Engaging Your Audience With Tom Webster
Lindsay Tjepkema: So you like podcasts, right? I mean, you're here listening to this episode. And statistically speaking, this is probably one of seven to 10 episodes you're going to listen to this week. Podcasts are exploding. Listenership is growing exponentially every year. In fact, last year in 2018 for the first time ever, more Americans are listening to podcasts than those that are not. So if you're not listening to podcasts, you're officially in the minority. So if you feel like podcasts are everywhere right now, you're right. But why, and how has this all happened? And where's it going? What's our obsession with consuming audio content? And perhaps most importantly for this show and for us here at Casted, where do brands like yours fit in? Hi, I'm Lindsay Tjepkema, CEO and co- founder of Casted, the first and only B2B podcasting platform. And this is our podcast. As we started building Casted, as I'm sure you can imagine, especially because if you're listening to this show, you're likely a marketer, the first thing we started with was getting to know the market, doing some research. What does podcasting as a space really look like today? What is the opportunity for brands here? What does listenership really look like and how is it growing? Why is it all happening and where is it going? So many of those questions were answered for us here at Casted and for so many other people around the world by Edison Research, specifically research conducted by Tom Webster. He's the senior vice president of strategy and marketing at Edison Research, and I had the privilege of interviewing him for today's show.
Tom Webster: Hey, this is Tom Webster, Senior Vice President for Edison Research.
Lindsay Tjepkema: I am so excited that you're here, Tom, because you, at Edison Research, didn't get into this in your intro, but in addition to tons of other research that you've done, you have done a lot in the world of audio and podcasting and a lot that we have looked into ourselves here at Casted. So I'm excited to dig into it.
Tom Webster: Yeah. Digital audio has eaten up my day. It didn't use to be that way. I used to research other things, but podcasting and streaming and smart speakers and the whole world of digital audio has grown so much in the last five years, that it's pretty much all I do.
Lindsay Tjepkema: Yeah. So I guess let's dig into that some more. So even your career is proof of the growth, right? So let's talk about that a little bit. How have things changed? What have you observed? Let's give a little backstory before we get into the current state and the future state.
Tom Webster: Yeah. So my company, Edison, has done really one of the flagship studies of consumer media and technology behavior called the infinite dial, since 1998. It's the longest running study of consumer media and technology habits. It actually started as a look at the very nascent field of online radio. And there were some companies in online radio back then, that almost none of them still exist. Things like AOL Radio and Net Radio and Spinner. And we were looking at all of these things back in'98. And then, as we've tracked the space, we've observed new things coming into the space and new technologies. And we started tracking podcasting back in 2006. We started tracking smart speakers, such as the Amazon Alexa suite of devices, about three years ago. We started tracking social media 10 years ago. So things have come in and out of this. Some things grow and stick and some things don't, but podcasting is one of those things that I think over the more than a decade that we have tracked it, has really proven to be a mainstream American media.
Lindsay Tjepkema: Yeah. So from your perspective, why? Why do you think that is? Why do you think that it's becoming so mainstream and has seen so much growth?
Tom Webster: Well, it's always grown slowly and steadily. It's never really had a down year. It's always added a couple of percentage points here and there since we started tracking it in 2006. And I think it really just reached somewhat of a tipping point a few years ago. And it's not necessarily with the listenership to podcasts, because again, that's always been growing steadily, but with the advent of Serial, people in the advertising market, the chattering classes, marketers started to talk about podcasting more. It was always a thing. It was always there for the listeners, but there started to be more attention paid to it by marketers and advertisers. And as that attention started to get paid to it, money began to be invested in the space, and a lot of what that money has funded over the past three years has not been technology, which technology was really not the issue, but it's been in different forms of content, more mainstream content, more mass appeal content. And that's what's really taken off over the past few years, is that podcasting used to really be for, if you looked at the... In fact, this is still true. If you look at the top 10 podcasts on something like Apple's iTunes or Apple's Podcast chart, it tends to be fairly high brow content. It doesn't look anything like the top 10 TV shows or the top 10 movies. So, podcasting over the past few years has begun to develop more and more of that content. Then as a result, there really is a podcast for everybody, and that wasn't true 10 years ago.
