Is the future all talk?

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For 100 years, radio dominated audio media, entirely unchallenged. It still attracts the lion’s share of listeners and therefore advertisers: 92% of Americans listen to AM/FM radio every week – more than TV viewership (87%), PC use (54%) and smartphone use (81%). However, its dominance is becoming less certain with the rise of podcasts and now, social audio. So what does the future of audio look like?

The impact of the pandemic on our listening habits

The pandemic has had an impact on the way we live our lives, and that includes our listening habits. Despite fears that radio listener numbers would crash as commutes turned into 30-second walks to the kitchen table, in many countries, numbers increased as people turned to this trusted medium for information, comfort, connection and entertainment. In the UK, 40% of people working from home listened to the radio for an extra two hours and eight minutes a day. However, there is a belief in some quarters that, despite this increased listenership, advertising may have suffered because of radio’s great reputation for brand-building: amidst the hardships and budget cuts of the pandemic, marketers have been under pressure to deliver short-term sales results at the expense of longer-term brand-building ambitions.

Podcasting followed an interesting trajectory over the course of 2020. Podcast downloads decreased by 10% when the US went into lockdown, and it seemed that the pandemic was threatening to throw off podcasts’ meteoric rise. However, as people adapted their routines, download figures recovered and are even improving. The top 10 US podcast publishers saw a 20.6% increase in downloads in the summer of 2020 compared to the previous summer.

2020 was also the year that saw the rise of ‘social audio’: with people seeking connection but sick of screen time, social audio apps came on the scene, offering the ‘Goldilocks’ of connection – not too much, not too little, but just the right amount. But more on that later…

Ad dollars are following ears

More and more people are listening to podcasts: about 41% of Americans aged 12 and up now listen to one podcast a month, compared to 37% in 2020 and 32% in 2019. Ad dollars have inevitably followed: IAB PwC estimated that US podcast ad revenue would increase by 14.7% to near $1 billion in 2020, despite the pandemic. In 2020, 37% of marketers said they would likely advertise in a podcast over the next six months – compared to 10% in 2015. The highly engaged audiences that podcasts enjoy have shown a propensity to take action when hearing an ad, which is of course very attractive. What’s more, digital audio has the great advantage of not being reliant on cookies in the same way that other digital channels are. It offers other, privacy-centric ways of targeting listeners, such as topic-based targeting – indeed, this type of contextual targeting is likely to become more common across other digital channels after the death of the cookie.

That said, it is difficult for marketers to track which users end up purchasing their products after hearing a podcast ad. Many are hoping that Spotify and the other podcast platforms will develop a pixel tool, similar to Facebook’s, which will be able to track user activity across the platform. Podcast platforms are aware that marketers need more tools if they are to continue growing their investments in the platform. This awareness has led to acquisitions such as Spotify’s purchase of Megaphone, a podcast ad tech company, in late 2020 in order to expand its self-service advertising platform. Megaphone claims to be able to target ‘types’ of users, so only listeners who fit a specific demographic will be served an ad.

Social audio – the new kid on the block

With the popularity of social media and podcasting, it was perhaps only a matter of time before someone created ‘social audio’, where people connect through conversation. The pandemic was the optimum time for these chat rooms to take off, with people yearning for connection but fed up with their screens. Clubhouse is making waves with conversations that people can sit in on or participate in, and its success has spurred established platforms like Twitter and Facebook to create their own equivalents. Twitter’s Spaces and Facebook Rooms are still in the beta phase.

Clubhouse is, so far, ad-free and seems to actively discourage hard-selling. This means that working with the app’s influencers to create relevant, interesting conversations is the best way for brands to share their messaging with users – and has the added benefit of reaching people who have chosen to be in the room. However, as the social audio apps mature, it’s likely that advertising will become more prolific, as happened with the social media platforms. Experts predict that the explosion in social audio platforms will lead to a secondary explosion in analytics and marketing tools that will help influencers and, most significantly, brands understand their reach and impact in the social audio space.

Digital audio: the new frontier

Digital audio is the new frontier in advertising, with plenty of opportunities to engage with interested, relevant audiences. There is still some way to go in the development of tools for marketers to understand the impact of their investment, but they are in the making – this is not a space to be overlooked.

The future may not be all talk, but there will definitely be more talk.

Header image: atk work / Shutterstock

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