The podcast industry is growing — something that thrills all of us working on the creation, discovery, and delivery of on-demand audio. But with growth comes change, sometimes lurching, as companies and organizations seek ways to thrive, expand, and capitalize on the interest of their market.
A few weeks ago, a group of people working in the business of podcasts gathered at Spotify in New York City to talk about key challenges and opportunities in our industry — and how we might work together to tackle them. Audiosear.ch began hosting these podcast business and technology summits in cahoots with Nick Quah of Hot Pod in the fall of 2015; the Spotify meeting was our fourth such gathering. We came up with the idea for the podcast summits because in the course of our work at Audiosear.ch and its sister product, Pop Up Archive, we spend a lot of time strategizing with numerous podcast industry constituents who face similar challenges around growing audience, monetizing audio content, and measuring listener behavior — and at the same time, we noticed a stark lack of opportunities for decision makers at those companies to compare notes and unite on strategies that would, as the metaphor goes, lift all boats.
Attendees at Spotify represented a variety of interests, including hosting platforms, ad networks, publishers, listening apps, podcast studios, public radio stations, and more. Here are some of the main themes we discussed.
In 2016, 24 percent of Americans (67 million people) reported having listened to a podcast in the past month, up three percent from 2015, according to the recent Infinite Dial report from Edison Research. Marketing podcasts remains a puzzle everyone is trying to solve, and many publishers and platforms are exploring creative ways to get out of the audio echo chamber and into the ears of people who haven’t listened before.
Cross promotion with other forms of media (such as embedded audio in written stories), push notifications, new methods of social media promotion, and paper-and-ink advertising were all cited as recent efforts to increase “share of ear” and promote awareness. Several attendees expressed the value of building buzz around rankings in a way that consumers care about (for example, box office numbers for movies or the Billboard charts for music). What might that look like for podcasts?
#TryPod was a major awareness campaign in March 2017 to expand the reach of podcasts further, appealing to existing listeners to evangelize the medium to their non-listening friends. It was a huge and awesome effort that included major U.S. podcast publishers NPR, The New York Times, and Radiotopia, several dozen public radio stations and podcast producers from around the world participated in.
Was #TryPod successful at growing podcast listening? The verdict is still out. Some publishers and networks reported increased listening in March, but others pointed out that February is often a low month for listening numbers — and that March always looks good in comparison.
While a direct correlation to download numbers is tricky, #Trypod did activate significant engagement on Twitter. More than 60,000 mentions lead to more than 340 million impressions from the hashtag. Beyond sheer numbers, the personal importance of podcasts were validated in post after post, with mentions of better commutes, better family time, and in a few cases, emotional refuge.
Aside from the direct impact of the #TryPod campaign, there were other unanswered questions around its design and efficacy. If #TryPod’s primary goal was to convert new listeners to the medium, could it have done a better job? Interest and engagement were largely tracked on Twitter and Facebook, but is that the best way to reach people — or does that limit us too much to our existing audience?
#TryPod may have been further hampered by the lack of participation among the biggest listening platforms, and the lack of mainstream press coverage. With more resources, organizers could have engaged other businesses or individual influencers to participate and activate new listeners. Future efforts should consider who are our best partners outside of the industry who might have helped spread the word to new listeners.
Many participants expressed that it was difficult to educate others about how to listen to podcasts — there was too much to explain, and too many steps required to activate a new listener. For older people (55+), who represent one of the smallest listener demographics, we may be fighting poor nomenclature. “Subscribe” can imply cost or maintenance; “download” might suggest the risk of a virus.
Most everyone agreed that, to truly grow listenership, we need to find ways to make it easier and more intuitive for people to listen — whether finding methods to convert people who sample audio in their browser and then want to take it to go on their mobile devices, or promoting short promos and playlists from different creators to give new listeners a jumping-off point that doesn’t require a 30- or 60-minute investment of time up front. Better “how to” explainers are also needed. Finally, we discussed the value of getting professional marketing guidance to help build the future of audience building work, and to clarify the value proposition for new users.
