What Will It Take To Get Podcasting To The Next Level?

Data-Driven Thinking” is written by members of the media community and contains fresh ideas on the digital revolution in media.

Today’s column is written by Tutuwa Ahwoi, ad operations manager at National Public Media.

Podcasting is becoming a popular medium. Monthly US podcast listeners are expected to reach 73 million in 2018, a 10% percent increase from 2017. Google’s Zack Reneau-Wedeen predicts that number will double in the next few years, largely due to a currently untapped market of Android listeners.

All told, the US podcast industry generated $314 million in advertising revenue in 2017 and is forecast to grow 28% to $402 million in 2018.

Nonetheless, while 67% of Americans are familiar with the term podcast, only 26% report listening to one at least once a month, according to Edison Research's Infinite Dial survey. Clearly, while podcast listening is on the upswing, there’s room for further growth – if we can address the challenges standing in the way of reaching this potential audience.

Fragmentation in listening

Listening on mobile devices is the predominant method for people to consume podcasts. Apple Podcasts, pre-installed on all new iOS devices, is the predominant app for listening, with more than half of all current listeners using it.

The overall player space remains fragmented, with no non-Apple podcast player capturing a large market share. The remaining listening occurs via other third-party podcast players, such as Stitcher and Overcast, podcasts included in music apps such as Spotify and Pandora and radio apps such as TuneIn Radio. Google Podcasts is a native player for Android devices and one of the newest podcast players.

Source: IAB Podcast Measurement Technical Guidelines, Version 2.0

Glut of content 

There is a lot of content to choose from. Apple, serving as a proxy for the podcast industry, reported approximately 525,000 active podcasts. With this bounty of content, new listeners may become overwhelmed. Sixty-five percent of Infinite Dial respondents reported not knowing where to start to listen to podcasts.

Also, the average length of a podcast in 2015 was about 40 minutes, but half the respondents in one study said most podcasts are too long.

Anecdotally, listeners must listen to at least half of a new podcast to get a feel for the content. That represents a significant time commitment for a casual listener. It suggests that publishers that experiment with different format lengths might be rewarded with stronger engagement and greater audience growth.

Podcast discovery

How does the casual listener know which of the half-million active podcasts to listen to?

Finding new podcasts to listen to is not very intuitive. Often, it's the same shows from Apple's Top Charts that get recommended; smaller podcasts have a harder time with discovery. While most other podcast apps have some kind of directory, there is very little innovation in podcast discovery, and Apple Podcasts’ directory recommendations are limited to similar shows. Often, Top Charts is skewed toward publishers with existing audiences from legacy media or those with the celebrity or financial power to provide marketing and promotional resources.

The actual content of podcasts is also hard to find on the internet. It is rare for audio content to be indexed by search engines and for podcasts to come up as results in search queries. As a result, finding and listening to a relevant podcast is not as easy as searching for text.

Text is the default system of the internet; search query results typically bring up text results and, more recently, video content that queues up at the segment that answers the query. Audio content is not being properly surfaced when interacting with search engines. Google is the dominant search engine, and the lack of podcasts in search queries, unless when searched for specifically, is a major challenge in the path toward discovery.

Furthermore, podcasts have also been rather absent on social media, with its emphasis on images, video and text. It's very difficult to share audio on social media platforms such as Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, and podcast content rarely goes viral.

Podcasts face an uphill battle in search and social media in terms of recommendations for the casual user. It's been left to word of mouth, Apple's Top Charts and dedicated loyalists to raise awareness.

Lack of awareness of podcasts as a medium

As mentioned above, 67% of Americans are familiar with the term podcasts, but 37% of respondents in Edison Research’s Next Frontier study reported didn’t understand what a podcast was, while nearly half believed that subscribing to podcasts costs money. What’s more, 65% of survey respondents indicated that they didn't know where to start to listen to podcasts.

This is a huge knowledge gap and points to the need for outreach and education about podcasts.

Insufficient content

In the same study, 61% of respondents would listen if a podcast covered topics they were interested in. There’s a potential audience that’s not being adequately served by the current slate of podcast content. While 44% of Americans report having tried listening to a podcast at least once, only 26% listen to podcasts on a monthly basis.

This gap between casual and dedicated listening shows that potential new listeners are testing out podcasts and either not discovering what they want to hear or not enjoying it at all.

Measurement, metrics and attribution

Podcasts lack adequate data about who is listening to podcasts and when, where and for how long. With podcasting, the current primary metric for transaction and measurement is downloads, which simply denotes that the podcast’s MP3 file has been downloaded. It does not measure whether that downloaded content, including ads, was actually played or listened to.

Publishers find this information useful in terms of understanding engagement, listening habits, and how content is performing. Marketers are also very interested in how their ads are performing. It's partially the reason why early podcast advertising has been dominated by direct-response marketers, who can include a promo code for a specific show and measure ROI via redemption of those promo codes.

Marketers more interested in generating brand awareness by reaching potential audiences, as opposed to promoting specific products, have been slow to turn to podcasts, partially due to this measurement gap.

How do we solve these obstacles that are holding back podcasting? I have some ideas, which I’ll share in my next column.

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