this commitment to the next level by working with publishers to do this not just for their ad-supported podcasts but their exclusive subscription content as well.”

Though Acast competes with other podcasting apps, it also hosts its own shows, for which it helps sell advertising, serves analytics, and encourages podcasters to publish their content to all platforms, including Spotify, Apple Podcasts, and Google Podcasts. Acast Access fits neatly into this model — the greater reach a podcast gets, the better for everyone, including the publisher, the listener, and — of course — Acast itself.

Acast hasn’t revealed the commercial aspect of Acast Access, merely saying that the company works with each publisher on a case-by-case basis, but it did give a little insight into the technology behind it. Essentially, Acast Access constitutes two RSS feeds for one show — the standard, public-facing RSS feed and a secondary “private” version of the show, which it calls the “accessed-RSS.”

“The publisher then decides what parts of the content are exclusive and only available through the accessed-RSS and what parts are in both feeds,” said Acast cofounder and chief product officer Johan Billgren. “Acast Access then checks the anonymized user data against the publisher’s API to determine which users are approved as either logged in or paying subscribers of the publisher.”

Above: Acast Access outlined

While technological high jinks are going on in the background, from the listener’s perspective Acast Access seamlessly ensures that they can always listen to their paywalled tracks in any podcasting app. “It takes just two clicks to replace the public feed with the accessed version in their podcast app of choice,” Billgren added.

In terms of what these “two clicks” entail, well, it may sound a little odd, but it will work. The podcast’s description, or show notes, includes a link that takes the listener to the publisher’s own interface, where they log in with their credentials. A unique, mirrored RSS feed is then funneled into the app, and listeners will never have to authenticate themselves as a premium subscriber again.

It’s worth noting that the user isn’t able to share that feed with anyone else — if they did, the other person would have to go through the whole re-authentication process in their own app (which means they would need the login details), and the person paying for the subscription would be logged out.

At any rate, it’s interesting to see some of the ways podcasting platforms are looking to capitalize on the flourishing podcasting industry — you can bet that paywalls will become an increasingly important monetization mechanism for podcasters and publishers as a result of tools such as this.

“The Financial Times recently announced the milestone accomplishment of reaching 1 million paying readers, and we’re continuing to look for ways to attract new audiences,” said Alastair Mackie, who heads up commercial audio at the Financial Times and leads the company’s Acast Access beta test. “The majority of our podcast listeners are not yet subscribers, and Acast Access will help us to bring tremendous value to the audio realm, incentivizing conversion for those listeners,” he said.