Podcasts helped reinvented the audio audience, attracting
new listeners to a robust supply of binge-worthy news and entertainment content.
Now consumers can listen to what they want, when and where they want. While podcasts
had been around for over a decade, in 2014 they received an explosion of attention
in the marketplace (with the incredible success of Serial
and the debut of Apple’s podcast App).
Today more than 50% of people have listened to a podcast. In fact, according to the 2019 Infinite Dial Study by Edison Research and Triton Digital, at least one-third of the U.S. population reports listening to a podcast in the last month, up from 26% a year ago. That’s an estimate of 90 million people each month. Monthly podcast listening increased across all age groups year-over-year. Interestingly, adults 55+ report a significant increase in podcast listening from 33% in 2018 to 40% in 2019. Other demographics show smaller increases, persons, age 12-24 from 88% to 91%, and persons 25-54 from 73% to 74%.
Weekly podcast listening is up to 22% from a year ago (17%) among
persons 12+, or 62 million people each week. Podcast listeners listen to
approximately seven podcasts a week.
In addition, there are now 189 million listeners to online
audio which includes listening to AM/FM radio stations online and/or listening
to streamed audio content available only on the. In fact, online audio doubled
since 2012 increasing from one-third to two-thirds of the U.S. population. Weekly
listening to online audio is also growing, now at 60% from 57% last year. Weekly
time spent listening to online audio shows a strong increase from 13 minutes 40
seconds to 16 minutes until 43 seconds.
Podcasting is not the only audio opportunity content creators should be focused on these days. Smart speaker ownership has reached 23 million, up from only 7 million two years ago. Amazon Alexa dominates the market (16 million) followed by Google Home (7 million). Audiobook listening is also on the rise, with million people saying that they’ve listened to one, up from 44 million in 2018. And while AM/FM radio still dominates in-car audio, both Online audio and Podcasts rose slightly. Audio is an opportunity that smart publishers are listening to.
As Tom Standage, head of digital strategy and deputy editor at The Economist, put it: “The commercial model for podcasts is really good, much better than video pre-roll, which is a horrible business. Video is expensive to make, and the CPMs are low. Advertisers want to reach podcast listeners.”
“Alexa: What’s the news today?” That depends. If a consumer wants to get news from a voice assistant such as Amazon Echo or Google Home (or the hundreds of devices that support them), the process isn’t always easy and the results are inconsistent. People have complained that the news reports on voice assistants are too long, or don’t answer questions accurately, according to a recent Reuters Institute report.
But the devices aren’t going away. In fact, they are multiplying like rabbits, if last week’s Consumer Electronics Show (CES) was any indication, with more voice assistants in U.S. households and more of them built into other “smart home” devices such as refrigerators, mirrors, home security and yes, “Intelligent Toilets” (“Alexa, flush!”). So: What should publishers do? Experiments so far have been mixed, but that doesn’t mean giving up is an option. Instead, publishers need to fight to get better deals for content. They also need consider new types of business models such as product placement, as Meredith is doing.
Amazon Alexa vs. Google Assistant, Part 2
If you want to understand how big the voice wars have become between Amazon and Google, you just need to go to Las Vegas for the Consumer Electronics Show. Last year, Google was the upstart taking on the incumbent at Amazon. This year’s battle was more evenly matched. Google plastered ads all over town and even had an “It’s a Small World” Disney-style ride as part of its booth. Amazon opted for a lower key approach with “Works with Alexa” tags on all the associated products.
Amazon touted selling more than 100 million Alexa devices. But Google shot back by saying it had 1 billion devices with Google Assistant – though that includes all Android phones sold with it built-in. While CNET had its writers decide who won the Amazon vs. Google voice war at CES (Google got the nod), the real question is how can publishers use this battle to their advantage? Will the tech companies ever give more credence to news and information on voice assistants, and what will that value be in the long run?
