Apple Watch: Podcasting’s Stealth Success Story

Apple’s wearable tech podcast app is growing fast and bucking the industry’s trends

By Luke Riley

In the Fall of 2018, Apple Watch users gained the ability to listen to their podcasts directly from the devices on their wrists, without the need for a companion phone. Officially called “Apple Podcasts on Apple Watch,” the app shows up separately from iPhone in our Megaphone download data, and we’ve watched as it has become a major podcast platform. It gets more monthly downloads than well-established apps like Stitcher, Castbox, and Overcast, and more downloads than all smart speakers combined. That left us with a lot of questions about who these listeners are and whether their behavior might be different from those using other apps. It turns out they are indeed listening in several unique ways.

Downloads peak in early AM and late PM

When we chart Megaphone downloads per hour of the day over the last three months (from a sample of states across the country adjusted for local time zones), two things jump out. First, Apple Podcasts on Apple Watch downloads peak at 7AM and 10PM, unlike all other downloads that peak at commuting times and generally stay highest during the workday. Second, there is a disproportionate number of downloads coming from Apple Watch that happen in the middle of the night, compared to Apple Watch’s overall share of downloads. We think these nocturnal downloads are related to how Apple Watch syncs recent episodes of your favorite podcasts from the phone while it’s charging. According to Apple: “Podcasts are downloaded when Apple Watch is connected to power and placed near your iPhone. Episodes downloaded to your Apple Watch are available even when out of range of iPhone.”

Note: Apple Watch can also stream episodes that haven’t been synced in advance, either using the paired phone’s connection or watch’s own cell service, depending on which model you have.

Downloads seem to be higher in rural states

This trend tracks across the day for all states, but most dramatically for more rural states. When we separate out the Apple Podcasts on Apple Watch percentage lines to show four different states, we see Oklahoma and Utah have a much higher share of downloads from Apple Watch than California and New York, especially later at night.

When we map out the percentage of downloads from Apple Watch, more rural states have a higher share of their downloads from Apple Watch.

This trend holds up when we chart all 50 states and Washington, DC by their census-determined percentage of rural population compared to their share of downloads from Apple Watch over the course of three months. It’s worth noting that this isn’t a super strong trend, but definitely an interesting one.

Why would we be seeing this? There’s the possibility that this is just a selection bias. Fewer people in rural areas listen to podcasts and the ones that do are possibly of a higher income, making them more likely to own an Apple Watch.

However, it’s also possible that listeners are discovering podcasts for the first time by owning an Apple Watch. Because listeners in rural states have generally been slower to adopt podcasting, it makes sense that access to a new technology simplifying podcast listening would register more noticeably in those areas–it has less competition from existing apps. We saw a similar trend with Spotify downloads, which suggests that the more methods listeners have to access podcasts, the more people will give the medium a try.

Downloads align with workout hours

The Apple Watch has been marketed as a good workout companion, so we decided to examine whether the device’s downloads match what we know about workout behavior. Apple Podcasts on Apple Watch downloads in the morning peak at 7–8AM, presumably when people are working out. Other podcast apps see more downloads a little later, at around 8–10AM, when people are commuting to work.

The evening peak is probably best explained by most users charging their watches before bed, meaning the devices are pairing with iPhones and downloading automatically. The Bureau of Labor Statistics has studied when during the day Americans typically exercise, giving us a good baseline to test our hypothesis. It looks like the weekday morning bump in exercise roughly correlates with what we see in Apple Downloads, with a peak well before morning commutes to work. The evening bump in exercise may also explain why we see Apple Watch downloads increase around 7–8PM, well before you would expect people to be putting their watches on the charger for the night.

Source: https://www.bls.gov/spotlight/2017/sports-and-exercise/pdf/sports-and-exercise.pdf

Another clue that people may be using their Apple Watch for fitness is the content they’re listening to. Looking at podcasts by their iTunes categories, we see downloads of both Health podcasts and Religion & Spirituality podcasts are disproportionately coming from Apple Podcasts on Apple Watch (compared to other categories) at every hour of the day. To me, this doesn’t necessarily suggest that Apple Watch owners are listening to this just when they work out, but that they have an overall interest in fitness and self-help that extends to their use of an Apple Watch.

We still have a lot to learn about Apple Watch listeners, and I’m excited to see how the app performs in the future. But we already have evidence that this new technology is changing what people listen to along with when and where they’re listening.