Podcasts are trending again. Call it wave 2.0: The format is arguably more popular than ever, with both consumers and brands listening and joining in. In our world of on-the-go entertainment and short attention spans, podcasts are an ideal way for multi-tasking consumers to enjoy content. Whereas a decade ago everyone was starting a blog, now everyone seems to be starting a podcast. And it’s not just individual content creators who are driving the trend: Industry players are investing in the medium more heavily as part of their overall content and ad sales strategies. As the number of podcasts grows, it’s critical for podcasters and platforms to figure out how to stand out from the crowd. That means producing engaging content that keeps listeners coming back for more. And that takes measuring what works best and why.


The Growing Prevalence of Podcasts

In a world of fragmented media and a continued battle for consumer attention, podcasts are winning the fight. The number of people using apps to discover and listen to podcasts has increased 60% since January 2018. The format has proven particularly popular with Millennials, with consumers aged 25-34 being the key driver of podcast growth. Advertisers have taken note: Statista reports that podcast advertising revenue in 2019 is estimated to reach $678.7 million and it is expected to grow to $1.04 billion by the end of 2021.

Self-identified ad avoiders were 22% more engaged, emotionally involved, and likely to remember brands mentioned in a podcast compared to TV ads, according to a new study from the BBC.

The format is increasingly important to those who host podcasts on their platforms — including Apple, Amazon, Google, Spotify, and others — as well as advertisers on those platforms. As the audio landscape continues to grow, everyone from established players like Pandora to startups like Luminary are getting in the game and creating their own exclusive content.

In short, digital audio is where it’s at! But, how do you win in this competitive space and create buzz about your podcasts to attract ears? The vast majority of podcasts are discovered by word of mouth or social media. Is there a more scientific way to get at the formula for podcast success?


What We’re Looking at and Learning

Insight Strategy Group has been looking more closely at what makes great podcasts work. We have expertise in testing and optimizing content across industries and audiences like media & entertainment, tech & telco, lifestyle, and kids & family, and we’ve found that many of the dimensions that define compelling content in these areas apply to podcasts as well. Among the aspects that we look at are talent, storylines, comprehension, credibility, and information value — exploring their implications for podcast success.

So, what makes a good podcast? What are the hooks? How does one podcast differentiate itself from what else is out there? A few key factors stand out.

  • Personality is a priority. Podcasts with a strong central host win the affections of listeners. While we’re likely to see more visual podcasts over time, the majority today are audio. That means they’re an “invisible medium.” This makes it important to have a compelling personality to anchor the podcast — one that listeners can form an attachment to, perhaps even forming an image of that person in their minds. The simple truth is people connect with personalities.
  • Podcasts, and their hosts, need to be genuine. People aren’t willing to listen if you’re not authentic. That may be why non-fiction podcasts are among the most popular, with hosts who talk about their own experiences and stories. This makes the experience feel more real and interesting to consumers. It draws them in and keeps them coming back for more. It’s unsurprising that many podcasts infuse elements of talk shows and journalism, both of which rely on trust and authenticity to establish lasting bonds with an audience.
  • Podcasts must engage and educate. They tend to rise and fall on the same criteria that have traditionally been used to test the success of ads. Listeners want two things above all else — to be entertained and to walk away with information they didn’t have before. Successful podcasts do this, and do it repeatedly, episode after episode.
  • People like a storyline. Successful podcasts often trace a classic story arc from beginning to middle to end, setting up a key question or conflict that is resolved in the course of the episode. They also like storylines that link from episode to episode. Whether it’s to join in the life-journey of a particular host or to pursue a topic to a deeper level of understanding, storylines provide “stickiness” that keeps listeners coming back.

Podcast Power is Here to Stay

Podcasts have become an integral part of our current media ecosystem. They’re likely to remain so, even as they continue to evolve. By the same token, the characteristics that distinguish successful podcasts are also likely to remain essential. It’s smart for any podcast to consider how it will put together its own special mix, from the appeal of individual hosts, to the ability to entertain and inform, to the capacity to tell powerful stories. How a podcast manifests these elements, and how it creates a connection with its audience, is always unique. So measuring how well a particular podcast performs on these fundamentals can produce valuable insights for content creators, hosting platforms, advertisers, and others looking for the secrets to success in the ever-growing world of podcasts.


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