Casting the net: Why the time is right for podcasts to shine


Friday 30 September 2016 by Charlie Palmer

You would be forgiven for forgetting that podcasts have been around for more than 15 years. Given the rate of disruption and innovation inherent in tech at the moment, you might expect a technology that had been around for this long without really “going mainstream” to die out. But podcasts are experiencing a boom. More podcasts are being made than ever before, and more people are listening to them – 3.2 million in the UK and a whopping 57 million in the US. So what has caused this podcast revolution and why has it taken so long to happen?

A shift

For budding presenters looking to get into media, podcasts have a lot of advantages over traditional radio and television. They have an incredibly low barrier to entry; anyone with a microphone and an internet connection can have a go. One of the world’s most popular podcasts, WTF with Marc Maron, was started out of a failing comedian’s garage. A podcast is also perfectly suited to long-form storytelling. When you have an hour of audio to make your point, you can harness all the storytelling power of a TV documentary. Tom Burgis, investigations correspondent at the Financial Times, has said that “the joy of working up a narrative podcast is that it lets you think through a story – even one you’ve been writing for years – in a fresh way. It forces you to go back to the basics of storytelling.”

Podcasts are more convenient to consume than visual content; we can listen while we do something else, whether it’s cooking or driving. While video content is getting shorter and shorter to accommodate the decline in our attention spans, podcasts are getting longer: the average podcast is now 40 minutes long, compared to 25 minutes a few years ago.

James Richardson, host of popular UK podcast Football Weekly, credits the fact that podcasts can be consumed anywhere with the success of his effort.

“It’s a product which provides people with entertainment that’s very easy for them to consume at times when maybe they would be happy with anything. When you’re on the tube, you end up doing anything. Staring at other people, staring at the adverts. Here’s somebody giving you 45 minutes of people doing their best to be well informed and entertaining. That’s it right there. Can you be more entertaining than an advert on a tube train? It’s absolutely low expectation media. Really forgiving.”

The catalyst

If all this wasn’t enough to propel podcasts into something approaching mainstream recognition, what was? A lot of people in the know will tell you that the answer is one word: Serial. In 2014, the makers of the already popular podcast This American Life launched a spin-off show, which investigated the murder of 18-year-old student Hae Min Lee in 1999 and subsequent conviction of her ex-boyfriend, Adnan Syed (video journalism like Netflix’s Making A Murderer is massively indebted to Serial). The podcast was such a phenomenon that in July Syed was granted a retrial. Serial was the fastest podcast to reach five million downloads and launched the format into the public eye. Since 2013, the number of Americans listening to podcasts monthly has shot up from 12% to 21%.

It’s difficult to dispute that Serial did a great deal to increase the profile of podcasts, but to a certain extent the medium’s development – from guys sitting in their basement talking for two hours about video games to sophisticated, slickly-edited, popular shows like Freakonomics Radio and TED Radio Hour – was a matter of when, not if. Consumers are pivoting away from terrestrial, scheduled content – they want to choose. We’re seeing that shift in TV on both sides of the pond. Why watch TV live when you have little choice about to what to watch and no choice about what time to watch a particular show? Netflix and its competitors offer more choice and more flexibly. And the decline is now occurring (albeit more slowly) in radio. Why listen to the radio when you might not like anything that’s on at the moment?

Podcasts have always had the potential to offer that same flexibility. The problem is that we’re still working out how we listen to them. Podcasting hasn’t yet got its Netflix; it lacks a well-funded, well-designed platform that everyone can use. iTunes works best if you’re tied into Apple products (Apple customers are currently disproportionately represented among podcast listeners). SoundCloud is difficult to navigate. TuneIn has done a poor job of telling people it’s not just about live radio and Stitcher feels like a niche product.

Opportunities

The commercial opportunities for podcasts are very real. Most major podcasts are supported by advertising and there are several reasons why advertising on podcasts makes sense. For starters, podcasts have an audience that is extremely sought-after: it is mainly young and affluent, a difficult demographic to reach through traditional TV advertising. Popular podcasts have a following that is loyal, attentive and actively interested in a particular field. And crucially, two thirds of podcast listeners are “more willing to consider purchasing products and services they learn about during a podcast". The unobtrusive and conversational tone of much podcast advertising (many ads are simply read out by the podcast’s presenter) has helped the advertiser to be seen as a supporter of the show, rather than an annoyance that interrupts it. And research shows that listeners are likely to take further action, such as visit a brand’s website, after hearing an ad on a podcast.

Email marketing tool MailChimp’s sponsorship of Serial led to listeners seeing it as part of the show, and its simple ads were talked about and parodied by fans. It’s difficult to say exactly how effective the campaign was, as MailChimp didn’t publish precise results, but the amount of conversation it generated was palpable – and it certainly raised the brand's profile.

Challenges

But there are obstacles in the way of mainstream podcast success. Other than the few biggest publishers, most podcasts are still not individually popular enough for the biggest advertisers to pay attention to them, and syndication has been limited so far. Global brands are unlikely to be interested in committing significant portions of their ad budgets to podcasts until the format can provide more competition for commercial radio, which boasts a commodity that podcasts don't: music.

It also remains difficult to measure listener numbers, as the number of downloads naturally does not equal the number of listeners. Greater emphasis must be placed on the effective capture and analysis of podcast user data if the format wants to become a force in advertising. But despite the drawbacks, podcasts aren’t going away and as the industry continues to mature, brands will have no choice but to listen.

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Charlie has left The Frameworks.

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