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Steve Goldstein: How to improve podcast listening on 60 million smart speakers. A talk with Tom Webster.

Steve Goldstein’s Amplifi Media works with media companies and podcasters in developing audio content strategies. Goldstein writes frequently at Blogstein, the Amplifi blog. Steve can be reached directly at 203-221-1400 or sjgoldstein-at-amplifimedia-dot-com.


If I had a hammer, I would hammer every morning and I would be looking for nails. If I had a drill, I would be focused on making holes. Now I see millions of little audio smart speakers in living rooms, bathrooms and kitchens all over the world and I think people should be listening to podcasts on these devices, but by-and-large they are not.

We have written about smart speakers in the past, including here and here, and it remains a frustration knowing overall consumption of audio on smart speakers is on the rise, and while podcast listening is also up, it lags. Meanwhile, it is easier than ever to surface podcasts on Google Nest and Amazon Alexa devices, and likely to improve.

We sat down with Edison Research’s SVP Tom Webster to get his take on the disconnect between smart speakers and podcasts. Tom is a walking intersecting Venn diagram at the cross between podcasts and smart speakers.

Lets start at 10,000 feet before we drill down to podcasts. What percent of all audio is being consumed on smart speakers?

4% of audio, as a function of time, is consumed through smart speakers and that includes AM/FM, streams and everything else.  That’s not nothing.

Pre-pandemic, podcast listening on smart speakers was pretty anemic .. something like 1%.  Has this super fun Covid period with people at home had an impact on podcast listening on these devices?  

We’ve seen a bit of growth. If you’re playing podcast conference bingo, I wouldn’t call it “hockey stick” growth. We’ve done a pretty good job training well over a third of the country to listen to podcasts on their phones. They have to be given a reason to listen to podcasts on their smart speaker when their phones are on them all the time.

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Speaking of podcast bingo – many podcasters say that the “intimacy” of podcasts means people choose earbuds over speakers.  Does that mean smart speakers are out of the running?  Edison’s data shows plenty of people co-listening to smart speakers.  

There is some content that is certainly uniquely suited to that, but it’s the content that’s suited to that and not the medium itself. My wife and I listen to a daily news podcast on our smart speaker every day. That’s content that we enjoy listening to together. We both like it. So why would we sit in corners with two different phones and two different sets of earbuds?

In the latest Spoken Word Audio report, which we do with NPR, we ask “do you ever listen to spoken word with other people” and 58% said yes. There are some podcasts that maybe are not suited for smart speaker consumption, but I think that stat alone sort of puts the lie to the fact that there’s something endemic to the medium.

Do do you think certain types of content, say shorter content, is more viable on a smart speaker?

Well, it’s my opinion that’s the case. When you’re listening on a smart speaker you are tied to a room and people move around.  I usually go for an hour walk every day, and that’s a great time for me to listen to longer podcasts, but, you know, maybe I’m not going to be in my kitchen for an hour.

There is some confusion between smart speakers and other types of voice assistants.  Let’s unpack that a bit.  

Right. It’s the voice assistant technology that’s relevant here, not the cylindrical or disc shaped device that sits on your kitchen counter.

The speaker itself is going to have some utility and maybe that utility is going to be tied to a room, but you start putting that technology in the car and I think all bets are off like all of these assumptions about podcasting being intimate and not well-suited for smart speakers. We are going to be asking for this content in our cars all the time, whether we’re by ourselves or with other people.

Nothing Irritates Me More Than Hearing People From Podcast Hosting Companies, Or Even Some Podcast Content Companies Belittling The Importance Of Smart Speakers To Podcasts. 

Your report shows big changes with voice assistants. People are doing less typing and more talking to all sorts of voice assistants, especially on smartphones.  56% use a voice assistant on a smart phone for search and commands. That’s a remarkable number, and I’m guessing they are doing more than asking for the weather.  

The smart speaker is not the be-all-end-all of this. There is a limit on the percentage of people in America that are going to invite these things into their homes. There are privacy issues, security issues, and those are valid.

People are using the technology that they already have in their pocket. It continues to be easier to pull the phone out of your pocket and click an app.

The big question is “how can I make this person’s life easier?” Like, I can’t keep track of what’s on Netflix and what’s on HBO Max. But if I could just talk into my remote and it just plays on TV, that’s functionally magic.

I watch my son talk to Siri multiple times a day to do things that I don’t even think about asking Siri. Because I am, you know, past my good years.

Podcast discovery, or for that matter any type of discovery with voice assistants and smart speakers is pretty tricky.

