AfterPod — Listening Behaviors
Podcast listeners share certain basic behaviors; we naturally follow many similar patterns.
The podcast audience is not monolithic. Every perspective of “audience”, larger or smaller, is different and only a SLICE of the full industry pie we’re examining. There are many slices. This article addresses only one.
The discussion picks up where the previous left off. If you haven’t already, reading it will establish a better foundation for understanding the overall rationale.
Unlike radio and television, where some of the audience will drop-in and may consume whatever is on at the time, podcast consumption is usually more like reading a book or watching a movie… at the time we want to engage, most people start from the beginning. Of course, not everyone completes the podcast, so there is a natural decline in listeners for the duration of the episode. (You can’t lock theater doors while the movie plays.)
Here’s a graph from NPRone based on listener data captured in their innovative player:
You can see the steep drop in listeners during the first few seconds of an episode before tapering off into a more gradual decline during the first few minutes of listening. Most media pros, including panel members at Podcast Movement, agree on the critical importance of the listening experience when first starting:
Heard in the Hall
“You’ll never have more listeners than at the start.”
“The strength of your opening will determine the level of success of the entire podcast.”
1. The First Few Seconds
The data show, as we already know, first impressions matter. Listeners drop off FAST during the first few seconds of a show. When we start listening to a podcast or watching a video, we make some rapid unconscious decisions whether to engage fully — or disengage — in a snap.
Picture those barrels full of water at freeway entrance and exit ramps…
SOME people decide to get off (or onto) the freeway… and then, mere seconds before the moment of truth… change their minds. YOU have probably seen this happen. The pattern occurs with enough frequency there are safety measures in place to save human lives!
Think about that.
It’s always been my theory most people go temporarily insane at the very moment of making an actual decision… but that’s a discussion for another time.
Even though we already started listening to a podcast, many of us will bail out within moments. Less than 15 seconds or so.
Make the best of them, podcasters!
2. The First Few Minutes
IF the listeners’ attention is snagged somehow, then they settle in a little bit… but still are more likely to exit within the first four or FIVE minutes. Perhaps we are getting a better sense of the tempo or mood of the show since this behavior happens even to favorite shows.
You’ve done it. I have to.
Started listening with full intentions of enjoying the whole episode and, for whatever reason, it didn’t feel right and impulsively decided to switch to a different podcast.
Just because a podcaster gets the attention of a listener doesn’t mean it will be kept even after the “first few seconds”, and particularly in the early portion of the show. Forward-selling upcoming segments is a smart idea at this point. Quickly remind (tease?) us about great content “just around the corner”.
Like in fishing… if you catch a fish, you need to set the hook or it will get away.
3. The Bulk of the Episode
Listeners still on the train at this point tend to stay, though there is a gradual audience decline as individuals slowly exit early, either due to other things to do or generally fading interest. We are easily bored these days, it seems.
Many organizations continue to study ways to keep listeners and viewers engaged, some attempting to transfer traditional radio and TV methods while others are exploring new frontiers (me!). Some generously share their findings with others in the industry:
4. Inline Advertising Spots
If the show runs advertisements during the main content block, a segment of listeners will fast-forward playback, jumping over the ads.
Many podcast listeners DO listen to ads, though, especially host-read spots. Some listeners are actually LOYAL and AVIDLY support “their” show’s sponsors, affiliate links, “merch” sales, and so on.
Some podcast listeners purposely listen to spots read by CERTAIN HOSTS, as they tend to “go off-script”… making their ads fun, or at least unpredictable. Really. (This is nirvana to marketers… but like walking a tightrope, falls can hurt!)
5. The Last Few Minutes
Commonly, advertisements or credits are placed at the end of podcast episodes. Listeners, especially experienced fans, know the show is essentially over and leave.
Like other ad segments, some smaller portion of the overall audience will stay to the very end.
Let’s put die-hard FANS (short for fanatics, eh?) to the side for now.
THEY are an entirely separate discussion on behavior but, while very important to building a core audience, they are a very small minority of any given podcast’s total audience… definitely not the mainstream. Truly zealous fans are a powerful component of any show’s success and should be looked at under a special light.
Recently, Apple announced plans to provide detailed episode analytics for podcasts played through their platform, which will be great data to have. This is a preliminary example of one of their graphs showing number of listeners during a single podcast episode:
Just to be clear…
Let’s not confuse two concepts related to AUDIENCE: interest and size. The INTEREST an audience has at any point during a podcast episode, how engaged they are — which is continually going up, wavering, or going down — is not what we’re discussing. Nobody is turning “thumbs up/down dials” as they listen.
These graphs indicate audience SIZE, the count of listeners versus any measure of their level of interest or engagement. The mere act of listening IS the most fundamental measure of interest, though. It’s often also inferred that, when someone STOPS listening, they have no interest and do not return. We may know soon exactly how true that is.
Keep in mind, this graph WILL look different — maybe a little, maybe a lot — depending on the characteristics of any given podcast. We are speaking in generalities.
