Podcasting During the Pandemic: Listenership Is Fine, But One Change Reminds Us of a Looming Issue
On Thursday, May 21, 2020, Edison Research and their SVP, Tom Webster — the podcast industry’s equivalent of Neil deGrasse Tyson if NdGT spun dad jokes instead of globes — switched on Yet Another Business Webinar for all the world to watch. This one was genuinely worth watching, however: Podcasting: Connection and Community During Quarantine.
You see, unlike most Zoom calls these days, this webinar promised to share some better ideas than are normally available to the rest of the podcasting industry, thanks to Edison’s ability to share useful insights (not just charts and graphs), their long history delivering the best report in the industry (the Infinite Dial), and their access to crazy kinds of data which must involve some secret back room dealings masquerading as genuine curiosity and intellectual rigor. (I for one believe the conspiracies.)
On the webinar, Webster, or “Tom” as people who know him in-person and over Zoom tend to call him, shared quite a few juicy nuggets, dripping with dry humor — to the extent anything can be dripping with something dry.
Here’s what we learned…
The Psychology of Podcasting Makes It Powerful in a Pandemic
As Tom put it, podcasting (and indeed all of audio) has long been considered a “companion medium.” When you’re working alone, or feeling lonely, or doing something rote like washing dishes, walking the dog, jogging on a treadmill, or teaching your fourth grader math you thought you’d never need to speak of again in your life, the ability to listen to a podcast at the same time creates a feeling of connection when you’re feeling isolated (or uncertain how you ever graduated middle school).
In short, podcasting is a companion medium at a time when we crave companionship.
As a result (and this was more or less the punchline of the entire webinar), people who listened to podcasts before the pandemic still listen to podcasts. One reason why? They feel connected to something outside their own homes during a time when they can’t physically leave.
As the webinar played, Tom introduced a few recorded Zoom calls with individuals they surveyed, speaking about their own experiences — a powerful bit of qualitative data to supplement the quantitative stuff. (This. This right here is what we all need to learn from Edison’s process, folks. They don’t just share data. They tell the story of the data.)
During these recordings, we watched and heard multiple individuals discuss how their lives have changed. One takeaway that Tom helped summarized was the friction a TV screen can cause compared to a podcast. When we’re stuck at home with others, deciding what show to watch requires compromise, or one or more people to begrudgingly watch something. (Fellow parents: I, too, once enjoyed Moana.) However, with a podcast, you’re able to escape a little bit into something that makes you feel like wholly you. You’re not just playing your role at home (“dad” or “roommate” or “wife”). You’re able to access the subjects, themes, stories, and personalities that make you feel like you’re YOU again.
As Tom surmised, perhaps we’re also getting screen fatigue from all the FaceTime and Zoom calls with friends, family, and coworkers, leading us to find those moments of personal escape in a screenless medium.
Just to editorialize Edison’s data a bit in my own words: I think someone’s favorite podcasts are a tremendous source of personal identity, and we crave that during a moment in history when we’re reduced to these two-dimensional versions of ourselves. I don’t know about you, but I feel kind of flat lately. I have time and energy to run my business and be a dad to a toddler. The little time I have left over goes to eking out relationships with people who aren’t my daughter … or collapsing on the couch to drool on myself. I don’t feel whole. My wife and I can’t go on a date. We can’t muster energy to complete a puzzle. We can’t visit other humans, go to a coffee shop, or even walk around the city without feeling vaguely in danger.
I think we all have versions of this. We’ve been squished and warped and flattened and stretched into these quarantine-approved versions of ourselves. A lot of activities and interests that make us us have gone missing.
With a podcast, at least we can escape into something that viscerally evokes that stuff. To me, podcasts are about going deeper into any niche you love in a world where lots of content is trending more shallow as they pursue clicks and advertising revenue. That level of depth and the subsequent intimacy you feel as a listener towards the voices and ideas of a given show are ridiculously refreshing right now.
