Smart Speakers are having their 2004 iPod moment

Guest columnist Steve Pratt is co-owner and Partner of Pacific Content, which creates original podcasts for brands including Slack, Mozilla, and Dell. This article originally appeared on the Pacific Content blog.

iPods → Podcasting

The year was 2004. The iPod had been out for 3 years. Loads of people were using it to play their music. And then… podcasting suddenly emerged onto the scene.

I remember hearing about Adam ‘The Podfather’ Curry and his podcast, ‘The Daily Source Code’ in the fall of 2004 and being intrigued. Most of the shows were very meta — they were all about podcasting, how it worked, how to do it, how to find ‘podsafe music,’ etc. I was listening to the creation of an entirely new medium that democratized the creation and distribution of audio content.

And what happens when, thanks to new technology, you no longer need a broadcast gatekeeper to fund and distribute your show idea? New forms of shows and content emerge. (For podcasting, it was the ‘two dudes in a basement talking for a LONG time’ format 🙂 )

Smart Speakers → ???

2018 feels like Smart Speaker version of 2004 for iPods. Technology has again emerged that is replacing another set of audio devices — smart speakers are often replacing traditional radios in the home. And much like the original iPod, the primary use of a smart speaker is… to play music.

Many wonder why podcasts are not thriving on smart speakers. My aim is to explain why podcasts (the way they are formatted currently) may not be right for what people want and need from a smart speaker.

Let’s start with the research. These are sales projections for smart speakers in 2018:

Canalys research on Smart Speaker adoption.

There are going to be close to 100 million of these devices in homes by the end of this year and there is not yet a killer app outside of playing music. And yet they are ALL audio devices — this is a problem in search of a solution. This is the 2018 equivalent of the iPod waiting for the podcast to be invented.

So apart from music, what ARE people using these new devices for currently?

Research from NPR and Edison’s Smart Audio Report 2018

There is nothing ground-breaking in here yet. Foreground listening(i.e. that requires your full ‘foreground’ attention) is short and utility-based. Background listening (i.e. that can play in the background while your full attention is focused on another task like writing emails) is traditional music and radio based. Most current podcasts demand your full ‘foreground’ attention, but they are not short and they are generally not utility-based.

So… there is a big opportunity for a new type of programming perfectly suited for the ways people use smart speakers.

It’s also important to look at when and why people use their smart speakers.

Research from NPR and Edison’s Smart Audio Report 2018

Seeing how smart speakers are used as part of daily routines, it becomes very clear why traditional podcasts are a challenge on smart speakers. Where would a 30–60 minute podcast fit? Everything until 7pm is short-form and utility-focused. Only after 7pm do games and children’s stories come into play. And after 9pm is the first sign of any adult-focused storytelling — interestingly enough through audiobooks and not through podcasts.

So what are the new opportunities? Audio content producers need to start thinking about routines and how to create content that maps to those routines.

  • In the morning, what are people looking for when they are first waking up, making breakfast, or leaving home for school or work?
  • In the evening, what types of content are suited to relaxing, preparing for the next day, getting ready for bed or falling asleep?

You need only look at the runaway success of The Daily from the New York Times to see how valuable becoming part of a morning routine can be. There are certainly other hits based on routines waiting to be developed.

Similar to routines, locations matter, too. A lot of current podcast listening is solitary activity that takes place with headphones or in cars. Smart speakers, though, are placed in rooms in your house. This is a fundamentally different context for listening. What type of audio appeals to groups of people instead of individuals? And how does the room of the house affect the type of content that would be valued?

Research from NPR and Edison’s Smart Audio Report 2018

There are new questions that audio content creators need to start thinking about if we want to find the killer apps for smart speakers. What types of content would work best in the kitchen? The living room? The bedroom? And god forbid, the bathroom?


Based on the data, it seems like there are several new content opportunities for smart speakers:

1. Routine-based content.

  • Content designed to become part of one of your routines, from a morning horoscope or sports summary to a ‘go to sleep’ meditation routine.
  • If you’re a brand, is there a morning or evening information update you can provide that people would value? (i.e. if you’re a financial institution, are you publishing a short finance/market update every morning?)
  • The key here is to be short, valuable, and either daily or weekly.

2. Concise, evergreen answers to common questions.

  • What are the questions that you want to be the answer to? Can you produce something better and more valuable than a Voice Assistant reading from Wikipedia?
  • It could be location specific queries: (‘How do I use an Instapot?’ in the kitchen or ‘What’s my BMI?’ in the bathroom.)

3. Interactive content for social environments or particular contexts.

  • Party-games or trivia games for families in living rooms.
  • Interactive cooking lessons in the kitchen.
  • Potty-training game for toddlers in the bathroom. ?

4. Original longer-form background listening ‘stations’

  • Create a radio station format that doesn’t exist yet and make it specific for the location in the house — a cooking/foodie radio station for example.
  • Create a personalized radio station that allows users to insert elements from traditional radio like news, weather and traffic at the times of the morning they want them, mixed with their own Spotify or Apple Music playlists.

These are just a few starter ideas and I’m sure everyone reading this can up with dozens more.

What’s clear to me is that much like the iPod in 2004, we are in very early stages of the smart speaker revolution and there are huge opportunities for fresh new content formats that are designed for the contexts in which people use these devices.

Steve Pratt