Lindsay Tjepkema: Yeah. I think, I don't know if we've quite reached a million different podcasts yet, but if not, we're really close. So, there certainly is. There's several podcasts for every person at this point. So I guess tell me a little bit more about what you've seen from audience growth and how that's maybe gone from the more entertainment consumer side of podcasts and how brands are starting to get involved. Because what it seems to me is, as the audience grows, so does the interest of marketers, because where the audiences are, are where the brands want to be. So what have you seen along those lines?
Tom Webster: Well, I think one of the things that's helped podcasting, and I am a marketer and I say this with love in my heart for my fellow marketing brethren and sistren, we have yet to ruin podcasting with advertising. We have ruined many things with advertising. We have yet to ruin podcasting with advertising, and that is no small part of its success and growth right now. I think there's obviously room for advertising and sponsorship on podcasts of many forms, whether that's host read or a pre- produced spot. I mean, all of these things work in moderation and in their varying degrees, but it is a medium that could go sour fairly quickly if we ruin it with advertising. So in terms of how I think a marketer should think about this, a lot of marketers, we kind of suffer from the same disease and that is that we think about our crap. How are we going to get our crap out there? We need to tell people about our crap. And there's no clamor from the general public for a show about our crap. When a marketer wants to think about podcasting as a vehicle or a venue, I think the number one mindset you have to have is it's your goal to produce an entertainment. It's your goal to produce a show because what you're competing against is not another podcast about someone else's software as a solution platform. That's not what you're competing against. You're competing against, well, I could just listen to music now, or I could listen to This American Life right now, or I could watch Succession now, or I could just go for a nice walk. Our time is finite. I'm not going to say that our attention spans our limited because people binge watch and binge listen to things all the time, but when you are listening to a podcast, it's a very lean forward activity and it must replace some other activity. And so I think if you have that mindset as a marketer, then I think that's the proper mindset to go into thinking about podcasting as a vehicle for messaging, if your number one goal is to produce an entertainment and not to spread the word about your stuff.
Lindsay Tjepkema: Absolutely. Absolutely. And that's been true, of course, in content marketing forever, is know your audience, give them what they're looking for, give them the information that will entertain them or educate them and give them what they're looking for. And I think that that is not only also true in podcasting, but I think it's even more the case with podcasts because to your point, podcasting, I think Jay Baer said when I was talking to him on this show, that it really is the only content that you can truly consume while you're doing something else. It's the only thing that you can consume while you're mowing the lawn or driving a car. You can't really do either of those things and watch a video or read a blog post, at least you shouldn't. You shouldn't do that. And you can do that with a podcast. So, you truly are up against lots of other things. It really ups the ante in how marketers need to truly create great content.
Tom Webster: Yeah, I think so. I mean, people don't encounter podcasts in the same way that they encounter blog posts or articles online, where people are searching for an answer to a problem and then a white paper gets served up by Google or a blog post gets served up by Google. That's not really how people are encountering podcasts. And I think the atomic unit of a podcast has to be the show. It has to be how are we going to challenge or entertain an audience and aggregate that audience in a way that keeps them engaged? And podcasting to me has never really been a reach medium. It's always been an engagement medium. And when you think of it that way, I think you make better choices.
Lindsay Tjepkema: Okay. With all of the research that you've done over decades, really, in audio, I'm excited to hear what has been most interesting to you in particular, as marketer, as a researcher who's seen a lot of data about all this. What's the most intriguing thing to you right now?
Tom Webster: Well, a couple of things. One I think is as we've had this big surge of new listeners into the space, and in fact between 2018 and 2019, we tracked the largest percentage point gain in monthly podcast consumption that we've ever tracked in the Infinite Dial. Last year, 26% of Americans 12 plus said that they had listened to a podcast in the last month. This year, it's 32%, which is a pretty sizable jump. And with a jump of that size, you would expect a lot more people that are just discovering it to be casual listeners. Maybe they've come in and discovered one show, maybe a couple of shows. But one of the most interesting stats to me when you weighed against that is a stat that we've tracked for some time now, the number of podcasts per week that weekly podcast listeners tell us they listened to. Last year, that number was seven and this year that number was seven. You might look at that and say," That's a nothing burger. That's a non- story." But it actually shocked the heck out of me because I expected with such an influx of brand new listeners, I expected that number to go down, because you have all these new, a significant proportion of new users coming in. You would expect them to listen to just a couple of shows. That didn't happen. Two things were happening there at the same time. Number one, when people discover podcasts, there are so many more short run series now, as opposed to ongoing podcasts, that people are just tearing through them, even new listeners. And two, if you've been a podcast listener for some time, you are increasing the number of podcasts you're listening to even more. And in fact, we do another study, a subscription- based study called share of ear, which is a single source measure of all forms of audio online and offline. And when you look at the share of ear of the podcast listener, their number one source of audio period is podcasts. And that's not a foregone conclusion. I mean, what that says is that podcast listeners are spending more time listening to podcasts than they are AM/ FM radio, than they are their own music files, than they are streaming audio or audio books or any of these other sources. So these are significant behavior shifts, and that's even in the face of all of these brand new novice listeners. So, that was one of the more surprising things to me about this year.
