Podcasting at a Crossroads?

Takeaways from PM Evolutions

At the end of March, Podcast Movement held the Evolutions conference in LA. It was a coming together of industry professionals and audio creators, big brands and independent companies.

It was great to meet our podcast pals and associates in person. They were all delightfully more human than they were on Zoom.

The conference itself was excellent—insightful sessions, all immaculately organized as we’ve come to expect from the folks at Podcast Movement.

A similar buzz seemed to pervade all the conferences, tracks, and afterparties. You couldn’t escape the feeling that podcasting is hitting a critical juncture:

  • Tom Webster’s presentation of the latest Infinite Dial study from Edison Research showed the first dip in US podcast listening since 2013, though still up from pre-pandemic levels.
  • The room was bursting at the seams to see YouTube’s Podcast Lead Kai Chuk unveil the video platform’s plans for podcasts. (That didn’t exactly happen, though Podnews has stumbled upon what appear to be some big plans to come.) So much anticipation around a YouTube session would have been unthinkable as recently as a year ago.

I was curious whether others felt the same way. I checked with industry professionals on what they took away as the #1 opportunity and the #1 threat facing podcasting in the next year.

The flurry of recent acquisitions remind Sonic Strategy Consulting’s Liz Horowitz of radio consolidation following the 1996 Telecommunications Act:

Here’s hoping that the big podcast players, some of who have radio veterans in house, won’t make the same mistakes.

Sean Howard of Flightpath software and the independent podcast network, FableandFolly.com, expressed a more specific concern about consolidation:

Closed gardens. The ecosystem (for all intents and purposes) goes completely first party. All hail our new Spotify overlords 🙂

While I heard some common themes, what struck me most was a shared sense of uncertainty about the big changes over the past couple of years—that these changes represent both an opportunity and a threat.

 Potential Opportunities

1. New content breakthroughs will spur audience growth. It’s been nearly eight years since Serial kicked off the True Crime genre and kickstarted listener growth. What’s next? Maybe it’s because we were just a few miles from Hollywood, but fiction podcasts took centre stage in several sessions and a lot of the conversations in LA.

While it’s still a tiny slice of overall listening, our research in both the US and Canada is showing some early growth for fiction podcasts. Steve Goldstein of Amplifi Media sees fresh content as a lever for growth: “I’m pretty sure we don’t need another podcast interviewing start-up leaders or true crime stories. ‘Yellowstone’ is doing really well on OTT [over-the-top television] because it looks different.

2. Advances in ad tech will help to move more ad dollars down the long tail. There’s a growing consensus that better targeting and ad delivery will deliver more revenue to more podcasters.

Rob Greenlee at Libsyn sees opportunity: “expanding auction-based ad marketplace buying (and) dynamic content insertion that scale across a larger number of shows.”

3. Continued improvements in metrics will move more advertisers from ‘test and learn’ to long-term commitments. By providing more data to inform the podcast buy and deliver ROI, monetization will keep growing. That in turn will direct more dollars to content development.

More effective attribution and measurement leads to wider and deeper investment in the space,” says Rick Cummings, President of Programming for Emmis Communications.

Potential Threats

1. Too much attention paid to podcast hits could lead to a loss of engagement. The uniquely personal nature of podcasts means that those with niche audiences can often be the most powerful.

Dan Misener of Pacific Content worries about “the narrow definition of podcast ‘success’ that overemphasizes ad revenue, chart appearances and downloads and underemphasizes creativity, human connection and impact.”

Likewise, Dave Beasing at Sound That BRANDS feels that “better metrics may lead to quantification of audience rather than qualification.”

2. Lack of discoverability will shut down podcasts that deserve better. Not all podcasts are good enough to find or sustain an audience, but many fine podcasts are getting lost in an ocean of video and audio entertainment choices.

YouTube shows potential to help but as Steve Goldstein quotes Tim Ferris: “it’s like throwing golf balls into the Grand Canyon.” Tracy Seng who looks after marketing for the Sound That BRANDS wants more data “to help guide messaging.”

3. Will podcasting get swamped by a flood of programmatic ads? Almost every advertising session at Evolutions celebrated the importance of the host-read ad. The tight relationship between the listener and the host, and the host and advertiser, continue to earn host-read ads a premium CPM.

However, it’s also clear that host-reads can only go so far in delivering the scale that some agencies and advertisers are demanding and bring ad dollars to mid-level and smaller podcasts. That’s the scary step. Low-priced programmatic ads could drop CPMs and in turn push up ad loads. As Liz Horowitz put it, “Programmatic isn’t necessarily a threat, but when it’s divorced from podcast advertising basics such as authentic voices and low ad loads, it is.

With podcasting at a crossroads, the next year could be crucial.

We hear some of the questions you may have.

Will the industry strike a Faustian bargain and sell its soul to the large corporate interests? Or will it take another path where new ad dollars and technology build on the foundation of engagement and intimacy that has made podcasting such a uniquely powerful medium?

Whether you’re an industry professional, a creator, or a brand looking to invest in podcasts, it will pay to watch this space closely.

We encourage you to consider your goals in the audio space and identify resources to help guide your success.

Don’t hesitate to ask us where to begin!

What do you see as the #1 opportunity and #1 threat facing podcasting in the next year?
We’d love to hear from you.

 Join the conversation on Twitter!

Signal Hill Insights specializes in custom research solutions for publishers, broadcasters and advertisers. To know more about our Brand Lift Studies or  our other research, connect with us at https://signalhillinsights.com/

Get audio insights delivered to your inbox!

A bi-weekly email to keep you posted on the changes we’re seeing on the audio landscape.