What People Want
Before we answer, we first need to understand how people are using voice assistants in their everyday life. People typically use these omnipresent devices in the morning and evening. And people mostly want them to play music, answer general questions and get weather updates. In an analysis of the Reuters Institute report, Nieman Lab’s Laura Hazard Owen noted that people love using smart speakers, but not really for news. Even though 42% said they used smart speakers for news, only 1% said news was the most important feature for them.
Users also have a lot of complaints about news on voice assistants: The updates were too long, they aren’t updated enough, many use synthesized voices to read the news, and there’s no way to skip or select stories. Even worse, when people asked specific questions related to news stories, the answers were inaccurate and inconsistent.
While people do use the devices to stream live radio (19% of all NPR online listening happens on smart speakers), they aren’t keen to listen to longer form audio or podcasts. Maybe that’s just a factor of podcasts being an on-the-go commuting format, while smart speakers are in the home.
What Publishers Can Do
In the wake of Reuters Institute study and many experiments by publishers, how can they better reach consumers via voice assistants? As with all new formats, publishers must understand how people use the devices and tailor their content appropriately. The New York Times announced a new briefing for Alexa-enabled devices based on “The Daily” podcast. It is in a much shorter format for smart speakers and they are promoting it through the print edition of the paper. The Times has developed a weekly News Quiz taking into account the popularity of trivia quizzes on the devices.
As The Verge’s James Vincent pointed out: “Audio content won’t necessarily drive subscriptions, but it could be a relatively easy way for the paper to reach millions of new listeners before — maybe — turning them into readers.”
Meanwhile, Meredith announced its new Innovation Group at CES. The new division includes a Voice Network that brings together all of the company’s audio, voice, and podcast products under one umbrella.
Meredith has experimented with “content-to-audio” where someone reads story content. However, what’s most interesting is their initiative to create skills or actions for smart speakers. One example would be using Alexa to open an AllRecipes skill with an option to order ingredients for a recipe. “The skills are actually the best place to do the product placement and direct links to commerce,” Meredith’s head of innovation Corbin de Rubertis told Folio.
Publishers are still feeling their way to what works best on voice assistants. (And the payoff is difficult to envision right now.) However, growing use of these proliferating devices means that publishers can’t dismiss them. Instead, they need to start with shorter briefings, try out some new interactive skills, and as the platforms become more mature. And perhaps they can even get compensation for offering the most up-to-date relevant answers for users.
Voice technologies are hot right now. Consumers are increasingly using voice-driven services on smartphones and smart speakers, which is changing the way content is sought out and consumed. This escalating trend has clear implications for marketers, content creators, and consumers.
Here’s how this market is evolving and what it means for media companies.
Mobile and the rise of voice-based tools
Nearly ubiquitous smartphone adoption has created opportunities for a plethora of new products and services, including those driven by voice. Perhaps the best known of these are personal digital assistants like Siri, which was introduced by Apple in 2011. It was followed by Alexa (Amazon) and Cortana (Microsoft) in 2014, and Google Assistant in 2017. Today, nearly half of US adults (46%) use these tools.
And as voice recognition programs become more accurate, they are impacting online search habits. In 2016, Google reported that 20% of searches on Android were already being made using voice. GlobalWebIndex also observed that, in the 34 markets it covered, 25% of those aged 16-24 had used voice search on their mobile in the past month. In fact, by 2020, comScore predicts that half of all searches will be conducted by voice.
Voice on Smart Speakers
Smart speakers are one of the top consumer tech trends right now. The 2018 Digital News Report, produced by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, found that in major markets such as the US, UK, and Germany, usage of these products had more than doubled over the past year.
A March 2018 study from Voicebot.ai and the voice app company, PullString, found that “19.7% of US adults [about 47.3 million] have access to smart speakers today. That is up from less than 1% of the population just two years ago.” By 2022, according to Forrester Research, 50% of US households will have a smart speaker.