Lindsay Tjepkema: Yeah. Yeah, definitely. And I cannot move on without acknowledging the fact that you said nothing burger, which I'm going to steal. I like that word. Okay. Moving on. I just had to acknowledge that. One thing that I found in that report that I was really excited about was a cool thing that happened last year, was that more people, more Americans anyway, have now ever listened to a podcast than ever before. If you haven't listened to a podcast, as of right now, you're officially in the minority, because more Americans have listened to podcasts than have not. That was a really cool stat to me.
Tom Webster: Yeah. It's the first year, obviously, that we've ticked over into the mainstream, but there's a warning sign behind that, I think, and it comes from looking at the juxtaposition of three numbers, the percentage of Americans who say they've ever listened to a podcast is now 51%, the percentage who say they listened to one in the last month is 32, and the percentage who say they've listened to one in the last week is 22. Now there's a big gap between 51 and 22. And some of that is people that maybe have sampled the podcast, didn't like it, didn't return to the space, maybe tried it years ago, found it too difficult, which is no longer true, and didn't come back to it. So there's still a opportunity there, not just in brand new user growth, but also maybe reacquainting people with the space and introducing them to the kind of content that maybe didn't exist when they first tried a podcast.
Lindsay Tjepkema: So all of that said, we talked a little bit at the beginning about marketers, and you and I are both marketers. What have you seen and how does this all come together specifically on the brand side? What can you tell us about that?
Tom Webster: Yeah. I mean, I think it's podcasting is a tough space for brands, I'm going to be honest. I think the best branded content I've heard, again has not really been about a product or a service or even the company per se. It's been about a problem that the audience shares and an entertaining look at that problem, and by the way, it happens to be brought to you by company A or company B. And there's a fair body of research, not for podcasting, but for other forms of sponsored content that we know that that works. And we've done a lot of brand lift studies at Edison for companies that are producing branded podcasts and branded content and things like that. And so, we're starting to get a sense of what really works and what doesn't. And what we see that works the best is an entertaining show about some slice of life that this audience shares and perhaps shares with the company that's putting on the podcast and the attitude that gets changed. You think about a commercial as just a spot advertisement. What is the behavior they're looking for? They're looking for you to take an action. They're looking for you to try a product. And that's not necessarily what branded podcasts are good at, but what they are good at is changing how you think about the company and the people who work at that company. And some of the work that we have done on branded shows, I mean, that's exactly what we're measuring. We're measuring do you feel like this company actually cares about this particular issue and how that changes before and after exposure to the podcast. And it's working. It's working because A, it's working because there are credible trustworthy hosts, I think, that have a lot to do with it. But also, I mean, the content is relevant. The content is entertaining, and it's content that you would listen to, whether it was sponsored by that company or not. But the fact that it is brought to you by that company in some kind of native unobtrusive way, actually changes people's opinions not about a product, but about the people who work for that company. They must be good people to have brought me this great show. And that's sort of a baseline behavior shift or an attitudinal shift that could lead to a behavior shift. And that's where I think the real power lies when it's done right.
Lindsay Tjepkema: I could not agree more. That is so huge. And I think, again, with any content, with any marketing content, you toe the line, you have to be careful and you have to be cognizant of why am I doing this? What value am I adding? How am I serving my audience? But again, even more so when you literally are speaking to them human to human, voice to ear. If you can serve them with content that is entertaining, relevant, truly helpful, bringing value in some way, shining a light into the personality of your brand and your company culture, that is either trust building or, I don't know if it's trust breaking, but it definitely can easily put a bad taste in someone's mouth. So you've got to be really cognizant of how am I presenting myself? What kind of impression am I getting about my company based on this content that I'm delivering to my audience and how I'm delivering it?
Tom Webster: Yeah, no doubt.
