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Why 2020 was a record-breaker for Acast — and how the US podcast landscape reacted

By Leandro Saucedo, Chief Business and Strategy Officer

It goes without saying that 2020 was not a normal year for anybody. But, for podcasting, it was also the year the industry proved it could handle anything the world could throw at it.

With listeners hungrier than ever for podcast content — whether they were looking for comfort, support, or just to get away from it all with a good laugh — podcasts cemented the role they play in everyday life for so many people around the world, even when life as we know it has been turned upside down.

That meant 2020 was another record-breaking year for Acast. We’ve just published our financial results for the year, and global revenue hit a record high of $66m.

We also doubled the size of our network of podcasts, which now sits at 20,000 shows versus the 10,000 we started the year at — and those shows are getting more than 300 million listens, all around the world, every month. Looking back at the beginning of 2020, just before the pandemic really took hold, that number was 180 million — so our listener base has almost doubled, too, in less than a year.

And, with Edison Research saying that podcast listening has doubled over a five-year period, it’s clear Acast is ahead of the game.

US growth accelerates

At Acast we call our approach “platform agnostic”, reflecting the fact that all the tools we create, all the podcasts we host, and all our partnerships and integrations, work on any podcast listening platform there is. That also means we can provide a broad look at global podcasting trends, aggregating insights from dozens of podcast partners including Apple, Spotify, Google, and Pocket Casts.

And the positive movement we’re seeing globally is being reflected in the US, which represented 144% growth in 2020. All this is proving once again that podcasts are a valuable, sustainable advertising channel for brands.

Consumer interest continues to grow, too, and we saw a 68% year-on-year increase in listens to our global network of content by US residents in 2020. The pandemic also changed daily listening behavior, with the usual morning and evening ‘commuter’ spikes replaced by more even consumption throughout the day.

Listenership growth was driven in part by major news events such as the US presidential election — which resulted in our biggest ever week for US listens. That same week, the Global News Podcast from the BBC World Service was our most listened-to show both in the US and globally.

In fact, significant growth of listens was seen in podcasts within our News & Politics category — the most listened-to category globally, up 34% versus 2019. The US show Pantsuit Politics joined the Acast network in April 2020 and saw an 81% growth in listens between May and October, while Skullduggery saw a 63% increase year-on-year.

The states in which podcasts are most fervently consumed roughly follow population size, but there are a few surprises. New York does more podcast listening than Texas, for example, while Illinois is consuming more than Florida — and Washington is also punching above its weight.

When a market as mature as the US — which for a long time led the way in podcast production and monetization — shows such significant growth in listens, it’s a sure sign that the wider industry is in a very healthy position indeed.

Podcasters are responding to this increased interest, too. Globally, we saw an increase of almost 150% in the number of podcasts episodes produced in 2020 when compared to 2019.

That’s vital, because Acast is a creator-first organisation. We put our podcasters before everything else — they’re the lifeblood of what we do, and all of our decisions are made with their best interests at heart.

As my colleague and Acast CEO Ross Adams put it: “You can have all the ad dollars in the world, but without podcasters — and without listeners — there are no podcasts.”

Our recent acquisition of RadioPublic is another way we’re supporting them. The technology we’ve gained from this partnership will help our podcasters grow their audience, while allowing us to expand our US footprint and bringing a company to the Acast family that truly shares our creator-first ethos.

Advertisers follow suit

Of course, growth in podcast listener numbers represents a big opportunity for advertisers to reach more people — and many brands have grasped this with both hands.

According to PwC and the International Advertising Bureau, podcast advertising revenue would hit nearly $1bn in the US alone in 2020, with that figure projected by Deloitte to hit $3.3bn by 2025.

Indeed, Acast has seen advertising revenue grow every single year since our formation in 2014 — and 2020, despite all its challenges, was no different.

Acast Marketplace is the home of podcast buying globally, connecting thousands of advertisers with millions of engaged listeners in an environment like no other. But, as brands were pulling spend and campaigns from most other channels, we had to work hard to maintain advertiser confidence.

That meant sharing weekly updates with our clients detailing important changes in the podcast landscape, and providing ultimate flexibility for advertisers — quickly turning creative around and accommodating last-minute changes to briefs, and allowing brands to pause and move activity based on their own unique pressures.

As a result, the second half of 2020 in particular saw a strong performance for Acast, as we increased revenue back to pre-covid pace. Global ad revenue across the year was up 124%, as brands placed their faith in podcasts as a valuable channel for reaching a diverse spectrum of listeners at scale.

There was a 40% increase in the number of new advertisers we worked with in 2020, and 258% growth in the number of branded content campaigns run across our network. Global giants such as T-Mobile, and powerful US players including Theragun, AMC+, Drizly, and Nectar Sleep, advertised with Acast for the first time last year — and already in 2021 we’re seeing plenty of other new brands joining our Marketplace.

All of these insights show that podcasting, in the US and further afield, is in a stronger position than ever before. The industry has shown its resolve — even when up against threat to the media landscape as severe as a global pandemic — by not only maintaining its popularity but achieving growth across the board.

With listener numbers, episode production and advertiser confidence at an all time high — and with Acast now having operations on the ground in the US, Mexico and Canada — 2021 is shaping up to be podcasting’s best year yet.

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