Podcasting Has a Discovery Problem. How Can We Fix It?


Welcome to The Yard, a blog by Backyard Media that explains the podcast industry and podcast advertising.

Podcasts, while growing at historic rates for the past few years, still have issues with discovery. That is, people want to listen to more podcasts, but finding new podcasts is still not as intuitive as finding a video online or discovering new music. When you speak with podcast listeners, they often mention the same shows from Apple Podcasts' Top 100 Charts - Serial, Missing Richard Simmons, Reply All, This American Life. Why is it so hard to find the great podcast content we know is out there? What technologies are companies developing that might solve this problem? And what benefits are to there to be had, for both podcasters and advertisers, in solving this problem?


Podcasting technology is set up for distribution, not shareability

The basis for podcasting is through distribution channels called RSS, or Really Simple Syndication, which came out of browser development in the late 1990s. For nearly all of the podcast shows that people hear today, there's a simple RSS feed that lives on the podcast's website and sends updates with new episodes to Apple Podcasts, Google Play, and other podcast directories.

What you'll notice from the above description is that while podcasts are pretty straightforward to send over the Internet, they're not easy to find on the Internet. The Apple Podcasts directory and similar podcast apps have either lackluster podcast categorization or no tagging system at all. If I want to hear a true crime podcast narrated by an investigative journalist, how do I find that? I can read the descriptions in each podcasts' summary, but finding them requires searching random keywords and hoping for a match

So how have people gotten around this problem? We've seen that many podcast listeners get recommendations from trusted sources - a recent survey among Canadian listeners that we discussed here found that friends and family as well as social media were the number one source of new podcasts. Meanwhile, bigger studios and podcast networks make sure to market their new shows, either within their network or through more traditional online marketing means.


There isn't a "Google" for podcasts

Google does have a hand in the podcasting space in the sense that you can listen to and find podcasts on Google Play. That service has a basic search function that doesn't rely on exact wording like many podcatcher apps do. But Google has not brought to podcasting what it brought to online search - a powerful algorithm based on hundreds of factors like links, keywords and similar keywords, and popularity.

More broadly, the landscape of podcasting is one of many different podcatcher apps. Remember, these are third-party smartphone apps like Pocket Casts, Overcast, Tune In, Downcast, and Stitcher Radio that act as a platform for listening to podcasts. If we had one "Google" of podcasting, or even a more interested custodian of podcasts in Apple, with the resources and interest to make podcast listening as easy as finding a YouTube video, discovery would no longer be a problem.


New discovery technology is on the horizon, but will it work?

The good news is that there are some new companies that are experimenting with different technologies to make podcasts more shareable, more discoverable, and more social.

There's Spoke, an app that offers "curated paths" for podcast discovery, although this curation is by a staff. There's Tung.fm, which attempts to combine a Twitter-like social network with podcasts. It's an iOS app that allows users to make and share clips of episodes. And then there are algorithmic listening technologies like Audioburst, which try to anticipate what listeners will want to hear, based on user-submitted data and previous podcast listening. In much the same way that Spotify and Pandora create music stations, these technologies serve listeners automatically created podcast playlists. In this case, listeners might not even have to do any manual discovery at all.

Basically, we can lump these services (and most of the other ones currently on the market) as technologies centered around human curation, social media sharing, and algorithmic curation, respectively. They're all trying to do the same thing, which is to scale up the organic sharing that happens between friends, family members, and other trusted sources. It remains to be seen if any of these technologies will fundamentally change how people discover podcasts. But if we could create a technology that fundamentally changed podcast discovery, what would the impact be?


The benefits of closing the listening gap

If people could find and listen to the podcasts they want to hear as easily as they can find a news article or online video, the benefits to podcast creators and advertisers would be profound.

We talked in our recent post "What we know about podcast listeners in 2018?" that there's a gap in the podcast listening data. Many people are aware of podcasts - approximately 64% in 2018. Meanwhile, 44% of Americans (or 124 million people) say they've tried listening to a podcast at least once. We can call these people "ever-listens".

But the number of people who listen to podcasts on a monthly basis is much lower than that, only 26% (or 73 million) of Americans. If we compare these last two figures, we get a ratio of 1.69 ever-listens for every 1 regular listener.

Infinite Dial 2018 Ever Listen.PNG
Infinite Dial 2018 Monthly Listens.PNG


Really, this ratio represents a gap. It's a gap where potential podcast consumers are trying the medium and either not enjoying it or not finding what they want to hear. In our discussion about Canadian podcasts, one survey showed that 47% of Canadians said they wanted to hear more Canadian-produced content. There's certainly an argument to be made about diversifying the types of content and formats in the podcasting industry, but as of today there are more than 300,000 podcasts on the Apple Podcasts directory. That same survey said that for Canadian listeners, iTunes or other chart listings ranked near the bottom in terms of sources of new podcasts to listen to.

If podcast discovery improves in the next few years and the industry closes this listening gap by even half, that's an additional 25.5 million Americans listening to podcasts every month. That means a bigger podcast audience that tends to consume a higher density of podcasts, which means more opportunities for advertisers to get their message out on a medium that listeners trust and don't mind hearing ads on.

Podcast companies, creators, sponsors, and industry leaders should all take notice. Solving the discovery problem in podcasting would be a breakthrough for the industry.


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