Lindsay Tjepkema: All right. So that said, what do you see happening now and as we move forward, as podcasts continue to grow, and as listenership continues to grow over time? If you had to get out your crystal ball, where do you see brands fitting into that over the next couple of years, the next few reports you do?
Tom Webster: Well, I think it's really going to come down to how committed the brand is to the space, because I think dabblers in the space will not be rewarded. I think just putting your VP of product on a show and having them interview other people in the company, that's not a podcast that people are clamoring for. That's a supply side equation, but not a demand side equation. So I think it's not going to reward the dabblers. And I think what the companies that will succeed here are going to be the companies that make a significant investment in the attraction and engagement of a genuine audience and not just," Hey, let's turn on a microphone and talk about the next release of our product." And they're going to have to find a way to measure that and to see if it's really worth it for them. I think for some companies, that's absolutely going to be worth it for them and for some companies it's not going to be worth it for them. I think you're going to... One thing about podcasts and narrative content and the kind of interview shows and things like that, the skills required to produce really compelling, either narrative form audio, or theater of the mind, or even just a great interview show, those skills are rare. I'm not even going to say they're uncommon. They're just flat out rare. A lot of those skills have come out of public radio because they've had to maintain that muscle memory for so many years because that's what they produce on the air as well. And you've seen public media have lots of people hired away because the kind of talent to produce a great show does not grow on trees. And you're going to see that consolidated and find its way into various companies that produce really compelling branded content. For any company, I think, that's looking to produce a podcast, I would want to make sure that they're truly committed to putting on a show, and that's no small commitment.
Lindsay Tjepkema: Yeah. And to that note, you mentioned this before, the most obvious person to be the host is not necessarily the right choice. Just because it's your front person for this, or the highest ranking for that, or the most logical person or the right title, doesn't mean it's the right person. It's the person who can do the best job and who can be most relatable, most compelling, most entertaining to the audience that you're trying to reach and who knows the subject matter enough to talk to the people that you're going to be talking to on the show. And that has been really interesting, a lot of the conversations that we've had on this show, about how that comes to surface and about how that person emerges or doesn't and what that looks like over time.
Tom Webster: Yeah. It's sort of an ego thing for a company. I mean, it's the Lake Wobegon effect. We all think we're better than average. I attended a conference of really wonky public opinion pollsters like myself for years and years and years. And that conference has always hired, and it's the same person and he's fantastic, a professional host, like not someone, not another public opinion researcher, but they've hired a very entertaining character who knows the arc of the event and threads everything together all day long. And what an asset to that event he actually is because nobody thinks," Well he's not a researcher. Get him off the stage," because he actually translates what we do into an entertainment. And it's the highest goal for a podcast, I think.
Lindsay Tjepkema: Marketers are listening to this show who either have a podcast or are thinking about having a podcast. What are some of the takeaways you want them to know based on everything you already know?
Tom Webster: Yeah. The number one thing that I would like them to take away is to get out of their heads a little bit and really think audience first and every choice that you make and every decision, every aspect of content that you decide to put in or leave out of your show really make it an audience first decision and not a company first decision, because people will smell that. That's not what people are looking for. So if you genuinely make audience focused decisions, if everything is on the side of the audience, then you can do no wrong as far as I'm concerned. But that also means learning more about your audience. And I think it can be a dangerous thing for a company to start a podcast and not know enough about its audience before they really start going into it. And that's even really simple decisions. Like you look on the charts for podcasts and you see the top podcasts are all an hour long, and so you decide," Well, our software company podcast is going to be an hour long." Well, maybe that's not what your audience wants. Maybe if you gave them a 10 minute podcast that you actually pitched as listen to us on your lunch break, maybe that's a more successful option for you, because that's really looking at the time that your audience has in an average day to listen to something and trying to find a way to fit into their day as opposed to making them adapt to yours. So, anything else that I would say to be honest, really comes down to putting the audience first.
Lindsay Tjepkema: That's it for today's show. Thank you so much to today's guest. And to learn more about them and see Casted in action with clips of today's show and related content, visit casted. us. Thanks so much for listening.
Tom Webster is the Senior Vice President of Marketing and Strategy for Edison Research. He has helped Edison Research co-author The Infinite Dial, the longest-running research series on digital media consumption. This annual report has been the flagship study of mobile behaviors, internet audio, podcasting, social media, smart speakers and more since 1998.