A few quick comments about the above points:
- The “freeway entrance” is dangerous… a lot of audience potential is killed right there.
- Stabilizing the trend takes a few minutes.
- Though a slight audience decline persists, the bulk of the show is relatively stable except when ads are run. THIS section is probably most representative of an episode’s true audience and slope would be an obvious measurement.
- Clearly, some people do SKIP through ads (and content). Simple DVR fast-forward action. Happily, it doesn’t appear to be a huge proportion of the audience. Perhaps that has to do with the length of an ad (too much bother) or the way it is being presented (host-read maybe entertaining). Also, I’ll take a guess: could that the slight uptick after the second ad be a guest segment and a few listeners fast-forwarded to it from earlier?
- A variation of #4, but the final ad segment induces audience DROP OUT faster since listeners know the show is over.
NOTE: This topic is not about working to improve the quality of the content or production, that is a different conversation. We assume QUALITY CONTENT throughout this discussion, which does affect the size of an audience. This section is about making the most of the content in hand.
A lot of audience research focuses on finding weak spots and attempting to modify audience behaviors at those points. There are many effective tactics professionals employ, some are applied DURING the program and others are EXTERNAL.
Forward selling reduces the rate of audience decline in-show, improving the numbers later within an episode. Promoting the upcoming segments and guests are examples.
Think of these as mitigating measures —efforts to maintain the slope of the line— hanging on to as much of the base starting audience as possible.
Having your radio station promote your podcast is different. This off-show activity SHOULD “raise the tide” for the whole show as it (presumably) gets it started at a higher level. With a bigger base, “normal ”attrition takes place but everything is higher on the graph (all other things being equal). In radio terms, think of this as the amplitude. It is the starting high-water mark.
To stay with the analogy for a moment, episode duration might be equivalent to wavelength. A topic for another day, the length of a show may affect the size and interest of the audience. Given our breakdown, any change in length would come in section #3. The difference between the success of a short and long podcast seems less structure… (perhaps) pointing more to the cadence of the bulk of the content.
I suppose, then, frequency would be the switching back and forth between content and sponsorship segments? too deep for right now.
There are SO many ways any show, TV-radio-YouTube-podcast, can be enhanced and promoted… I’ll just offer a simple, sound start (thanks again, NPR and NPRone!).
Before moving on to the primary point, exploring ways to alter podcast listener behavior, let’s clarify one aspect.
Here is recent podcast listener info from OzPod2017 in Australia — where the podcasting scene is also HOT — and I’m openly assuming listeners are pretty much the same in the US or UK.
James Cridland describes one behavior where almost 1/3 of podcast listeners will PAUSE LISTENING… do something else for some amount of time… and RESUME LISTENING later, completing the podcast across MULTIPLE SESSIONS.
Finishing the podcast.
It just makes sense (for that segment of audience who is truly interested in the content).
Almost like reading a book.
Are all books read, beginning to end, in only a single sitting?
Sometimes, it takes several listening sessions to complete a podcast. Episodes of Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History regularly run over five hours long! While there IS a high-interrupt version of multi-session listening with different characteristics, both are clear examples of VERY DEDICATED FAN behavior.
Soon, we’ll have analytics showing whether individual podcast episodes are completed the day started, or over the week after release, or if binged later in catch-up mode. It is important to note, though, that consuming podcasts over multiple sessions becomes very much a part of many listening routines. For many, this is “normal behavior”.
While I’ll argue the use of the word “attention” in the y-axis label (should be COUNT), take one more look at the general shape of the graph… this time an analytics chart from Laughable:
I’ll guess that podcast has an ad block on the front-end.
So, other than the nitty details, is that everything?
“Start off strong and maintain the momentum.”
“Increase the amplitude, hold the slope.”
OK. Beyond various mitigation steps, however, can we change the “facts as we know them”?
Can we intentionally alter podcast listener behavior?
I believe so.
Before explaining, I’ll begin by saying the concept is rather simple — yet I expect most who try it will fail. Some already have… due to what Steve Jobs famously called building “a feature and not a product”.
There is nothing proprietary about this, certain aspects are in common use today with greater or lesser success. If you give the same ingredients to a dozen bakers, you’ll get different cakes in return. I believe it is HOW everything melds together — within a converged and connected web multimedia environment — that makes it all work. Given the considerable nuance of the concept, I suspect most approaches are doomed, even if they enjoy initial success. Think it through.
As my web project moves from pure development into a more public phase, I’m sharing the core idea so you can understand what I’m trying to accomplish and how (minus a certain key parts held in reserve… you can learn those on your own, just like I did).
Here’s the first big concept:
We know from radio that randomly dropping into the middle of (even good) content is a bad idea; most of the time, it is a sub-par experience starting in an ad or mid-story.
What if we break a single podcast episode into logical segments?
Now, we have more starting points! Chunks of the show, such as a guest segment, the movie review, and a fan-phone-in block PLUS the original start of the episode, of course. Whatever makes sense for the podcast’s format.