In general, even during times of normalcy, your favorite things are a source of personal identity. But now? When your identity feels squished and warped and flattened and stretched? Even more so. Thus, escaping into a favorite podcast is a way to reclaim or cling to your sense of self — a well-rounded, three-dimensional self that exists in the world, not merely in quarantine.
Podcasts are friggin’ magic, aren’t they?
That’s such a huge opportunity for podcasters. It’s always been the opportunity, but now it’s more obvious than ever. Don’t make Yet Another show. Don’t make a relevant show, an entertaining one, or even a “different” one. Aim to make a show that can feel somehow personal to you and your audience, whether it’s a hobby show, a branded show, or an advertising-driven show. Make their favorite podcast. That’s the aim. (That’s also the weekly journey we’ve been on for awhile now. What does it take to do that? We want to know.)
But this identity-based listening wasn’t the only big lesson learned from Edison and Tom Webster.
The Rumors of Podcasting’s Demise Have Been Greatly Exaggerated
The medium is doing just fine. In fact, it may be poised to be more important than ever. According to Edison Research, Americans aged 18-34 already represented 44% of all podcast listeners who listened at least weekly to one or more shows. That same demographic was also enormously affected by the pandemic, as the data suggests their work was reduced or eliminated at a higher rate relative to other groups.
What does that mean? The most active weekly audience now has more time to listen.
This is pure speculation on my part, but I wonder if this demographic also has more time to listen because they tend to have fewer kids than people who are older. This is anecdotal only, but as a 34-year-old American with a 1-year-old, I live this. For the first time, I’m facing the harsh reality that once an infant begins to do stuff resembling a tiny drunk human in a diaper, an adult’s time for entertainment and educational content pretty much dies. So perhaps listeners in the 18-34 range have more time to listen not only because of their declining work hours but their general lack of responsibility for tiny drunk humans in diapers — at least compared to other generations. (The millennial tendency to have kids later in life has been discussed for awhile now, after all.)
Just a thought.
Setting age ranges aside, and looking at all weekly podcast listeners, we see some additional good news for podcasters during the pandemic: Americans who listen to podcasts on a weekly basis now listen to 8 more minutes of podcasts per week than they did prior to quarantine. (This is statistically insignificant, so we could call it “flat,” but then we’d have to pretend like we’re wholly objective and unbiased, instead of podcast fanatics. Where’s the fun?) Yes, that’s right: Q1 2020 and Q2 2020 (so far) look pretty much the same, if not a tiny additional high-five towards podcasters during the pandemic.
Naturally, the listening totals jumped more for those who say their jobs were eliminated or reduced: 20 additional minutes of podcast consumption per week. On the flip side, people who said they are newly working from home now listen far less (by about 70 minutes per week).
On the webinar, Tom concluded that the long list of changes in people’s listening patterns likely canceled each other out, which is why consumption is basically flat. Some people have less time to listen because they lost their commutes. Some people have more time to listen because they lost their jobs. There’s a wide range of changes to people’s schedules and attitudes, and yet the combination of it all leads to a kind of steady state for the attention being earned by podcasters.
Podcasting’s audience is just as engaged, if not sliiightly more active than before.
Finally, there has been one change worth noting since serious quarantine began in the US.
The “Biggest” Listening Behavior Change
As Edison’s data revealed, streaming from a computer was the biggest change in listening behavior. Smartphone and smart speaker consumption stayed the same, while tablets (often used as a backup or substitute for a laptop) jumped a little bit.
What a perfect opportunity for podcasters to get out from under the thumb of third parties who distribute their shows, to instead build out a better podcast home page, newsletter, and experience.
Said another way: Under no circumstances should any of us ever allow a third party to “own” the experience we provide our audiences.
We see this time and time again, especially for those of us in marketing: Building an audience on a third party platform is like playing with matches on the beach. Sooner or later, all the cool kids are going to start laughing at your speedo.
