Podcasting’s Opportunity Amidst a Global Pandemic

9 min read

This is podcasting’s moment. Fueled by widespread new technology adoption, increased media consumption and advertisers looking to make smarter bets with their budget as a result of COVID-19, podcasting’s already impressive growth rate will only accelerate. Despite the global pandemic, podcast creators are creating, listeners are listening, advertisers are advertising, and enterprises are turning to podcasting to solve new problems–and they’re not turning back.

Creators are creating

Continuing the upward trend we’ve seen over the last two years, creators are turning to the audio medium in droves. Just last week, Apple topped 1,000,000 podcasts, with nearly half of those having published at least one episode in the last ninety days. And the rate of new podcasts being created continues to increase.

Simplecast’s numbers, too, support that the podcast creator growth rate has only accelerated over the last six weeks. New trials were up 37.8% from Q4 2019 to Q1 2020 and new podcasts were up 53% over the same period. In March, we saw our best month ever for both new trials and new customers added, and a majority of that growth came in the last 2 weeks of the month, when the pandemic fallout was growing markedly worse. From February to March, we saw a 26% increase in trials and a 22% increase in new podcasts. As good as March was for new trials and new podcasts, April successfully surpassed it.

What’s driving this? Shelter-in-place orders expanding across multiple states are likely playing a role. More creators staying home may mean they have more free time to invest in creative endeavors. Creative communities have been hit particularly hard by job loss as a result of COVID-19, with theaters, comedy clubs, television and movie production shuttering for the past few weeks. The need for supplemental income is also contributing to the fact that we’ve seen a jump in the enrollment in our brand ambassador program since mid-March, which provides generous commissions for creators sharing the word about Simplecast.

Podcasting is well-positioned to weather the COVID-19 storm for several reasons. For one, it’s inexpensive. A beginner microphone and a Simplecast Basic subscription costs about as much as a digital scale, flour and yeast for bread baking, yarn and needles for knitting, or any other of the quarantine hobbies that have seen a sudden rise in popularity. Two, podcasting can easily be done from anywhere, even if the “studio” is a bedroom closet a la the great Ira Glass. Three, people who might not feel comfortable writing (or blogging) often feel comfortable podcasting, and people who might not feel comfortable going on camera (or vlogging) often feel comfortable creating podcasts. You definitely don’t have to dress up for it! Four, podcasting is one of the few mediums that is easily done remotely, no matter where your co-host or collaborators live.

Once creators discover audio, they seem to fall in love with the medium for good. Simplecast’s six month trailing churn average is less than 2%–and it’s been that low for years now. In fact, many months we see negative churn, where more of our existing customers create additional podcasts than those who decide to leave us. Nor have we seen any notable uptick in churn over the last six weeks. With all the talk of “podfade” out there, we find that Simplecast podcasters are, in general, a committed bunch.    

Listeners are listening

It’s not just the number of shows that are growing–listenership is, too. Nearly 200 million Americans are listening to online audio every month, a number that has continued to rise every year for more than a decade. Data from Nielsen suggests that people forced to spend time indoors seek more media, citing case studies from Hurricane Harvey, Snowpocalypse 2016, and coronavirus-related viewing in Korea and Italy. This all points to an expansion in podcast listenership as a result of COVID-19, rather than a contraction. Podcasting’s pandemic boom is an opportunity for the industry to welcome new listeners when they need education, entertainment, and escape the most.

While some initial reports of podcast listenership noted sharp declines (along with some hand wringing), those dips have since levelled out. For Australian podcast listeners “Up until the pandemic was declared, podcast listening trends peaked in line with morning and evening commutes but with working from home now the new norm, consumption remains relatively constant across the day with a sharp increase in listening between 11am and 1pm.

Listens across all Simplecast shows have grown an average of 8% every month for the last year, and an average of 8.5% month over month from January to March of this year. Listenership flattened a bit the last two weeks of March while listeners adapted to new schedules, when we saw increasingly more listening at home and on home wifi devices than on business networks and cellular, and shifts in the most popular times of day. Then, listening fully rebounded in April and continued to increase throughout the month.

Even as we wait for podcast listenership to right itself in certain locations, flat listenership isn’t something to worry about. As Ad Results Media told Hot Pod, “Overall download trends are flat from pre-quarantine time windows, with variances in different genres. Given the overall disruption in the universe, the relatively unaffected consumption of podcasts is encouraging. For such a nascent medium, it can be difficult to keep your audience during times of large change. Seeing downloads remaining flat is actually promising at this time.” Furthermore, “Considering all of this change, we think the podcast industry is in a unique position to weather this storm, and say flat is the new up.”

We believe this trend will continue, and, more than that, will contribute to a permanent jump in routine podcast listening by a wider audience of listeners. Adoption to podcasting technology has long been a hurdle to wider audiences developing a sustainable podcast listening habit. But with COVID-19 stay at home orders, broad swaths of people are learning and rapidly adapting to new technologies. While parents and preschoolers are learning how to use Zoom, grandparents are learning the ins and outs of Instacart. Netflix has posted its biggest numbers ever, and Facebook is seeing skyrocketing usage. We live in a climate of willingness towards new technology adoption–and podcasting will be a big part of that.

What’s fueling the rise in podcast listeners? First and foremost, people need to escape. It’s not news that the world is anxiety-inducing right now. Dipping into an audio drama, or getting lost in an episode of Hardcore History can allow a listener to disconnect from our 24/7 news cycle. But it’s not just the news. Families cooped up together may be looking for a reprieve from each other, and in a small-spaces-social-distancing era, popping in their headphones might be the only way to do that.