The rapid adoption of voice technologies – from voice search to smart speakers – is noteworthy, especially when benchmarked against the take-up of many other more established technologies.
Why these technologies are growing
Typically housed in shared spaces like the living room and/or kitchen, smart speakers can be used by multiple people. Google has noted how “in a short period of time, voice-activated speakers have become part of people’s routines.”
Reasons for this include the ability to use the technology while doing something else (multi-tasking), the fact that people speak more quickly than they can type (speed), and increasingly “human” interfaces.
Indeed, “People perceive the devices as more than just an electronic toy.” Google found that “they’re more akin to another person or a friend.” In 2017 research with over 1,600 users of voice-activated speakers, 41% said that using the technology feels like they’re “talking to a friend of another person.” All of these traits are only going to grow as these technologies continue to evolve and improve.
What this means: Four key considerations
Given the rise of voice-enabled devices and tools, here are four strategic considerations and opportunities for brands and media companies:
1. Ensure your content is optimized for voice search
Search Engine Optimization (SEO) never stands still, but the voice revolution presents some new challenges. Recognizing this emerging trend, back in 2016, Campaign advised “savvy marketers” to “write content in a natural, conversational voice that answers the questions your consumers are asking.”
“Website content in the era of voice search isn’t about keywords,” they wrote, “it’s about semantic search and building the context related to answering a question.”
On smart speakers, as Trustpilot’s Jason Barnard and Chee Lo have explained, there’s a further consideration. Unlike traditional search engine results on desktop or mobile, where you get a range of options, voice searches tend to be highly specific and typically result in a single response.
As Rebecca Sentancereflected on Search Engine Watch, “the rise of voice search is transforming search engines into “answer engines,” which require a different strategy and set of ingredients for success. This strategy has come to be known as AEO, or “answer engine optimization”.”
There’s a raft of tip sheets and detailed articles on this topic for those new to this topic. In one of them, Bryson Meunier, SEO Director at Vivid Seats, recently outlined 12 recommendations in an article for Search Engine Land, advising: “Focus first on optimizing for conversational keywords and implement Actions for Google to get more traffic from voice search.”
2. Harness opportunities for content innovation and delivery
To date, most activity on smart speakers tends to be functional. Consumers typically ask for a weather updates, jokes, or travel directions. consumption of news content and podcast playback typically fall much lower on the list. But that doesn’t mean that publishers and media companies are not experimenting with content and new interactive formats for these platforms.
Publishers from NPR to Reuters, the New York Times and CNN, as well as local news providers such as the Tennessean, IndyStar, and Texas Tribune, are all creating short audio briefings designed to be heard on smart speakers. Apple’s new HomePod will feature content from the Washington Post by default.
Alongside more broadcast-like content delivery, 2018’s Digital News Report noted how “media companies like Quartz are also developing apps (or ‘skills’ as they are known) that allow conversational interaction with the devices.” One such experiment, produced by the BBC in late 2017, featured a 20-minute “interactive science fiction comedy story” for Amazon Alexa and Google Home – called The Inspection Chamber – which encouraged listened to “play your part through voice interactions.”
And in April 2018, Netflix launched an interactive audio drama to promote its Lost in Space reboot. According to Variety: “The audio adventure, which lasts between five and six minutes, features a branched narrative and multiple-choice questions and answers. It was recorded with participation of the show’s cast, and produced in collaboration between Netflix and Google.”
These examples show how international, national, and local players across the media spectrum are experimenting with content being heard through smart speakers.
3. Explore opportunities for consumers to make voice-activated purchases
Jeff Malmad, managing director, Head of Life+, for WPP Group’s Mindshare North America, argued at the Mobile Marketing Association’s Impact conference earlier this year that “depending on your marketing category… 30 percent of your sales will be from incidental loyalty, based on voice searches, and based on voice purchases.”
Although this functionality perhaps lends itself more naturally to other products (Malmad highlighted an advert featuring a couple placing their usual Starbucks order through the Alexa app in their Ford car), voice shopping is predicted to be a $40 billion market by 2022. That’s up from just $2 billion today.
