Podcast Enthusiasts and Podcast Newbies
Podcasts are quickly becoming a cultural staple. Between 2013 and 2018, the percent of Americans over age 12 who had ever listened to a podcast jumped from 27% to 44%, according to the Pew Research Center. Yet just 17% of Americans have listened to a podcast in the past week. So we wanted to know: What distinguishes people who listen to podcasts weekly, or even daily, from people who only listen occasionally? Do frequent and infrequent podcast listeners have different values, needs and preferences? To put it another way, are there different kinds of podcast listeners?
To explore this question, Mozilla did a series of surveys and interviews to understand how people listen to podcasts — how often they listen, how many shows they listen to, what devices they use, how they discover content, and what features of the listening experience matter most to them. Here’s what we found.
There is a subset of dedicated, frequent podcast listeners…and they listen a lot
We released a short survey on podcast listening habits to a representative of sample of Americans (as recruited through Survey Monkey) and a targeted group of audio-enthusiasts (distributed via subReddits such as r/podcast and r/audiodrama and Mozilla’s social media accounts). In this survey, we asked people how often they listen to podcasts:
How often do you listen to podcasts (across all devices)?
A bimodal pattern is emerging: People tend to either listen very infrequently (a few times a month) or very frequently (every day). At first, we found it surprising that podcast listenership in our survey was much more common than in Pew’s results. However, when we separated out the results by the Survey Monkey panel (which is roughly comparable to the general U.S. population) and our Reddit and social media channels, here’s what we found:
How often do you listen to podcasts (across all devices)?
The listening distribution of these two populations are inverted. People who follow podcasting-related social media tend to listen a lot. This may seem like an obvious connection, but it suggests that we may find some interesting results if we look at the daily listeners and other podcast listeners separately.
Frequent and infrequent podcast listeners use different technologies
Smartphones are by far the dominant devices for podcast listening. But when we split apart listeners by frequency, we see that smartphone listening is more dominant among daily listeners, whereas laptop and desktop listening is more dominant among monthly listeners: 38% of podcast listeners use smartphones to listen daily; conversely, 27% of podcast listeners use laptops or desktops to listen a few times a month. We also found that frequent podcast listeners are more likely to use multiple types of devices to listen to podcasts.
How often do you listen to podcasts on these different devices?
This distinction in technology use also plays out when we look at the apps/software people use to listen. Apple Podcasts/Apple iTunes is the most popular listening app across all listeners. However, daily listeners use a broader distribution of apps. This could indicate that frequent listeners are experimenting to find the listening experience that best fits their needs. Monthly listeners, on the other hand, are much more likely to listen in a web browser (and may not even have a podcasting app installed on their phone at all). YouTube is popular across all listeners, but proportionately more common with infrequent listeners.
Which podcasting apps do you use?
Why might infrequent listeners be more likely to listen in web browsers and on platforms like YouTube? Perhaps newer and infrequent podcast listeners haven’t developed listening routines, or haven’t committed to a particular device or app for listening. If they are accessing audio content ad hoc, the web may be easier and more convenient than using an app.
In addition to this broad scale survey data, we can learn more from in-depth interviews with podcast listeners. Podcasting newbies and podcast enthusiasts have different behaviors — but what about their values? To dig into this question, we interviewed seven people who self-define as podcast enthusiasts, as well as drawing from fieldwork over the summer in Seattle and three European cities to understand listening behaviors. We learned a few key things from those studies, particularly around how people think about subscriptions, and how they learn about new podcasts.
“Subscriptions” don’t fully capture how people actually listen
While avid podcast listeners may subscribe to a long list of shows (up to 72 among the people we interviewed), they tend to be devoted to a smaller subset of shows, typically between 2 and 10, that they listen to on a regular basis. With these “regular rotation” shows, listeners catch new episodes soon after they are released and might even go back and re-listen to episodes multiple times. For listeners who have a core set of shows in their regular rotation, diving into a completely new podcast requires a significant amount of mental effort and time.
Several people we interviewed use subscriptions as a “save for later” feature, storing shows that they might want to listen to some day. But having a long list of aspirational podcasts can be overwhelming. One listener, for example, only wants shows “to be in front of me when I’m in the mood…So I’m trying be meticulous about subscribing and unsubscribing. They should have a different action that you can do, like your list of ‘when I’m ready for something new.’”
Relationships with podcasts come and go. As one listener described it, every day, “I’m going to eat breakfast. But I definitely have gone through phases in my life. Every morning I eat oatmeal….And then suddenly I hate that…I kind of feel like my podcast listening comes and goes and waves like that.”
One listener we interviewed is more of a grazer, roaming from show to show based on topics she is currently interested in: “I’ll just jump around, and I’ll try different things…I usually don’t subscribe.” For her, the concept of subscription doesn’t fit her listening patterns at all.
These themes indicate that perhaps the notion of “subscription” isn’t nuanced enough to capture the complex and dynamic ways people develop and break relationships with podcast content.
Word of mouth and podcast cross-promotion are powerful ways to discover content
Podcast enthusiasts use many strategies to figure out what to listen to, but one strategy dominates: When we asked podcast enthusiasts how they discover new content, every single person brought up word of mouth. The interviewees all also found cross-promotion — when podcast hosts mention another show they enjoy — to be effective because it’s a recommendation that comes from a trusted voice.
The podcast enthusiasts we spoke with described additional ways they discover content, including browsing top charts, looking to trusted brands, finding recommendations on social media, reading “best of” lists, and following a content producer from another medium (like an author or a TV star) onto a podcast. However, none of these strategies were as common, or as salient, as word of mouth or cross-promotion. Methods of content discovery can reinforce each other, producing a snowball effect. One listener noted, “I might hear it from like the radio. Sort of an anonymous source first, and then I hear it from a friend, ‘Like oh I heard about that. You just told me about it. I should definitely go check it out now.’” If listeners hear about a show from multiple avenues, they are more likely to invest time in listening to it.
Word of mouth goes both ways and podcast listeners’ enthusiasm for talking about podcasts isn’t limited to other fanatics. They often recommend podcasts to non-listeners, both entire shows and specific episodes that are contextually relevant. For example, one interviewee noted that, “Whenever I have a conversation about something interesting with someone I’ll say, ‘Oh I heard a Planet Money about that’ and I will refer them to it.” For frequent podcast listeners, podcast content serves as a kind of conversational currency.
What does this all mean?
Podcast listeners are not a homogenous group. Product designers should consider people who listen a little and people who listen a lot; people who are new to podcasts and people who are immersed in podcast culture; people who are still figuring out how to listen and people who have built strong listening habits and routines. These distinct groups each bring their own values and preferences to the listening experience. By considering and addressing them, we can design listening products that better fit diverse listening needs.
We also asked about listening behaviors beyond just podcasts. To learn more about that, check out our companion post, Listening: It’s not just for audio.