The Future of Podcasting: Final Thoughts and Questions

Welcome to the last installment of our five-part series on podcasting! Make sure to check out the first four posts if you haven’t already, as they provide context to understand our final thoughts and outstanding questions.

Our Thoughts

It’s easy to write off podcasts as a “niche” medium — they’ve been around since the early 2000s but still have a relatively small listener base. However, we’ve noticed some signals in the last year that may suggest podcasts are approaching an inflection point. We’ve outlined three of these signals below, with our commentary on what they mean for the future of podcasts.

  1. Adaptations and Mainstream Media Coverage

In the past few months, we’ve been surprised to see some of our favorite podcasts pop up in unexpected places. True crime podcast Up and Vanished, which is investigating the 2005 disappearance of high school teacher Tara Grinstead, made headlines this spring when police made two arrests in the 12-year-old cold case. The arrests were partially credited to the efforts of podcast host Payne Lindsey, whose investigation surfaced new information and encouraged previously silent witnesses to come forward.

True crime podcast Up and Vanished led to new information surfacing in the disappearance of Tara Grinstead, with two arrests made this spring after 12 years of little progress. Photo courtesy of audioBoom.

Podcast network Gimlet Media has also been in the news lately, largely due to announcements of licensing content to Hollywood studios. Season one of Gimlet’s flagship series Start Up will air as a TV show on ABC, Amazon recently picked up Gimlet show Homecoming for a two-season run starring Julia Roberts, and a single 45-minute episode of Gimlet’s Reply All is being made into a movie with Robert Downey Jr.

In a recent Wired article about Hollywood adaptations of podcasts, a Gimlet executive postulated that podcasts may one day become a low-cost testing ground for TV and movie studios to pilot ideas with audiences, with the intent of adapting the most successful content for television or movies.

“The potential over the long-term is a business that could look a good bit like Marvel…You’re originating worlds and stories in a low-cost, experimental format, and then transitioning high-potential prospects into higher-return formats.”

-Chris Giliberti, Head of Multi-Platform Efforts at Gimlet Media

Another interesting sign? Two podcast networks have been able to recruit Broadway talent for musical shows — Wondery’s Wait Wait Don’t Kill Me!, and Two-Up Productions’ 36 Questions. WWDK satirizes America’s unhealthy obsession with true crime by re-imagining the Serial case as a musical (starring Leslie Kritzer as Koenig), while 36 Questions explores a couple’s attempts to save their troubled marriage (starring Jonathan Groff of Hamilton and Frozen fame).

Though it’s not likely that all of these new avenues for podcast expansion will be successes, the fact that some podcasts have been able to break into the “real world” is promising for the future success of the medium. Just as movie adaptations often boost book sales (see The Hunger Games and Harry Potter as two prominent examples), podcasters hope that the first TV shows and movies based on podcasts will attract a new audience to their shows.

2. Rise of Podcast Networks

Early podcasts typically fell into one of two categories: syndications of existing professional radio shows, or amateur shows with hosts who recorded content at home on nights or weekends. The recent rise of podcast networks has changed this dynamic, with an influx of professionally produced, high quality shows in both the fiction and non-fiction categories.

Some podcast networks produce their own content, while others promote and manage independent shows, but they are all focused on taking care of logistics so content creators can focus on what they do best. Being part of a network allows a podcast host to take advantage of cross-promotional opportunities and plug into an existing advertising network, among other benefits.

Though podcast networks first popped up around 2004, the trend picked up significant steam in 2014, with Gimlet Media, APM Podcasts, PRI Podcasts, and Radiotopia all launching within a six-month period.

Though some podcast hosts debate whether it’s fair for networks to take a substantial cut of ad revenues, these networks have undoubtedly had a positive overall effect on the podcasting community by producing high-quality content that attracts new listeners. As of July 25, 2017, four of the top five podcasts on Apple’s podcast app were affiliated with networks.

Networks are also valuable in introducing listeners to new content and making podcast listening a more sticky habit. Podcast networks cross-promote their content across their shows, which means that a subscriber to one show will regularly be exposed to ads for other podcasts in the same network and may try them out. This can help convert a weekly listener to someone who tunes in daily to follow multiple shows.

