A funny thing happened to podcasters over the past few months.
We’ve become popular.
For those who have been podcasting for business (or even personal) reasons over the past decade or so, the intrinsic appeal and marketing value of podcasting is nothing new. Podcasts offer high production value at a relatively low cost, compelling content, easy delivery and consumption, and a level of intimacy with the audience that just can’t be matched by other media formats.
However, for some reason the world has begun to take notice. Witness the following:
- July 28, 2014: Apple buys Swell, a popular podcast app, for $30 million.
- Aug. 29, 2014: NPR’s Alex Blumberg posts first episode of “StartUp,” a podcast about his quest to launch a podcasting company. It quickly jumps to the top of the iTunes New & Noteworthy category.
- Sept. 25, 2014: The Washington Post writes “Podcasts are back – and making money”
- Sept. 26, 2014: Fast Company writes “The (Surprisingly Profitable) Rise of Podcast Networks”
- Sept. 30, 2014: The Guardian writes “Podcasting industry starts to fulfil its financial potential”
- Oct. 9, 2014: Technical.ly writes that Blumberg’s company has raised slightly more than $1 million
- Oct. 16, 2014: Twitter announces Twitter Audio Card, which lets users listen to audio right in their Twitter timelines.
What’s really going on here? To my mind, it’s several factors coming together at once, a perfect storm of technology and content that is transferring energy to the podcasting world. Let’s look at them one at a time.
Smartphone explosion. Prior to the advent of the iPhone, consuming podcasts required some connection to a web-connected computer. You could play episodes on your PC or laptop, but if you wanted to go portable you needed to connect your MP3 player to your computer, download episodes and then go. A time-consuming process (which, of course, I repeated again and again).
Today, with the advent of the iPhone, Android devices and the like, podcasts can be selected, subscribed and downloaded on the go. There are numerous apps available to do this, so podcasts are now as convenient as radio. In fact, moreso, because you can listen to podcast episodes whenever you like. Radio shows air when they air.
Mobile networks. This ties into the smartphone boom. The improvement of mobile networks to current speeds has made it possible to download podcast episodes on these devices without the use of Wi-Fi. Even though MP3 compression, which reduces audio file size and originally made podcasting possible, shrinks files dramatically, just a few years back it was still a slow process to download a 20-50MB podcast file onto a phone. Now, it’s trivial.
Content acceptance. Years ago, consumers were skeptical of any content that did not come from major media companies, and content from brands was universally reviled. Times have changed. Nowadays, perhaps inversely proportional to the reputational decline of mainstream media, other forms of content have come into high demand. Brands that produce compelling content are rewarded with eyeballs or, in the case of podcasting, eardrums. Individuals who have something interesting to say these days can find sizable audiences.
The really special thing about podcasting, of course, is its ability to go narrow. Whereas large media outlets with high costs need to generate big audiences in order to be economically viable, individuals and brands with very specific areas of expertise can own their chosen spaces by creating great shows that really connect. Just look at iTunes or Stitcher Radio to check out the large number of interesting podcasts on a variety of topics as broad as you can possibly imagine.
The result of all this can be seen in the most recent podcasting data provided by Edison Research:
- An estimated 39 million Americans have listened to a podcast in the past month. This 2014 number equates to 15% of the population, a record.
- One in five weekly podcast users consumes six or more podcasts a week.
- Podcast listeners spend 25.9% of their audio consumption time listening to podcasts, nearly tied with their AM/FM radio consumption (27.5%).
On a personal note, I’ve seen podcasting work effectively for many folks in many different circumstances – both as a producer and a consumer. Audio-based content adds something special that blogging, or even video, cannot. When you’re listening to a podcast, particularly using headphones, there’s a connection with the voice of the hosts and interview subjects that’s very powerful. It seems clear that advertisers and new listeners are recognizing this, too.
That’s OK with me. It’s nice to be popular.