Apple is on the prowl. Months after Spotify shelled out $500m on two podcasting start-ups, Apple executives are said to be contacting media companies in the hope of funding original content and brokering exclusive deals.
This new phase for Apple’s streaming service comes at a time when audiences for voice-based programming are growing rapidly. In the past five years, weekly listeners have doubled in the UK, as have monthly audiences in the US. It is not surprising that technology companies are focusing on podcasting and making the medium easier to access. Apple has introduced full-text podcast searches on its Podcast app and Google has made them appear in search results. Spotify launched a voice assistant.
The tech groups recognise the appeal of voice as a portable medium and an interactive tool, especially for those who cannot read. Podcasts attract a disproportionately high-income audience. PwC consultants estimate that US advertising revenueswill reach $1bn by 2021.
Apple popularised podcasts, and has a 52 per cent market share, but it is feeling the pressure. Spotify has acquired content studios such as Gimlet. Google has its own network of podcasters. The New York Times is launching audio products on Amazon Alexa. And Amazon has launched templates to enable small content producers to create and publish voice content on Alexa in minutes. Venture capital money is also pouring into content aggregator platforms: with little to differentiate the podcast aggregators, exclusive content may be key to winning customers.
Content providers fear the tech platforms could abuse their access to user data. The BBC pulled its programmes from the Google Podcast app after it found the search group was directing users who searched for BBC podcasts to Google’s own service rather than to BBC Sounds. But Apple and Google are also growing the wider audience for podcasting. They are giving them equal prominence in search results alongside text and video. This will unleash a great opportunity for podcast makers.
Google’s PageRank algorithm revolutionised internet search two decades ago by using links from other sites to prioritise trusted sources in its responses to search queries. The new speech recognition-based audio search will do the same for podcasts. Trusted brands such as the BBC and The Washington Post are likely to benefit as they will stand out from the masses.
As podcasts become easier to find, audiences for the digital spoken word could dwarf those for the written one. Listeners already use podcasts for much more than entertainment. In China, educational and self-improvement podcasting was worth more than $7bn in 2018. Portable, intimate and accessible on demand, the podcast can be a friend, tutor and coach.
For listeners, interactivity is important. Spotify’s voice assistant enables users to talk to podcasts as well as listen. According to Juniper Research, the number of individual voice assistants in use will triple to 8bn by 2023. Content will need reimagining as podcasting changes from a passive to an interactive experience. Voice commands can be used to navigate to a podcast; the assistant could then suggest new nuggets of content, threading them together into personalised audio journeys.
That’s why the tech platforms are vying for ear-time: more engaged usage will bring more personalisation. They want exclusive content to attract listeners to their platforms, where data gathered through consumer interactions can shape future content, drive further recommendations, and hold the listeners attention ever longer.
The fusion of great content and artificial intelligence may herald the arrival of a voice guru: a trusted companion and adviser, armed with data from past listening choices, who anticipates listeners’ desires better than they can.
The writer runs Voxta, a voice recognition start-up