It could be used by media companies for on-going, or one-off, subscriptions, memberships, micropayments, downloads, or access to exclusive content.
Either way, this is an emerging vertical which – like voice technology per se – that cannot be overlooked.
4. Determine if there are new revenue opportunities
Although the eCommerce functionality of this technology remains relatively nascent, companies like CNBC are exploring more traditional advertising packages, such as sponsorships, on these platforms.
John Trimble chief revenue officer of Pandora, has highlighted the advertising potential, given the ability of consumers to respond to audio messages in a manner not previously possible. As he wrote in Recode earlier this year:
“Radio ads have been around since the days of Marconi, but listeners to this day still can’t respond to an ad the way an Alexa user can interact directly with the device.”
That this happens in an increasingly screen-free environment will require creative solutions in order to unlock the commercial opportunities. Gartner has predicted that “by 2020, 30 percent of web browsing sessions will be done without a screen.”
Screen-less, voice-only platforms, will not only represent a very different way for consumers to find information online. They will also disrupt a number of traditional online advertising models too.
This technology is still relatively nascent, but it’s playing out against a wider background whereby voice technology is becoming increasingly integrated into our lives. And, in case you’re not yet convinced that the voice market merits your attention, keep in mind that this trend is global and impacting devices of all kinds.
Alibaba sold 1 million Tmall Genie X1 smart speakers in the last four months of 2017, a device they plan to install in 100,000 Marriott hotel rooms across China. And closer to home, Roku TV’s will soon feature built in voice assistants, while Dish already allows you to search and surf for content using voice functionality in their TV remote control. In the era of the Internet of Things, domestic appliances – such as those from Whirlpool – can already be managed by Amazon Alexa and Google Assistant.
Undoubtedly, voice technology will become all-pervasive. In November, Amazon announced Alexa for Business, “a new service that enables businesses and organizations to bring Alexa into the workplace at scale.” This is just one way that voice-triggered activities – from search through to content discovery and shopping – will move out of the home and into the office and car.
Voice search and screen-less content consumption are areas that are already beginning to take off. And this trend will increasingly impact media and information habits in the future. As a result, understanding the potential – and pitfalls – of this technology is an area that brands and publishers need to be exploring, if they aren’t already.
The SXSW Interactive festival has expanded beyond its tech-centric past to include panels and discussions on politics, journalism, food, and other cultural conversations of the moment. But among these hot topics is, of course, technology and its influence on the future of these other sectors. From grasping the blockchain to pushing back against tech giants, the festival, in many ways, is media Twitter come to life. (Remember that SXSW brought Twitter to life after the show in 2007.)
But this year certain trends stood out more than others. The show was dominated by politics and ideas – which trumped gadgets and apps. Here are some key takeaways and themes from this year’s festival:
Pushback on Technology
It’s been over a year since the 2016 election, but technology’s role in its outcome, the resulting fallout, and the rise of misinformation and social media warfare has given tech a black eye. Top that off with the outsize influence platforms such as Facebook, Google and Amazon are having over our lives. Those topics and conversations dominated SXSW panels this year.
The back and forth between Facebook director of product Alex Hardiman and CNN media correspondent Brian Stelter during a panel on Facebook and publishers delved deeply into the tricky territory publishers find themselves in, especially with Facebook’s recent algorithmic changes that prioritize friends and family over news outlets. Hardiman, for one, admitted that Facebook has flattened news. However, he insisted that Facebook is not a publisher, much to the chagrin of tech and news experts like Kara Swisher and Christiane Amanpour, who cried foul to these claims during another panel.
SpaceX and Tesla founder Elon Musk’s much talked-about appearance included a depressing take on artificial intelligence: “The danger of AI is much greater than the danger of nuclear warheads,” he said. “If humanity decides that digital super-intelligence is the right move, we should do so very carefully.”