Not everyone is isolating with their family. For listeners who live alone, podcasting makes people feel less lonely. Whether it’s Dax Shepard and his guests keeping a solo-apartment dweller company while they do dishes, or a DnD player who can’t get to their game choosing to listen to The Adventure Zone on a walk instead, as one of the most intimate mediums, podcasts can invite companionship to people who might otherwise feel socially isolated, as well as physically.

For listeners who are new to working from home, podcasting can be a welcome relief. When your office is your bedroom, or your living room, or your whole apartment, it can be difficult to find some line of demarcation between your home life and your work life. That line only gets blurrier when you go from doing work on your laptop to watching movies on the same screen you stared at all day. Podcasting invites listeners to put their laptops and screens away, and fully relax out of work mode. Plus, if you’re homeschooling like I am, chances are you want to cut down on your kids’ screen time, too. Luckily, there are tons of really incredible podcasts for kids out there.

Moreover, up and down the economic ladder, people want more in-depth coverage and understanding of issues. They know they can’t trust soundbites and have a distrust (warranted or not) of traditional media–when almost anyone can guess what spin on day’s news FOX, MSNBC, and CNN are going to take, audiences are turning towards diverse viewpoints so that they can make their own decisions. Rather than exclusively trusting traditional news sources, someone may choose to listen to the Sam Harris COVID-19 episode, or a podcast from a long-haul trucker to hear boots-on-the-ground reporting as far as how COVID-19 is impacting supply routes. Because of the comparatively low barrier to entry on podcasting versus other media channels, marginalized and diverse voices can more easily be found and consumed by audiences–and there’s a hunger for voices that are coming from places other than the center!

Advertisers are advertising …and increasing their spend!

As creators create more and listeners listen more, it only makes sense that advertisers start to take notice. Even though podcasting captures only a very small fraction of overall advertising spend today, there’s been mounting enthusiasm for podcast advertising from several sectors over the last few years. Now, we predict that we’re on the cusp of a major shift to podcast advertising through the coming year, and beyond.

It’s true that the economic downturn immediately following COVID-19’s spread in the United States paints a grim picture for what marketing spend will look like down the line. Certainly, budgets will be examined and tightened. Some traditional forms of advertising just won’t make as much sense anymore (i.e. outdoor, in theater, experiential, event). As marketers focus on finding the channels that bring them the highest return on investment, the best-kept-secret in advertising won’t be secret much longer–that podcast advertising conversion rates are well above the industry norm. As companies explore new, more budget-friendly channels, they will set their sights on podcasting.

In fact, we’re already seeing it. A Digiday report from earlier this month highlights podcast advertising’s growth, despite the economic downturn. In just the first month after the pandemic became widespread, Magellan found 10 industries already increasing their podcast advertising spend.  

Podcasting also has the advantage that it’s more malleable. With tools like Simplecast’s Moveable Audio Engine, advertisers can effortlessly insert messaging or promos, or modify a  campaign or message in real time. This is a huge benefit over many traditional forms of advertising (print, outdoor, television, etc.) that are static and require weeks or months of advance notice. When it comes to addressing COVID-19, this customizability is even more crucial. As Dan Misener from Pacific Content explains, even podcasts that are built to be evergreen can address current topics in a way that feels natural and authentic to their brand and their audience (check out one cool example by Dell). The ability to be flexible in a rapidly changing macro-climate is more important than ever.

Enterprises are turning to podcasting.

No one wants to sit in front of a screen to click through the latest regulatory compliance training video when they could listen to it as a podcast while walking the dog. Not to mention the fact that podcasts are less expensive and easier to produce, easier to modify in the future as the material changes, and cheaper and easier to distribute. It’s no wonder that even some of the hardest-hit industries are turning to podcasts to keep up employee morale.

It’s hard to imagine that, as more companies adopt work-from-home policies, workers will ever want to go back, or will be tolerant of strict bodies-in-seats policies. Even before that happens, brands will look towards internal podcasts as a way to keep distributed teams connected, and preserve company culture, especially as layoffs and furloughs increase. Purely from an informational standpoint, secure podcasts are one of the few things employees may be able to multitask through and still get important company information from!

Shira Atkins, co-founder of Wonder Media Network explains what she’s seen happen in the industry, saying “We've been pitching and producing internal podcasts for nearly two years now, but once leaders realized COVID-19 would call for a reorganization of what it means to connect, create, support, and organize, our enquiries for internal podcasts spiked. Companies, membership orgs, even political groups turned to us for help: we've worked on shows for teams of 30,000 and teams of ten. While many teams are looking for similar things -- increased transparency, comms that allow asynchronous and flexible consumption -- the power of the medium is in its flexibility and diversity. Because of our relationship with Simplecast, implementation and tracking becomes the easiest part of the process, rather than the most cumbersome, and we imagine that companies will stick to this comms model long after COVID is a distant memory.” Tools like Simplecast’s API can help create truly secure podcasts for internal shows with confidential information, as well.

Additionally, we’ll see a further increase in podcasting because it can thrive in environments that are inhospitable to movies and TV. For studios, networks, and media companies who currently are unable to film or create other content, podcasting is unique in that, with a small amount of equipment and editing, it can be produced with none of the participants in the same room–which is incredibly important in our age of social distancing and travel restrictions. Moreover, productions that are on hold, like TV series and film franchises, may turn to podcasting to bridge the gap between now and whenever they can resume production in order to appease their fans.

It’s a tough time for almost every industry–COVID-19 has affected everyone in ways that are too numerous and wide-reaching to count. I spend most of my days entrenched in and constantly re-examining the podcasting landscape, and I can say that a small silver lining, if there is one to be had, is that podcasting is poised to become even more mainstream very quickly. Anyone who thinks otherwise is going to miss out.