3. Enhanced Analytics

We’ve briefly mentioned Apple’s recent announcement that it will start providing more detailed analytics to podcasters, but want to dive more into why this is so significant.

Today, Apple only provides podcasters with the number of times an episode is downloaded — not how many times it was played, when listeners skipped around, and whether or not they stayed through the whole episode. This would be like cable companies only tracking how many people recorded an episode on their DVR instead of the total number of people who watched the episode, including both those who saw it live and those who watched later.

Why are in-episode analytics important? Seeing when people skip sections or stop listening entirely is valuable in helping podcasters improve their content. However, analytics are perhaps most important to advertisers, who are accustomed to receiving more comprehensive data. An advertiser on Facebook, for example, sees not only the number of views, but the number of click-throughs, purchases, new “likes” on their page, and more.

Apple hasn’t yet announced exactly what data it will provide to podcasters, but industry experts believe that any new analytics will be a significant boon to the podcast space.

Matt Lieber, co-founder of Gimlet Media, took to Twitter to express his excitement over Apple’s announcement.

According to podcast expert Nick Quah (subscribe to his newsletter Hot Pod if you haven’t already!), lack of clear listener metrics has long been “the defining problem of the medium.” Quah believes that the limited analytics have been “the primary hurdle” in getting larger advertisers to commit to the podcasting space, and argues that Apple’s new reporting “may meaningfully unlock long coveted brand advertising dollars.”

“Brand advertisers will be a lot more comfortable buying if we know exactly how many people are listening to a given spot. You can pay a price per listener, rather than a price per download.”

-Lex Friedman, Chief Revenue Officer at Midroll Media

Outstanding Questions and Opportunities

Given these positive signals, we are optimistic about the future of podcasting. However, there are some outstanding questions that will need to be answered before podcasts become mainstream:

  • How will podcast hosts start capturing listening time from other forms of entertainment (e.g. radio, TV, Youtube)?
  • Will Apple’s native podcast app continue to dominate, or will users be willing to download and stream podcasts through other apps?
  • Will listeners be willing to pay for early access to podcasts, ad-free listening, and/or exclusive content from their favorite podcasters?
  • Will subscription services cover entire podcast networks or full libraries on a podcast app, or will listeners pay individual fees for each podcast?
  • Will some top podcasters remain independent, or will all be pushed to join podcast networks for better distribution and production?
  • Will advertisers start investing a significant amount of money into podcast ads? If so, what needs to happen before they feel comfortable doing so?

Given these questions, we’re particularly excited about companies tackling the following issues:

  • Content discovery process — As we’ve previously mentioned, ~70% of listening happens through Apple’s podcasting app, which does nothing to help users find new content based on their interests. People who start listening to one podcast (e.g. Serial) struggle to find related content and may churn out of the podcast listener base.
  • Targeted advertising and analytics — Podcasts provide a unique opportunity for advertisers to target very specific demographics, but as we’ve mentioned, existing analytics are weak. Platforms that can help advertisers target particular markets and that provide detailed listener data will provide a significant value-add.
  • Distribution — Given that the number of podcasts is increasing dramatically, as is the number of apps/websites to find content, podcasters need to stand out. Even the top podcasters are willing to give up a cut of their revenue to networks that can promote their content to the right audience, and we see this as a significant growth driver moving forward.
  • Podcaster/listener communication — Podcast listeners are loyal because they feel a connection with the hosts, and are therefore willing to spread the content to friends, engage on social media, come to live events, etc. Hosts know this, and are eager to communicate with listeners, but are often overwhelmed by the number of questions/comments they receive through various mediums and struggle to engage with their audience.

If you’ve made it to the end of this five-part series, we’d like to thank you for taking the time to read our thoughts on podcasts and our predictions for the future of the space. We’re excited to see how the podcasting industry develops over the next few years, and look forward to staying in touch with others who are interested in the space. Please feel free to reach out with any questions, comments, predictions, or even podcast recommendations.

Justine and Olivia Moore

Written by

Venture investors at CRV. Stanford ’16. Subscribe to Accelerated for weekly tech news, jobs, and internships:

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