Listening: It’s not just for audio

Understanding how people listen

When we first set out to study listening behaviors, we focused on audio content. After all, audio is what people listen to, right? It quickly became apparent, however, that people also often listen to videos and multimedia content. Listening isn’t just for audio — it’s for any situation where we don’t (or can’t) use our eyes and thus our ears dominate.

Why do we care that people are listening to videos as a primary mode of accessing content? Because in the past, technologists and content creators have often treated video, audio and text as distinct content types — after all, they are different types of file formats. But the people consuming content care less about the media or file type and more about the experience of accessing content. With advances in web, mobile, and ubiquitous technology, we’re seeing a convergence in media experience. We anticipate this convergence will continue with the emergence of voice-based platforms.

How do we know people are “listening” to video?

In our survey on podcast listening behaviors (find out more in our companion blog post), we asked what apps people use to listen. YouTube was the second most popular app, with 24% of podcast listeners. Only Apple Podcasts had more listeners:

Which of these do you use to listen to podcasts?

Youtube is the second most popular channel for podcasts, after Apple Podcasts.

We found that 38% of our survey respondents listen to podcasts daily. Note that we asked this question for each device (i.e., How often do you listen on your phone? On a smart speaker? etc.) The graph above shows the highest listening frequency each person. For example, someone who listens on Alexa a few times a month and on a phone daily would be classified as a daily listener. This could result in an underestimate of each respondent’s overall listening frequency.

Our survey also showed that YouTube and web browsers are more popular with infrequent podcast listeners and are often used as a secondary app. (More here!)

We found the prevalence of YouTube as a listening platform surprising, so we conducted a follow-up survey to get more information on the range of things people listen to in addition to podcasts. In this survey, deployed via the Firefox web browser, we asked which listening related activities people do at least once a month. Here’s what we found:

60% of people surveyed listen to podcasts at least once a month.

In the Survey Monkey panel, 56% of people at least occasionally listen to podcasts, which is still higher than Pew’s findings, but more more comparable. In contrast, 91% of the people who accessed the survey via Reddit and Mozilla’s social media channels listen to podcasts at least occasionally, and 62% say they listen daily.

We found that 60% of survey respondents said they “listen” to streaming videos at least once a month (note that we explicitly used the word listen, not watch). Of the range of listening activities we asked about, “listening” to streaming videos was more popular than listening to podcasts or listening to radio. In fact, it was more popular than every activity except listening to streaming music.

How and why are people listening to video?

We were also curious about how often people listen to video content, what platforms they use to listen to video content, and why they listen to video content.

We asked people how often they do various listening activities (listening to streaming music, listening to podcasts, listening to content on a smart speaker, listening to streaming videos, etc.) and then sorted them based on frequency:

People listen to music a lot; audio books are pretty rare.

On the left are activities tend to do rarely (50% of audiobook listeners say they do this a few times a month or less). On the right are activities that people tend to do daily (more than 60% of streaming video listeners say they do this daily). Note that “listening” to videos, either on the TV or on the web, falls in the middle. People are split pretty evenly between doing this a few times a week and doing them daily.

We also asked open-ended questions about the type of content people listen to and why they listen. People use streaming video as a listening platform for three main reasons: (1) access to content, (2) adaptability to environmental contexts, (3) integration of features that aren’t common in podcasting apps.

Content: Access to content you can’t get anywhere else, and it’s all in one place

Our survey respondents noted that lots of audio-focused content that is only available on YouTube or on the web. People pointed to video and audio podcasts (“A lot of podcasts are only uploaded to YouTube nowadays”) as well as lectures, debates, old radio programs, movies and TV. People valued both the availability of this content as well as the convenience of being able to listen to multiple types of content (audio or otherwise) in one place. As one person commented, “I can seamlessly switch from audio content (podcasts) to video content.”

Context: In situations where you simply can’t watch, you listen to video

One survey respondent listens to news from YouTube videos while driving. Another person says a, “web browser allows me to listen at work in another tab.” In both of these situations, the person is listening in order to multitask and because they can’t use their eyes to watch the video. We also got a lot of comments about transitioning between watching and listening, or between devices as people move from contexts where they can use their eyes to contexts where they can’t. One person wrote, “My dream scenario: start watching a video on my computer then pick up my phone and continue listening to the audio part of this video, then come back to my computer and continue with video.”

Features: Platforms like YouTube have features that aren’t common in podcasting apps

Many survey respondents also noted features that they valued from YouTube that aren’t available in some popular podcasting apps, like recommendations of what to listen to next, being able to comment on episodes, being able to pick up where they left off, and being able to manage playlists. One YouTube listener highlighted, “The fact that I get to comment on the content, rather than something like Apple’s Podcast app which doesn’t allow for discussion or feedback either to other listeners or to the creators.” Another pointed out, “Ability to bookmark and share at specific times.” Many of these features exist in some form in podcasting apps, but aren’t standard or aren’t as integrated into the listening experience.

What are the implications of listening to video?

As product designers and content producers, we tend to think about content in terms of media types — is this video, audio or text? But people experience media in a much more fluid manner. There is a flexibility inherent in a multimedia or multi-modal experience that allows people to listen, or watch, or read, or do any combination of the three when it best suits them. For example, one person uses YouTube as a listening platform because of the “auto-captions which I can export for future reading and citation.” Another listener treats video elements as supplementary to audio, noting: “I also like the added visual stimulation when I want it.” Instead of deciding “I need to watch a video now” or “I need to listen to audio content now,” people make media decisions based on what information is in content and how they can fit it into their lives.

Listening to video sketch

Sketch by Jordan Wirfs-Brock

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