Add to that, a few emotional segments… highlights like the best story, a good joke, a flubbed line, anything that would catch a listener’s attention and represents “best of” content.
Let’s not go afield regarding how the show is divided into sections or precisely where they break… details for another day. Perhaps speech-to-text conversion provides an automated transcript? Maybe the podcaster marks the highlights?
WHY do this? The podcast episode has “marks” that can be used in a variety of interesting ways.
How does this help listeners?
Undoubtedly, People Who Know (and Listen) will mostly follow their same habits.
THIS use of the concept is more about growing audience, so People Who Don’t Know are our main target.
Consider the earlier recommendation to pay attention to the “golden minutes”, the initial time podcasters have with their listeners. The inference is clear: start stronger and the rest will be stronger. It raises the bar for the entire show.
QUESTION: How often are the first few minutes of a podcast “the best content” of the entire episode?
When introducing a podcast episode to a new, prospective audience, let’s try a variation of the “normal” approach.
Instead of directing a POTENTIAL LISTENER to the top of the episode as usual (accepting the “start of the day” as good as it might be on any given day) — let’s link them to one of the episode highlights and start there.
Click the link… press Play. The media starts at the beginning of the segment.
This approach starts a listener off with some of the show’s better material. The segment may be short or long, but it is (by definition) strong.
In theory, this SHOULD positively affect the amplitude, raising the baseline of the graph to some degree.
That new listener increases the audience count AND will be at a higher INTEREST level (to be discussed at a later time).
Having (hopefully) listened through the full highlight segment, the odds are as good as they will get that listening will continue.
Perhaps the listener simply allows play to continue, having joined the episode midstream BUT at a synchronized point. Maybe, at the end of the highlight, hits REWIND and goes back to the very beginning. Either way, it’s a win.
They are engaged.
Presumably, a lot of energy went into getting a prospective listener to TRY the process, it makes no sense to give up now!
Maybe our new listener isn’t convinced by the highlight but sees other highlights and regular show segments offered in the player. These are navigable, of course, so a single click jumps to, say, the Guest Segment featuring a favorite celebrity.
Easy for the listener to see and try it. Even an experienced regular listener.
After this, if there is truly no fit with the new listener, both producer and consumer have that knowledge.
It’s worth something… to both parties.
As every veteran podcaster will attest, building the audience for a show is a gradual process. Consistent incremental gains are key. Traditional tools and techniques are tried and true… I propose this method as simply a new tool.
Let’s consider the potential effects, how the numbers MIGHT shift, and what a new graph COULD look like… “all other things being equal”.
Suppose there are three strong points in the episode to be promoted. The first one (pointing down on the left) is, say, a great rant-of-the-day… the second is a short guest segment… the third is the section at the end where the NEXT show’s agenda is announced.
IF three show highlights are deep-linked and promoted, some potential listeners will click and arrive at one of the inner entry points, the beginning of a podcast episode segment. To them, they ARE starting-at-the-start and, if the content is good, will stay AT LEAST for that segment. Chances are good some percent will stay on longer, as previously described.
Audience count increases for the promoted segments, with some portion of that bump listening to more of the episode. If the podcast resonates in the ears of this new listener, they will come back and… maybe… become regular listeners.
While this is an episode strategy with merit on its own, it ultimately benefits the full podcast/show. Small gains in new listeners to any given episode accumulate, rolling up to the podcast/show itself in the form of regular listeners looking forward to new episodes as they are released (subscribing).
Having barely introduced the heart of this single idea, you can probably already imagine how it flows. I’ll share more details about the entire process in another article soon. Maybe hint at other notions, too.
The strategy, tactics, and execution are not simple but this concept makes sense and lends itself to measurement. As I pointed out earlier, there is a lot of nuance to doing this correctly.
For example, everything discussed (and more to come)… all of it… must work on the web. It is a functional requirement for many reasons, not the least of which is the fact that — if you ask People Who Don’t Know to install a native app on their mobile phone today— you’ll instantly lose around 40% of your audience prospects.
That is significant IF the intent is to deliver your podcast to a greater number of interested listeners.
As my VIZdex Annotated Timeline Presentation Platform project matures (though quite functional, it is still very much a work-in-process) and these explanations of the thinking behind it become clearer to others, it is my sincere hope to meet a few people who are similarly interested in the presentation of media on the web.
web media = audio + video + image + text + data visualization
If you care about HISTORY, I’ll share that I will eventually use VIZdex to create an interactive educational tool as a side-project, a give-back to the community. I’ll need some experts on the topic to help develop a plan. Let’s talk!
It’s been almost twenty years since I’ve managed a team but realize the need to build a small one to accomplish my (rather large) goals. If you would like to help create and deploy a revolutionary web application, perhaps we can work together?
I am very surprised at how many people are interested enough to read long-form industry musings. Thanks for your time! Do send comments, if you like.