What does smart speaker technology mean for the future of podcasting?
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Voice-activated speaker technology is becoming ubiquitous in our homes. Products like Amazon Echo and Google Home have become smarter and less expensive since their introduction in 2015. This new technology category poses an interesting question for podcasters and podcast sponsors: as smart speakers become more dominant, how will podcast technology integrate with the platform? And how will audiences change their listening behavior? Let's take a look at what we know about voice-activated speaker technology and where we think it's headed.
What we know about how listeners use smart speaker technology
There is new research into how audio consumers use smart speakers, and more importantly how the existence of smart speakers changes consumption habits. This data couldn't come at a better time, as the number of Americans who own and use a smart speaker continues to grow - approximately 39 million, or 16% of the total population. The Smart Audio Report, a collaboration between NPR and Edison Research, surveyed this group and last week released their data for Fall/Winter 2017. Here are their most relevant findings for the podcasting industry:
First, 71% of respondents said that they are listening to more audio since they received a smart speaker. Why is this? Anyone who owns smart speaker technology will tell you how the voice-activated controls allow for frictionless listening. Simply ask the voice assistant to play something, and it starts immediately. No fussing with a smartphone app.
Many people use their smart speakers for music, but Edison's survey showed that 29% of respondents said that they are now listening to more "news/talk" as a result of their purchase. This makes sense when we see developemnts like Amazon's Echo "news briefs", which give listeners a quick rundown of the day's top news from outlets like Reuters. Some portion of this 29% will be for podcast listening, however, as many podcasts take the form of a talkshow or panel discussion, and often cover many of the same news stories.
But how do podcasts currently interact with smart speakers? At the moment there are a few ways that smart speaker owners can listen to podcasts. First, they might connect their smartphone to the speaker using Bluetooth and then listen through their normal podcatcher app. Another increasingly popular method is to prompt the smart speaker directly with the podcast you want to listen to. Listeners can ask their smart speakers to play a number of popular news podcasts, for example The New York Times' The Daily podcast, which are then pulled from a podcast directory like TuneIn or Spotify.
Another data point is that when asked what activities their time spent with smart speakers was replacing, 39% percent of respondents said AM/FM radio. This lines up with a theory that smart speakers are used for listening to music and talkshow programs. Interestingly enough, 34% of respondents said that their use of smart speakers was replacing time they'd otherwise spend on their smartphone. This raises an interesting question - because smartphones are the primary method by which listeners consume podcasts, are listeners shifting their current listening to smart speakers, or are they adding more overall listening time now that they have this new platform?
Lastly, 51% of respondents said that they saw their usage of their smart speaker go up after the first month of owning it. This implies that growth in content consumption - listening to more audio, and talk/news content specifically - will continue to rise, and that developments in podcast technology for smart speaker-first listening are important for giving listeners access to their podcasts, wherever they are.
Smart speaker-native podcast listening technology is on the horizon
Due to the rise in the number of smart speakers in the last two years, some companies are starting to create technology to formalize the relationship between regular podcast listening and smart speakers. Specifically, they are creating playlists of podcasts, calling them "stations", that serve as a curated setup for podcast listening around particular topics. Currently, these playlists are manually curated by the company or a community of listeners, but as technology improves, automated playlists will become more common. This technology solves one of the problems of transitioning to voice-activated listening: how do you know which podcast to listen to if you can't see what it's about?
The idea behind these new technologies is that while smartphones are most people's primary mode of podcast listening, smart speakers give audiences more flexibility to listen wherever they are, have better sound than smartphones or headphones, and have voice activated controls for stopping, starting, or rewinding podcasts (especially helpful when you're cooking and can't use your hands). And smart speakers will eventually become integrated with each other - you can start listening to a podcast in the living room and finish it on the smart speaker in your car console when you leave the house. The integration of these listening "contexts", as they're called, will allow for uninterrupted listening.
What does this technology mean for podcast sponsors?
We expect that smart speakers will continue to gain more market share. Their increased popularity will lead to their becoming a primary, if not co-equal, means of listening to music, radio, and podcasts. It remains an open question as to whether smart speaker listening will take away from smartphone podcast listening of podcasts or be an additive to it. Either way, we don't see the amount of overall podcast listening going down.
As well, the fundamentals of podcast listening remain the same, regardless of platform, and so what sponsors need to know about creating ads will also be the same. As we've stated before, sponsors need to understand the value of host-read ads and host recommendations. The guidelines for crafting a stellar podcast ad that we've talked about here will remain relevant, although audiences may be less able to search immediately for a sponsor's website if they don't have their smartphone handy. Podcasts will remain a secondary activity, as smart speakers allow listeners consume content in a number of places as they complete other tasks, much like a smartphone does.
The biggest plus here for sponsors is that podcast listening will likely increase as audiences have more options for listening. We've seen that podcast listeners increase the amount of content they listen to over time. With the main venues for podcast listening - the home and the car - being the biggest "context" targets of smart speaker technology, listeners will be primed to listen to podcasts when they have smart speakers in these locations.
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