2015 Podcast Industry Roundup

A year after Serial, where do podcasts stand?

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On December 7, The Tow Center of Digital Journalism released the first ever Guide to Podcasting. The Guide, written by Vanessa Quirk, integrated perspectives from a group of 29 industry leaders that ranged from Steve Wilson from the Podcasts team at Apple to indie podcasters like Aaron Mahnke, creator of Lore Podcast.

Coming in at over 15,000 words (plus a glossary and citations), the guide offers much to sift through when it comes to the still nascent business of podcasting. Read what struck us as the most compelling takeaways from the report.

The unique promise of podcasts within media and advertising

Screen Shot 2015-12-15 at 12.41.12 PMQuirk points out the ways in which podcasting is not just an awkward cousin to radio, but taps into key trends relevant to the future of all media. As publishers scramble to adapt their content for mobile consumption, the majority of podcast listening already occurs on mobile devices — a full 63% of Libsyn podcast listening occurred on smartphones in 2014, with room to grow as Android makes podcasts more accessible by including them in an upcoming release of Google Play.

The other trend is audio advertising. Between traffic-skewing bots and ad-blocker technology, the display ads that publishers of written content depend on are vulnerable sources of revenue in today’s media landscape. In contrast, since podcast ads are heard, not seen, those same ad-blockers don’t (yet?) apply. Further, since many ads — most notably Gimlet Media’s — are host-read, and produced in-house, they’re often perceived as being more engaging and persuasive to audiences, and thus more valuable to advertisers.

Different shows operate with different business philosophies

Quirk identifies three different “operating philosophies” of podcast shows, each with different goals:

  • “Those that follow a ‘universal’ philosophy hope to get their podcasts heard by as many people as possible (and thus logically rely on advertising as an important revenue stream). Examples include: This American Life, New York Public Radio, Intelligence Squared
  • Those that follow a ‘premium’ model attempt to convert listeners into recurring, loyal patrons via bonus offerings. Examples include: Gimlet Media, Earwolf (Howl), Slate (Slate Plus), 99% Invisible
  • Those that follow a ‘value-added’ model use their podcasts as a means of enhancing both the consumer experience and the brand (and so revenue is not the primary goal). Examples include: BuzzFeed, Audible, Panoply (podcasts add value to publishing partners). “

Podcasts are still experimenting with different revenue streams

Screen Shot 2015-12-15 at 12.41.22 PMThe report also identifies a number of sources of revenue for podcasts. These sources include direct support — i.e. listener donations and pledge drive engagement — and foundation support, such as the Knight Foundation’s investment in the Radiotopia network. Some shows, like The Heart and Welcome to Night Vale (pictured left), are also turning to live events for extra revenue.

Podcasting companies like Midroll and Gimlet are also experimenting with membership models that offer extra content under paid subscription plans. Quirk points to the audiobook platform Audible as the one company that is entirely subscription-based. The biggest money-makers for podcasts are still advertising and sponsorship. Podcasts from 99% Invisible to WTF with Marc Maron read direct-response ads during their podcasts, encouraging users to enter promo codes. There’s more business to be had attracting big brand advertisers to podcasting, such as the Ford ads on Gimlet show StartUp. However, these kinds of advertisers tend to want fine-grained metrics on who their ad is reaching: metrics that podcasting arguably can’t yet provide.

Podcast metrics: good enough or woefully limited?

This question matters because the key revenue stream supporting podcasts is advertising. Can better data help make podcasts a better sell to advertisers? According to Quirk, two camps have emerged:

“One maintains that the tools of radio (surveys, extrapolations, etc.) are sufficient for podcasting measurement. The other wishes to push podcasting technology far enough to exploit the medium’s full digital potential—to the point that everything is “point to point measured,” in the words of Sarah van Mosel.” Others, like Matt Lieber of Gimlet Media, think that what podcasting needs is a third party to oversee podcast data. Similar to how Nielsen ratings are used to measure television viewership, this would provide an industry standard that would have more legitimacy to advertisers.

Does podcasting have a branding problem?

More than 10 years after its creation, why do some still think of podcasting as being in an “early adopter phase?” Clea Conner Chang, the director of marketing for Intelligence Squared, suggests that it’s not just the technology that people are slow to adopt, but the podcast brand:

People say, ‘What’s a podcast? How do I get a podcast?’ It has an inherent branding problem. … It’s just radio on demand. You can hear your favorite show any time, and they just don’t realize how it works yet, how convenient it is. It wasn’t until a couple of years ago that streaming video became something with mass appeal, and this is streaming audio. It still hasn’t made that association. … Podcasting is on this precipice of being something understood by the masses—it’s not there yet.

Reaching the masses means reaching all age groups, which is still a struggle for podcasting: “A Midroll white paper shows that 67 percent of podcast listeners are 18–34 (to compare, only 30.2 percent of radio listeners fall in this demographic).The podcasting audience skews toward the under-40s, a generation for whom the concept of on-demand content makes sense.”

The growth of podcasts remains slow and steady

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For all of the podcast buzz of the last year, it turns out that the wildly popular Serial podcast wasn’t a magic bullet to podcast adoption, which continues to grow slowly and steadily — with the percent of the US population who’ve listened to a podcast rising from 30% in 2014 to 33% in 2015.

Read the full Guide to Podcasting from the Tow Center