Eye Can't Hear You: A Podcasting Paradigm Shift
Two opposing visions of podcasting’s future are emerging. One side is betting on more screen-time interactions. The other is working to make screens obsolete for podcasting listening. Which path will win?
Desktop consumption of podcast episodes is growing for the first time in… forever? For years, podcasters have been largely ignoring browser-based listeners and the interface used by those listeners. Many think browser-based listeners are made up of people who can't quite figure out how to subscribe to a podcast feed, a skill that most podcast listeners have mastered. So we don’t put a lot of thought into that interface.
Until recently, that’s been justified. The proliferation of mobile devices with interfaces designed specifically for podcast listening continues to increase. And as the penetration of mobile computing has increased, desktop usage -- including using desktops to listen to podcasts -- has waned.
Mobile Devices Matter Less When You’re Less Mobile
Confronted with the realities of the pandemic, suddenly people everywhere are spending less time on their mobile devices and a lot more time in front of their desktop or laptop computer. With work-time and home-time blending together for so many of us, we're seeing desktop consumption grow for all sorts of media. Including podcasting.
Some enterprising companies see this as an opportunity. That opportunity, at the risk of your eyes rolling all the way out of your skull, is a re-imagining of what was once known as “enhanced” podcasts.
Desktop Podcast Listening Could Do With Some Enhancements
If you were around in the very early days of podcasting, you might remember enhanced podcasting as a concept that never took off. At the time, enhancing a podcast didn’t mean much more than displaying a slide-show of images timed to display at certain points in the audio. It only worked on a very small number (like, one?) of listening apps. And it only really worked on the mobile device.
Predictably, a parade of images added after the fact wasn’t important enough to listeners, so most podcasters abandoned their enhanced podcasting efforts. Rightly so.
But as mobile listening is currently decreasing, a new wave of technologists and interface designers are turning their sights on browser-based listening. There are things that make sense to show to desktop-based listeners, and they go well beyond a simple slideshow. Interactive elements like polls and surveys. Short-form video or animation. Links to more content. And yes, ad units. We’re still in the very early stages of this, but I’m intrigued by those seeking to capitalize on “more than audio” in a way that enhanced podcasting failed to do.
Things Your Car’s Tape Deck Could Never Do
Smart in-car systems are nearly ubiquitous today. And while in-car audio and display systems are nothing new, they’re getting a lot better. No, that may be too generous. They’re getting incrementally better, and it feels (at least to me) that the interface is on the cusp of a major transformation. There’s more to that feeling than just wishful thinking on my part. Last week, Nielsen started talking up their initiative to help build a better navigating experience through podcast episodes when we're driving in our cars.
You know... if we ever drive in our cars again.
Smart Speakers Make Kitchen Podcast Listening Great Again
And then there’s the continued growth of the smart speaker market. Over the weekend, I moved my smart speaker with a display screen to my kitchen. In just a day, that’s already changed how I engage with content in this room of my house. And it’s vastly different than how I previously interacted with the device when it was in my living room. Now I want one for the office.
And that’s just the start. These devices, interfaces, and apps are getting better. Designers are finding interesting ways to blend visual and audio together to create a compelling “mixed media” experience. As they have done since we transitioned away from text-only interfaces a lifetime ago.
A Podcast Experience That Only Exists In Your Ears
Opposite of that, however, are those designing away the visual interface completely. The credit belongs to the smart earbuds, a wearable device that not only has no screen, but you can’t even see the device when it’s in operation.
In the case of smart earbuds, “no cord” is simply a feature, not a benefit. The benefits are powered by the individual computer chips and other electronics built into these devices. They are much, much more than simply a speaker. They are, quite literally, two computers that you stick in your ears, with plenty of sensors and input areas to bring a unique screen-less experience to listeners.
No, we’re not there yet. Today’s lineup of smart earbuds has limited tactile engagement opportunities. Wearers still have to rely on their screen-based device for navigating between episodes, finding new podcasts to listen to, and just about anything else that isn’t Stop or Play. But they are voice-aware and tightly coupled to AI-based voice assistants that continue to get smarter. No, none of the smart earbuds I’m aware of is smart enough to do things like search for new shows or episodes, change the order of episode delivery, or make recommendations on future content.
But it doesn’t take much imagination to see how we get there in the future. The very immediate future, quite likely.
Picking Winners In Tomorrows Podcast Listening Landscape
Which of these paradigms is going to win? Luckily, we don’t have to choose. I think we’ll see major advancements in both of these fronts, serving the very disparate needs for different types of listeners in different environments.
Personally, I’m much more excited about the future of smart earbuds. So I’m on Team Screenless. But I’m not about to count the other side out. We people are big fans of our screens.
I have a two-part parting message to my fellow longtime podcasters, who probably stopped reading several paragraphs ago because they think these issues were settled a decade ago and just don't see what's in it for listeners:
Part one: That was then. A great many things have changed in a decade. Today’s environment may create fertile ground for ideas that just couldn’t make it back then.
Part two: 70% of the population still doesn’t have the podcast listening habit, so what’s perfect for you clearly isn’t for them. So when you’re looking out for listeners, make sure you’re looking out for the next generation of listeners too, OK?
Speaking of new listeners; I’d like some! When you reach out directly to one person -- just one person -- and tell them about Podcast Pontifications, it makes a huge difference. And who knows? Maybe the new person you turn onto the podcast loves it so much that they decide to go to BuyMeACoffee.com/EvoTerra throw their support behind your friendly neighborhood contrarian.
I'll be back tomorrow for another. Podcast Pontifications.