No kidding. I’ll share a personal frustration with you, I do a podcast with my wife called the “Freenoter.” I can’t listen to that on my smart speaker, because “freenoter” is not a word. What makes it brilliant in Google makes it unfindable on a smart speaker. I asked for it one time and I got a Notre Dame podcast. That’s gotta get worked out.

You Have All Of This Innovation Being Poured Into Skills To Help Connect People With Brands, But It’s Not What People Want. Consumers Want Utilitarian Things. 

Let’s talk about “Skills” for Amazon Alexa. At the beginning of the smart speaker craze, every company and many podcasters developed Skills and Flash Briefings. It feels like the bloom is off the rose.  

I think you are right. The vast majority of them have probably not worked. It’s early days and in the early days of anything, effort is really tilted more towards innovation. What the everyday consumer uses these devices for is to listen to music, spoken word audio, to get the weather and to set laundry and kitchen timers. You have all of this innovation being poured into skills to help connect people with brands, but it’s not what people want. Consumers want utilitarian things.

Right, they want low friction and ease of use and words like “open” to engage a Skill don’t work because it’s not natural vernacular as opposed to uttering the word “play.”   

It’s not going to ingratiate into the lives of everyday consumers with nomenclature like that. You’re a hundred percent right.

In your research, I’m wondering how many people take the time to curate their listening experiences or just use the default settings?

There is a percentage of the American public that will take the pains necessary to ensure that their top of mind preference is what they’re getting in their Flash Briefings, but there is a larger percentage of Americans that will default to the default, that’s why its called default.  For many it just requires more thought than it’s worth. It requires more importance than they allocate to that device or to that channel.

We’ve Looked At The Intersection Of The Venn Diagram Of Smart Speaker Listeners And Podcast Listeners And There’s Enormous Overlap. 

What is the awareness level is among smart speaker users that podcasts are even available on the devices?

That’s an interesting question. I would say it’s not a hundred percent. For the past, three or four years in our Smart Audio reports with NPR, we’ve looked at the intersection of the Venn diagram of smart speaker listeners and podcast listeners and there’s enormous overlap.

I’m pretty sure there is a federal law that all podcasts must end with the host saying, “or wherever you get your podcasts.”  I wonder if they might benefit from adding smart speakers into that sentence. 

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This sort of goes back to default behavior. Interestingly and we have seen this and have some data on the increasing prevalence of smart audio devices that have screens. I think really that’s part of the key to completely unlock this.  People who have devices with screens say that it’s easier to discover things and to find content.

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I could not agree more. The report shows nearly one third of people have screens. That’s pretty remarkable. 

Amazon started early, but Google has done a magnificent job also with their Nest Hub devices. Sometimes voice is not easy, but a screen makes it easier.

Earlier this year Apple announced an integration between Apple Podcasts and Alexa to sync up like Audible does, so whether you are on your mobile or smart speaker, it knows where to pick up the podcast you are listening to. 

I’m not often a speculator, but I’m going to speculate something. My suspicion is that if you get one of these devices, you size it up for what it can do, and then don’t pay as much attention to all of the changes and upgrades that happen in the background.

What do you think changes with Amazon now getting into the podcast business? 

When you first got an Amazon smart speaker device, the integration with Audible was very good, now with Amazon getting more involved with podcasts, it’s probably good news for podcast listeners in general. Any attention podcasting can get from the three voice assistant giants is good news for podcast listeners.

Nothing irritates me more than hearing people from podcast hosting companies, or even some podcast content companies belittling the importance of smart speakers to podcasts.

The more the experience can improve, and the more people can be aware that it’s improved and a pleasant user experience, then that’s to the benefit of every podcaster.

I agree. It’s another channel for audience development. 1.5 million podcasts is an awful lot of podcast content to divide up over the current base of listeners. The only way more podcasters are going to be successful over time is by increasing the number of people that are listening to podcasts. 

Exactly right. The more it gets into the car and other places the more listening will occur.

Give me a little Webster philosophy to get us on our way.

I always come back to this, one of my favorite quotes is by William Gibson, the science fiction author; “You know, the future is already here, it’s just not evenly distributed.”

Valuable viewpoints and data. Thanks very much Tom.

Listening to audio is a primary and growing activity on smart speakers. Millions of speakers has to be a good thing. In our work with clients, we find consumer action rarely occurs without two key sequential factors; awareness and interest.

Awareness of being able to listen to podcasts on smart speakers is low. Maybe that’s because podcasters have not encouraged the habit.

I think I’ll pull out my hammer.

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Steve Goldstein

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