Listen Up: 2018 Podcast Predictions

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Podcasters will offer more fiction series like Marvel's forthcoming 'Wolverine: The Long Night,' Corey Layton writes.
Podcasters will offer more fiction series like Marvel's forthcoming 'Wolverine: The Long Night,' Corey Layton writes. Credit: Marvel Entertainment

Over the last 12 months, the podcast playground has matured into a serious business. It was a year marked by unprecedented funding, acquisitions, analytics and TV deals. Content too continues to grow, commanding ever-growing audiences and setting new records. With investigative journalism podcast "S-Town" capturing a monumental 40 million downloads in its first month, it's no surprise that publishers and celebrities are swarming to create their own hit series.

The unboxing of voice-activated devices like Google Home and Amazon Alexa this Christmas will underpin an explosion in podcasting and, more broadly, audio-on-demand in 2018. Before we dive into my predictions for next year, let's appraise my predictions for 2017.

  • Technology: As predicted, Apple is supplying creators with more detailed consumption data analytics. This provides a strong foundation on which to build content that resonates and increased monetization. I believe these analytics can and will continue to deepen in future.
  • Discovery: Again as predicted, television networks are taking on new podcast-inspired formats and talent, raising podcasting's profile. Voice-activated speakers continue to spread wildly, putting a critical mass tipping point within sight.
  • Monetization: Progress is steady, with a continuing growth of brand podcasts and dynamic ad insertion, both direct response and, now, brand. Dynamic content insertion is still getting off the ground, but expect to hear more topical content inserted into evergreen formats in 2018.
  • Content - Sports Podcasts: ESPN's 30 for 30 series has demonstrated the power of applying narrative storytelling to sports, but sports bodies and broadcasters have been slow to respond to these new opportunities. They have the tales and talent at their fingertips, plus the content-hungry brands ready to fund it. I hope that the coming year will see longform narrative sports podcasts kick goals.

So what's in store for 2018? Let's gaze into the podcast pool ...

Content: fictional franchises

If 2017 was the year that Hollywood was awakened to leveraging podcast formats such as "Startup," "Homecoming," "Lore" and "Welcome to Night Vale," then 2018 is the year that podcasts will benefit from the intellectual property exchange. Not only will these format extensions raise awareness and uptake of listening, the franchises will double back in return.

Disney subsidiary Marvel will lead the charge in early 2018, bringing Wolverine to podcasts with "The Long Night." Expect to see more blockbuster franchises diving into the podcast pool with a wave of scripted fiction.

For Hollywood, the medium provides the perfect storytelling platform to build hype in the lead-up to a film's release. Equally, it allows documentary film and TV shows to release long-form interviews from footage that hit the cutting room floor due to time restrictions. We'll also see subplot storylines told via podcasts, syncing up with weekly TV drama releases.

Discovery: tag and search

Podcasting awareness was high in 2017 (U.S. 60%; AUS 72%), although there is an imperative to convert awareness to listening. Apple will build the scaffolding that makes it even simpler for listeners to source their podcast-of-choice. Apple recently acquired Pop Up Archive, providing access to the podcast search engine, which helps listeners navigate the ocean of content.

Wikimedia's Melody Kramer points out that better logic is coming to podcast search, thanks to Apple's investment and facilitated by search improvements in voice-activated speakers. With voice-to-text transcription becoming the norm, logical searches that surface not just entire series but individual episodes are within reach. Soon, users will be able to source podcast content based on their interests, mood or, more broadly, top trends in a specific niche.

Monetization: target and transparency

With improved search capabilities comes better targeting. Transcribing technology will decipher which episodes reference certain topics most frequently, which will enable host providers to catalogue and monetize the highest-ranking content. For instance, not only will dog enthusiasts be able to target individual, canine-friendly episodes, but dog food brands will be able to dynamically insert into them. The key is for the podcasting industry to not fall into the online programmatic traps of the past, racing to the bottom with low value, poorly targeted and executed spots. Instead, the industry must deliver podcast-specific creative that resonates with listeners, makers and, ultimately, brands.

Apple's new analytics, which capture time spent listening and data-skipping, should resolve the final reservations of advertisers. The industry will be more transparent than ever and able to report with increased accuracy on listening. Understanding which podcasts drive the most audience engagement will force the tightening up of lower-performing shows. More detailed analytics will allow for a deeper understanding of the likely success of new formats, styles and genres. And the age old question, "How long should a podcast be?" might become a whole lot clearer.

Technology: one app to rule them all

Expect to see Spotify take a bite out of Apple's dominance, introducing its dedicated listener base to podcasts. The platform is curating a premium pack of podcasts while continuing to invest in not just original series but high calibre talent, able to convert audiences en masse to a mix of on-demand and live-streamed content.

As Spotify's spotlight offers a high-profile listening platform for Android users, Google will engage to become a true cross-platform destination for podcasts. With both services gathering deep data, their recommendation algorithms will step up discovery and enhance the playlist culture.

Next month's Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas is likely to confirm 2018 as the Year of Voice. Communicating with robots through voice-activated devices will become pass—ź. With 70 pecent of smart speaker owners listening to more audio since buying the devices, the industry will continue to benefit in the broader audio-on-demand context. Podcasts and robot-voiced utility content will seamlessly splice together, leading the way for a raft of unique interactive formats and use cases. The technology will also facilitate increased demand for short-form formats and topical news content, in the vein of The New York Times' "The Daily" and live streams.

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CORRECTION: An earlier version of this op-ed said 70 percent of smart speaker owners listen to podcasts, citing a report by NPR and Edison Research. It should have said 70% of smart speaker owners listen to more audio since buying it.

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