Finally, while reducing friction to listening is important, there’s also a fundamental zeitgeist around podcasts that is still very much in development. Serial and S-Town, for example, became part of the broader cultural lexicon to such a degree that new listeners (who might not otherwise have listened) simply figured out how to do it. The creation and growth of more and more of those experiences will increase the cache of the podcast industry and naturally grow listenership. It’s significant that competitors came together to engage in this effort, and we hope and expect more future efforts to come from it.
Measuring listens (and ad delivery)
Currently, most podcasts are supported by advertising. Working with more and bigger advertisers is essential to the health and growth of the podcast ecosystem, but a lack of industry-wide standards for gathering and sharing information about whether an ad has been heard by a listener is a real challenge to getting them on board.
Fundamentally, advertisers want to know a lot more detail about listener behavior: How many individuals did they reach? Did they listen through key points (helping assess engagement)? Did they hear the sponsorships or promos — or did they skip over it, stop listening to the episode before it aired, or simply never hit “play” in the first place?
Currently, more listening data is available for streamed podcasts than downloaded podcasts (which we can’t even confirm are listened to), yet number of downloads remains the industry standard for pricing and selling advertising. Thanks to the IAB podcast working group, standardized podcast measurement guidelines now exist, but detailed tracking remains a challenge.
Downloaded content can close the loop on these questions if consumer platforms agree to send listener data back to servers when users are connected to wifi, but currently this isn’t happening. Bryan Moffett from NPM, NPR’s corporate sponsorship subsidiary, presented a new model that NPR has developed to get listening data from on-demand audio played remotely. Called Remote Audio Data, the experiment encodes extra information into audio files as they are published, then deploys technology in NPR One to send anonymous playback information as listening happens. Other than RAD, the only other published spec in the podcast analytics space that we’re aware of is Open Podcast Analytics, though Art19 and other platforms employ similar methods for capturing listening data. Syndicated.media, an open standards working group, is also working to build consensus amongst these groups by getting publishers and applications to agree on specifications like a simple episodes/sequence tag in RSS feeds, as well as creating a W3C community group for podcast feed specs.
Everyone agrees that it’s important to have an open standard for metrics — and for that to happen, we need to shift the burden to platforms and publishers. There was also enthusiasm for finding ways to increase the value of ad buys for advertisers by developing ways to track other types of conversions such as social media follows, purchases, and more. It remains to be seen whether we can transform this energy into something specific and actionable.
New iOS sharing features
There are now over 350,000 active podcasts in Apple Podcasts encompassing over 14 million episodes — and Apple is introducing more resources for this growing community. When an Apple Podcasts episode link is shared in Apple Messages, it now displays with big, clickable cover art and a friendly play button, rather than a link to the show in the iTunes store.They’ve also introduced a widget builder and a banner builder for marketing and PR efforts.
Finding great, diverse people is difficult for many in the podcast industry, but there are ways around, over, and through that challenge.
Training people internally and creating pathways for advancement within organizations are effective (and also valued by employees). Gimlet hopes to implement and formalize a program for this, and is actively working on its development. NPR’s Storylab and Training website were both cited as excellent resources for people with great ideas and enthusiasm who want to develop their skills further.
We also discussed casting a wider net for talent by looking outside our immediate industry. There are transferable skills, particularly from other media such as video, and it’s creatively refreshing to seek new voices and people with different backgrounds.
The podcast industry is still very much an emerging one. Whether from an editorial, advertising, or platform/publisher perspective, the challenges of measuring behavior, growing audience, and improving awareness are critically important to our success. We’ve often talked at these podcast summits of the importance of growing the entire podcast industry pie, rather than fighting over the relatively small slices of it that currently exist. Our goal for these summits is to foster an environment of collaborative competition. These conversations help move that effort forward, and move all of us closer to our goals.