The Second Coming of Audio

by Doug Clinton

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Audio is on the verge of an inflection. Last year, Serial became the most popular podcast ever with over 40 million downloads by the end of its run in December and likely many millions more since. Earlier this summer, President Obama joined Marc Maron’s WTF podcast, which was downloaded over 1.6 million times at last count. Even Spotify has added podcasts to its content lineup. Whether podcasts ultimately become the breakout tool for audio consumption in the future may or may not be true, but there are a number of themes that we believe will drive more users to audio than ever before in this second coming of audio.

Theme 1: We are Reading More Media Than Ever…Sort Of

The first factor driving the world toward audio is that we are consuming more written content than ever before, driven in large part by social media and mobile. Based on data from a report from UC San Diego, Americans were spending about 2 hours and 15 minutes per day with online text-based media in 2008 and growing by 2.5% a year. If you assume that growth trend held (which is likely given the proliferation of smartphones), it would imply the average American now spends 2 hours and 40 minutes a day with online text based media. If half of that time is spent with written articles and the other half with social and email, it means the average American spends 1 hour and 20 minutes a day reading online content. That’s almost 10 hours per week!

As an adaptation to all of this time spent reading media on connected digital devices instead of on paper, humans have shifted the way they actually read to more of a non-linear or skimming style. Chartbeat says the average online reader spends less than 15 seconds actively on a typical web page (article). We jump through articles looking for keywords to get a basic understanding of the text without actually reading them. Given all the media we consume, it seems like we have no other choice. I know I am a big offender of this. I have five stories with estimated read times of over 20 minutes open in my tabs now. I’ve read 1/4 to 1/2 of each of them at different times without finishing any of them. I’m not sure when I’m going to find the hour I’ll need to get through the rest of those articles on top of all the other content I’ll find between now and then. Even worse, I barely remember what’s going on in those articles in the first place.

The Internet adapted to our skimming adaptation and now gives us lists for everything. Top 10 reasons this, 20 best that. Smart content providers are actually putting their content into more easily skimmable formats! Unfortunately, most content that is actually valuable doesn’t easily fit into this “listicle” format, so the content being produced to best fit our new reading style tends to be pretty low level entertainment instead of informative, insightful, or intelligent.

At Dogear, we believe audio helps solve both the time requirement and skimming problems. We’ve all heard by now that multitasking is a myth, which is true in text based environments, but not for audio. Audio is a passive medium that you can consume doing one of many tasks as we’ve talked about before, thus audio can let you get caught up on all the content you want to read more efficiently. In this way, audio content will become the soundtrack of your life. More importantly, audio is also a captive medium. Since you are probably doing something else while consuming audio, you’re less likely to skip around and more likely to let the content play as it was presented. You also aren’t as tempted to jump to another page like you would be if you were reading on a connected device since it would take you out of what you are doing in the moment.

Theme 2: Growing Interest to Increase Productivity

Skimming and the amount of content we consume is directly related to our second thematic case for audio — the drive toward time efficiency and getting things done. The explosion of interest in entrepreneurship and startups and the mindset that to be successful in those occupations we must work 80 or 100 hour weeks, drives the desire of these individuals to do everything more efficiently. People are even excited about using Soylent to save the time of cooking and eating! Maybe they should try listening to their reading list while cooking real food first.

The entrepreneurship trend has helped give rise to apps that help manage our content consumption more effectively. We have Pocket and Instapaper that let us manage what we want to read later, but not alleviate the time burden of consuming the content. And let’s be honest, when we click to read an article later, how often do we really ever get to it? We also have the rise of speed reading apps that help us increase our words per minute. However, speed reading may be a false hope too if comprehension is important. Research shows that speed reading can result in a decrease in comprehension as it can overload the reader’s working memory. Basically, speed reading turns into speed skimming.

Again, all roads lead to audio to solve the getting things done desire. Unlike speed reading, research on audiobooks suggests that there is little difference in comprehension between listening to a text and actually reading it. Since we aren’t really reading most online content anyway, we’re skimming it either on our own or guided via a speed reading tool, it would seem that audio provides the most useful solution to be time efficient while still maximizing comprehension. Even better, you can listen to audio at double speed so you can not only multitask while getting through your reading list, but get through it faster. Some people even suggest that your attention is heightened at double speed, making it even more likely that you comprehend the message.

Theme 3: We’re Moving Quickly Beyond The Keyboard

Perhaps the biggest reason we will need to shift our media consumption habits toward more audio is the coming wave of new computing interfaces including virtual reality (VR), augmented reality (AR), and other wearables. Over time they will replace the smartphone and PC as our interface to interacting with machines and the Internet. And all of these devices lack a keyboard, putting in question how we will utilize text in these environments if they are not built for it.

We’ve already see the beginnings of moving beyond the keyboard in social platforms like Snapchat and Instagram. Through these platforms, people are moving toward picture and video based communication vs text based communication. Snapchat and Facebook Messenger seem to be battling to be the platform for default private posts (in other words, Facebook in text world). Instagram seems well on its way to owning the default public picture/video posts (Twitter in the text world).

Text-based content has a built in conflict with VR and AR: all three are meant to be immersive experiences. Back to multitasking being a myth, you can’t really do anything while reading text, if you’re truly reading it. Thus it is immersive. In the case of a virtual environment (VR), its hard to imagine a consumer entering a rich, digitally created world just to read long written stories. The point of a virtual environment is to interact with the unique, digital world itself. In an augmented environment (AR), stopping to read text gets in the way of interacting with the enhanced real environment around you. However, much like audio enables multitasking in the real world, it can also enable a user to experience a virtual or augmented environment while still consuming content via audio.

What’s Next?

For audio to fully recognize its potential, we believe quality audio needs to be as easy to create with basic tools (i.e. a smartphone) as quality video. Consumers may be willing to put up with videos with poor sound if the content is interesting. The video element gives the poor audio a reprieve. If content is audio only, it needs to be crisp and clear for consumers to stay with it. Additionally, the audio editing and post-production process must be automated for the creators. We also believe that all the text-based content we are spending hours a week consuming needs to be available in audio format. Dogear is experimenting with that part of the equation now through our Shaken and Stirred podcast. It’s apparent to us that both the tools for authors and the transformation of written content are very much related.

There aren’t many second comings in tech. It’s hard to imagine paper newspapers having a renaissance. And MySpace isn’t coming back. Those relics are gone because they’ve been replaced with better solutions. We think that to address the issues facing content consumption in our current world and the coming move away from the keyboard, audio is that better solution.

We hear the future, do you?

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