One thing is certain: No longer are we simply enthralled at the latest gadget or the future of tech. Just as the media and tech beat has changed for the journalists who cover them, so too have festivals like SXSW that present the myriad of ways media and technology are intersecting and changing our world.
Hollywood Makes a Scene
When the most-talked about marketing ploy at SXSW is an HBO show come to life, that proves that the convergence of Hollywood and technology is complete. The real-life replica of HBO’s show “Westworld” makes the case for investment in experiential marketing to drive brand attention. Certainly, SXSW attendees will recall the show when it returns for a second season. And with the way the news cycle seems never-ending, brands and shows that draw attention to themselves outside the digital world and in the real world can elicit interest and help ensure audiences won’t scroll past them.
To further reinforce Hollywood’s SXSW impact, look no further than the premiere of Steven Spielberg’s new film, “Ready Player One.” Set in a dystopian future where the characters spend their lives inside a virtual reality system. SXSW is certainly a fitting festival to premiere a movie of this kind. But with the avalanche of shows like “Westworld” and “Black Mirror” that deal with these topics, the movie premiere is simply one of the ways we can see tech’s imprint on our culture.
The Voice Battle Continues
Google Home or Amazon Echo? It’s a huge question among those testing the digital voice assistants revolutionizing the future of search and the mainstreaming of a “smart home.” Amazon may have an initial leg up with Echo over Google and Apple’s HomePod — Alexa hit the market first — but Google is playing catch-up with massive marketing splashes at CES and now SXSW.
The tech giant turned a house in Austin into a huge advertisement for Google Home by connecting everything from blinds to appliances to Google Assistant, and showing people how such a Google home could function. A sign in front of the house, “Make Google Do It,” reinforced the concepts behind the gadgets, which included a sock-sorting robot.
But the battle for the voice is very much at the center of a smart home. With voice technology continuing to evolve (and the stiff competition against Amazon in this market), Google is also testing custom voice commands and working with third-party publishers to keep users engaged. Magazine publisher Hearst, for example, is partnering with Google to support subscriptions that can offer news alerts and daily “wisdom” in whatever areas a user prefers.
This sounds a lot nicer than Alexa laughing at you (a recent tech glitch). But it’s safe to say that Google and Amazon are in a tough battle in this department. And Apple is knocking at the door, which will push all the companies to do better.
SXSW Gets Political
From Russian trolls hacking Facebook to YouTube’s war with misinformation and Trump’s tweets, technology is now tightly intertwined with political life. And the presence of politicians at SXSW and conversations about news and politics were inescapable.
There was Mark Warner, U.S. Senator from Virginia, on “Hacking our Democracy and Discourse.” Discussions on policy and regulation with “Tech Under Trump.” Another panel on curtailing patent trolls, patent regulation, and U.S. Supreme Court cases that are bringing reform. And let’s not forget former presidential nominee and U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders — endearing to many for his grouchy take on trends, but who has now made his first appearance at SXSW, in a conversation with CNN’s Jake Tapper. And Ta-Nehisi Coates remarked on the tendency among journalists to still not give Trump supporters credit for knowing what they were doing when voting the president in.
Then there’s the begrudging and critical look at the news cycle and national reckoning over #MeToo. Christiane Amanpour made it clear that the battles she thought she won in the ’90s are still taking place today — like continuing to be the only woman in the room. Amanpour boiled the situation down: “We are at peril and at risk if we don’t know the difference between truth and lies…Truth and lies are the only thing that separates us from democracy and dictatorship.”
It was the perfect underscore for the New York Times’ recent marketing campaign, also present at SXSW. Over social hour and drinks at the bar, attendees could leave with a Times button defining our era: “Truth. It’s more important now than ever.” And at SXSW, the importance of truth, politics and ideas seemed to drown out the newest apps and tech gadgets.
