Audio Storytelling: Earn A Steady Share of Voice in Podcasting

By Arundati Dandapani, CMRP

Independent artistes are afraid of Spotify, Facebook, and Google and we hear this in discussions about starving artists with relation to unfair royalties and the Copyright Act. Chrystia Freeland’s latest treaty with Donald Trump is thus timely for Canada’s creators (writers, songwriters, artistes), finally earning copyright extensions for original works (of author’s life plus 70 years) in UMSCA, at par with international standards.

Starting out in radio research, we always cast a cautionary gaze at Spotify, Tidal, Pandora and all such listener-traps of paid-subscription ad-free universes: the oft-proclaimed death knell for traditional radio. But the recent boom in aural storytelling and audiobooks, as broadcasting, publishing or every other industry re-engineers for the age of digital transformation, has proven that podcasting artistes and brands can only look to capitalizing on niche audiences (i.e., podcast listeners) with renewed offerings and media strategies for more share of ear. Advertisers are lining up to spend about $500m in podcasting by 2020. I was thus glad and grateful to catch up with former colleague Jeff Vidler, Head of Audience Insights, early this month, who shared insider trends from podcasting and its growing popularity with brand strategists and consumers alike. Growth in podcasting has been incremental and gradual, unlike the stratospheric telly when it first came into being. But the story of media adoption is actually driven by devices more than platforms, points out Vidler, proving that smartphone users (forget pre-digital MP3 or Ipod players) power the growth in podcast audiences, even as iOS users dominate this market.

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Podcasting satisfies that niche of listeners whose “eyes are busy but minds are free” – as on-demand listening/tuning is “less demanding” of audiences. With low barriers to entry, anyone can podcast. Which means, great storytelling is vital to differentiating your podcast from the 100K other podcasts or so out there. Growing your audience can thus imply that either you integrate broadcast and podcast into cohesive audio strategy or acknowledge that one bleeds off the other and separate or dis-intermediate.

The sweet spot for podcast listening is 30-39 year old males with higher education. This audience is highest among millennials, higher than Gen Z, with a 60-40 split among men-women in Canada. Male skew is very typical of most early media adopter profile for all kinds of technology, and podcast listening aligns with this trend, confirms Vidler. Anglophones are more likely than Francophones to listen to podcasts owing to there being more English language podcasts than French, and adoption to new media technology is higher among English speakers in Canada than Francophones. If every media has a different growth curve, podcasting sits at the steady middle. Strong editorial ensures a good podcast, combined with a good search/discovery strategy. But what differentiates podcast content from commercial broadcast/public radio is the listener attribute and environment that demands engaged listening (where the content needs to  focus/align with the listener’s interests/topics) or distracted tuning (where content needs to yell out aloud to be heard).

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Globally, there is a surge in voice-powered AI with one-fifth of all Google searches on mobile being voice-enabled, shared Vicky Zhao of Unilever and Carmel Doherty of Google at a signature industry panel event hosted by Edelman Canada. Google Home signals a trend in Canada’s voice based media adoption and consumption story. Google Home’s penetration is higher in Canada than in the US, where Amazon’s Alexa is the dominant smart speaker. Interestingly, podcast listeners are twice more likely to own a smart speaker (than non-listeners) and spend most of their podcast tuning time listening with smart speakers and tablets. Conversational search is thus seen as critical to the growing popularity or relevance of podcasting. Google’s podcast app penetrates more mobile and Android listeners and is a growing opportunity to attract new listeners.

When Audience Insights partnered with MARU’s panels in the US and Canada to ask monthly podcast listeners about their top 10 podcasts in the past 6 months, the highest ratings went to US-origin content; whereas demand for Canadian podcasts usually falls in the 30-35% range. Respondents’ top-rated podcasts included: Stuff you should know, Serial (US), This American Life (US), NYTimes Daily Podcast (US), TSN Sports podcast (US), Rogers podcast,  CBC Real, True Crime, Under the Influence by Terry O’ Reilly and Canada Land  by Jesse Brown.

The trouble with podcasting is not a lot of people understand or know what it is and often mistake it for radio or video on the web. Awareness of this medium is lacking even among the educated or affluent. Moreover, entering a podcasting ecosystem (iTunes, Spotify, Pandora) can seem daunting. In audience surveys, there are assumptions about knowledge of what podcasts are and aren’t. A lot of people don’t realize that subscribing to podcasts could be free!

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Measuring podcasting audience and marketing this segment remain challenges in a sea of (say 500,000) podcasts. Who is listening, downloading or streaming and how often are tough metrics at best: monetization is hard with unique audience, global audience, downloads and simultaneous streaming. Quality trumps metrics. And podcasts need to be placed where people can find them. Sean Steithland of the Globe and Mail even described podcasting (at the same Edelman Canada’s “Storytelling through a Search Journey” event) as “the most intimate form of advertising” where you need to obsess over pre-roll, mid-roll, and post-roll copy to build a story-arc and maximize your returns. It should be no surprise that ad avoidance is observed to be least in podcasting (45% – at par with radio), and more importantly, the call to action rate is high for podcast ads, with over half of all monthly podcast listeners (53%) saying they have taken action after hearing an ad on a podcast!

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Are all brands and strategists then maximizing their audio opportunity? Companies like Dell Technologies, Hackable and Pacific Content can shine more light on the competition. And you can view more topline highlights from Audience Insights and Maru’s Canadian Podcast Listener 2018 survey here.

Also published on GreenBook Blog here