Podcasters talk a lot (heck, I talk a lot) about getting listeners to build a podcast listening habit. But are we, as an industry, really doing anything actually to help develop that habit among listeners? Or is it just a bunch of talk?
Here's a harsh reality for you: the act of listening to a podcast does not lend itself to the habitualization of podcast listening. Edison Research's Infinite Dial survey shows us that most Americans over 12 have listened to podcasts—62%, according to the 2022 study. Yet that same study shows most haven't listened in a month (38%), and less than half of those who say they have ever listened to a podcast have listened in the last week (26%).
So no. According to the data, exposing one's ears to a podcast episode does not instill a listening habit. Not to most people, as illustrated, or those monthly and weekly numbers would be much higher.
Two primary reasons jump out at me. One is the fault of the podcast listening apps, and one is the fault of us, the podcasters.
In Which Evo Again Presents Friendly Criticism Of Podcast Listening Apps
Let me first lay the blame at the feet of the app makers. And yes, I know I cast enough blame at their collective tootsies that all podcast app devs and designers should probably see a podiatrist. Or a moth. But I digress.
The people who make podcast listening apps don't do a good job of encouraging the listening habit. That's my opinion. So let me illustrate what they're not doing by examining two services that do an excellent job of imprinting habits on their users: Netflix and Amazon.
When you finish a movie or series on Netflix, the Netflix app asserts control almost immediately, offering up another series or a movie you might want to watch. Those recommendations aren't perfect for you if you're anything like me. But that doesn't matter. I'm sure that Netflix wants its recommendation algorithm to work better, but its ability to accurately predict shows you want to watch is less critical than it is getting you just to watch something else. Neflix doesn't care what you watch when your movie or series is over. Only that you keep watching something on Netflix.
Notice how aggressive Netflix is with shoving those recommendations in front of you. Credits, as soon they start to roll, credits are relegated to a tiny picture-in-picture window in the lower right corner, while the rest of your screen is dedicated to getting you to choose something else to watch. Netflix knows that people leave the theater when the lights come up. And they know that people get up from their couches—or worse, hit the power button—as soon as the credits role on their TV screen. So Netflix tries to short-circuit that, actually breaking into the produced content with encouragement for users to do what Neflix wants: for you to choose another show to watch via their streaming service.
You see similar behavior on Amazon Kindle. As soon as "The end" is reached in an ebook, Amazon takes over, injecting a "before you go" screen with next-read recommendations and other options—all options Amazon wants you to take right there on the device—in place of the "back matter" of the book. The back matter is still there, but Amazon knows you likely don't want to read that. So instead, they recommend what they want you to do: select another ebook from their catalog.
That'll Never Work In Podcasting, Evo
Both of those actions build the habit of not just watching or reading, but the habit of immediately selecting the next show to watch or book to read as soon as the prior experience is over. What if podcast listening apps did this, inserting "choose your next podcast to listen to" messages into your ears as soon as you're done listening to the main content of the final episode, either pausing or replacing the standard outro to get you to choose your next listen?
An outcry, for sure. Or massive heart palpitations from some old-school podcasters who buy into the "WE DON'T TOUCH THE EPISODES! THAT'S SACRED GROUND!" way of thinking. Which I understand, completely.
It's just that I don't think the ground is as sacred as they do. That, and Netflix and Amazon managed to pull it off. So sure, there will probably be lots of pushback at first. But dismissing the notion out of hand seems a bad idea since the listener and their chosen app have a rather tight relationship. Lean into it. Don't be afraid of a little (?) controversy.
But that brings me to the second reason apps aren't doing this already: us, the podcasters who make the content. It's relatively simple for Netflix to know when a movie is ending or when the final episode in a series is ready to roll credits. It's not challenging for Amazon to know when the "the end" page has been reached.
That's not so obvious in podcasting.
On the surface, it seems something easier to do on seasoned or serialized content. And for the human brain, it probably is. But far too few podcasters bother (or are able) to use the current <itunes:complete> tag, and the new podcast index namespace tag <podcast:complete> hasn't been finalized. Without a tag signifying that a show, series, or season is complete, how is a podcast listening app to know when the right time is to jump in and start working on developing the listeners' podcasting habit?
But it's the non-seasoned and episodic podcasts that give us a bigger problem. And by bigger, I mean that, unlike the shows you watch on Netflix or the books you read from Amazon, the vast majority of podcasts don't have an end-point. They're perpetual and ongoing. And the only habit creators of those endless shows want a listener to develop is to keep listening to their podcast. Any listening app that encourages a listener to dump one ongoing show in favor of another ongoing show is probably going to quickly fall out of favor with some of the biggest—and loudest—podcasters.
Yet still... the best way to encourage the podcast listening habit is through a podcast listening app. Even though these problems seem insurmountable. A conundrum, for sure. And yet another episode from me that doesn't come with a solid path through the mire. Sometimes, asking questions and surfacing potential issues is good enough on its own.
But maybe you have other ideas on what it takes? I'd love to hear from you on what ideas you have on how we can actually build the podcast listening habit among new listeners. Email me or tweet to me, would you?
Very Likely Service Interruption
Next week is Podcast Movement. I'm going to try to get an episode out then. But then I'm in Ireland for the two weeks following, and it's less likely I'll make the same commitment as I'm on vacation, and it's important to take vacations, I feel.
So I'll just say I'll see you soon with yet another Podcast Pontifications.