A December 2017 survey by the Pew Research Center found that 46% of Americans use digital voice assistants, and the trend is going up. A recent study from Juniper Research forecasts that 55% of all households will have a smart speaker installed by 2022, and marketers’ spending on such assistants is expected to reach $19 billion by the same year.
It’s a huge opportunity for marketers and publishers looking to reach audiences on these devices. But buying an Amazon Echo, Google Home, or Apple HomePod isn’t just buying a product, but inviting an entire company into your home. So, publishers should tread with caution to make sure they have a fair shot in sharing upside, without upsetting people with invasive advertising and pitches. It’s a no-brainer that as Amazon, Google, and Apple rev up their products, they’re also going to look for ways to monetize their use and increase their company footprints. As the battle between platforms and publishers plays out, publishers must bear in mind that digital voice assistants are no exception.
The Voice Battle Rages
It’s become something of an iPhone or Android question: Google or Alexa? Both are great products and offer great services, and their comparison is the focus of many consumer-focused assessments of where people should invest their money — and eventual data. Indeed, knowing the aim behind these companies is a good indicator for what to expect down the line. Wired’s Scott Rosenberg put it this way: “Amazon is primarily a store, so its likely long-term plan is to use Alexa to sell you more stuff. Google is primarily an advertising company, so somewhere down the line you can bet it will find ways for its Assistant to present you with ‘sponsored’ suggestions.”
Not to be outdone but admittedly late to the game is Apples’s new HomePod device and Sonos’ new voice-activated speaker, Sonos One, which presents itself as a platform-agnostic device. But you’d have to do the legwork yourself to transfer your personal data, should you switch from one platform to another.
And that means that the platform buy-in is real. Amazon has a two-year leg up over Google and is obviously at the top of the hierarchy at the moment; it also has the potential to upend the entire advertising industry. What was once a company that tiptoed around marketing has now been toying more with placing sponsored products higher up in search results — which means advertisers are now buying in more. To date, Amazon says it won’t sell advertising on Echo, but advertisers and the public assume the company will change course when it figures out the best way to serve them.
Google Coming On
Google, meanwhile, is pushing its Assistant onto more products, and made a huge splash at the recent Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. It recently came out with “Smart Displays” (akin to Amazon’s Echo Show), which, among other things, can visualize recipes, maps, and — to toot on its own horn — YouTube videos.
It’s no wonder that marketers are trying to benefit. The natural question for brands now is how to bring voice into their experiences, which is in sync with how companies are also trying to differentiate their products. You can see how that plays out with Apple’s “give me the news” feature on for Siri, or the number of brands building skills for Alexa, which Amazon also touts as device features.
The BBC has been relying on voice assistants installed on smart devices to feature BBC content, and will likely transition into creating content specifically for Echo and Home devices, and monitoring what and how people are listening to create better experiences for those voice-activated formats. The Washington Post and CNN, among others, are also experimenting with ways to leverage audio programming in a way that’s useful for their audiences.
Ensuring a Win-Win Situation
With more devices entering the market and voice positioned to be the next frontier in experience and marketing, the risk for publishers is that building for one company specifically — or even multiple companies — places their eggs in the basket of a third-party tech giant. That means that as bullish as publishers ought to be in featuring content where their audiences are, they also need to insist on sharing the wealth these tech companies are gathering — revenues, customer data, advertising insights and more — to beat any potential exploitation.
And that can also be an opportunity for publishers. The current trend is still on the we-must-get-on-the-voice-AI-bandwagon-before-it’s-too-late hurried strategy, without thinking about the data and revenue deals that need to happen in tandem. With all the opportunities publishers can leverage with voice — news flash briefings, news quizzes, podcast streaming, recipes and the like — they should also emphasize their own loyalty programs, subscriptions and original content back on their own sites.
Just as publishers have battled with social platforms over the power dynamic, data and promotion, they will have to make sure voice devices don’t end up using their content without giving them a good chunk of the spoils when they take off.