Wait. No. Sorry. Bad memories. Wrong time to discuss.
Building an audience on a third party platform is like lighting a match on the beach: you might see some initial success, but the winds can change at any moment. You have no recourse. You have no warning. When that happens, POOF … there goes that bright little flame you thought you had. Gone is the light you’re trying to shine into the world … gone is the hard work you put into building a community. Gone, gone, gone.
We’ve seen this over and over again as marketers. Facebook brand pages. YouTube’s fraught relationship with creators and the subsequent release of YouTube Red (or whatever the paid thing is called now). Medium. Instagram. Snapchat. Even Google hosting more webpages and surfacing answers requiring zero click-throughs. And TikTok? Sounds like a good time right now, but we’ve seen this movie too many times to not predict the ending. We should walk out of the theater while we have the chance to do so. Because sooner or later … POOF. There goes your hard work. Up in smoke.
Each and every time, they do what they inevitably do as for-profit companies: They prove they care about their business, not yours.
Podcasting is and will be no different.
Yes, podcasts are more evenly distributed. Get approved to distribute your podcast on all the major players once, upload your episode to your hosting platform of choice, and instantly, listeners can access your show wherever they prefer…
…on apps you don’t own.
When we build our shows, the “subscriber” is subscribing to Spotify, or Apple’s feed containing your show. You don’t actually own anything. Your relationship can be restricted or removed at any point — so long as the parent platform sees a way to benefit.
Remember it this way: There’s a difference in where you publish and what you promote.
Publish everywhere. It’s instant. That’s part of the beauty of podcasting: publish to your RSS feed, and you can appear everywhere. But when you dedicate precious time and resources to actively building a community, focus on a URL you actually control. Don’t let the experience surrounding your show look like everyone else’s experience. The point of a podcast is to go deeper, so as you begin to deepen audience relationships, offer an email list, some bonus content, some access to you or others who listen. Whatever you choose to do, however you aim to serve listeners more deeply over time, build a deeper relationship in the only places you can and should do so: a place you own.
Take responsibility for the experience you provide.
The uptick in streaming from a computer during the pandemic is a signal. People don’t really prefer to listen to an app. They prefer the best experience, and when you’re commuting or walking outside or doing the dishes, the best experience is an app.
Look, this isn’t binary. Some people will always listen to an app, even now, and likely forever. Be there for them. Some people will prefer to stream, or maybe they’ll experience streaming for the first time thanks to the pandemic. Make that experience better than a blog post with show notes. Own the experience.
For those who stick with the apps, give them a reason to move to your own platform. You’ll gain secondary benefits like search rank, sure, but more importantly, you’ll actually have a say in how you serve your audience — which is the entire point of this “content” stuff. You work hard to say something that matters inside your show. Make sure you can provide an experience that matters around your show.
Third parties will always entice us with their broad exposure and creator tools. Unless we can at least supplement the third party apps by adding discrete, proprietary value and experiences on URLs we own, we will always be at the mercy of tech companies who, when all is said and done, care about themselves first and foremost.
We keep calling this an “unprecedented time.” Yanno what’s not unprecedented? Losing all your hard work as a maker or marketer when a tech platform changes something.
Rumors of podcasting’s demise have been largely exaggerated. As for your show? Just make sure it’s set up to succeed long after this pandemic is over. Distribute anywhere you want, but build audience by offering benefits and experiences the apps can’t. Build community in a place you control. I dunno about you, but right now, I’d like nothing more than to regain some control.
Founder of Marketing Showrunners, host of 3 Clips and other podcasts and docuseries about creativity, and author of Break the Wheel. I’m trying to create a world where people feel intrinsically motivated by their work. Previously in content marketing and digital strategy at Google and HubSpot and VP of brand and community at the VC firm NextView. I write, tinker, and speak on stages and into microphones for a living. It’s weird but wonderful.
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