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Why brands should look to audio

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Credit: iStock.com/Grady Reese

Back in 1981, the English new wave band the Buggles famously warned about radio's demise in their hit song "Video Killed the Radio Star," and in the decades since, there's been no shortage of dire predictions about the industry. But to paraphrase Mark Twain, the reports of radio's death have been greatly exaggerated.

While classic radios and stereo systems of yesteryear are steadily disappearing from U.S. homes, 93 percent of Americans still tune in to the radio each week. Radio remains the dominant media in the car, and the rising popularity of voice-activated devices such as Amazon Echo, Google Home and Apple's HomePod are fueling a new audio renaissance that harks back to an era when families gathered to listen to FDR's fireside chats and shows like "The Lone Ranger" and Jack Benny.

According to the Spring 2018 Smart Audio Report from NPR and Edison Research, an estimated 43 million people over the age of 18 in this country now own at least one smart speaker. By 2022, Juniper Research predicts that Americans will be using nearly 900 million voice-assistant-enabled devices across smartphones, tablets, PCs, speakers, TVs and cars—a 95 percent increase over today.

These next-generation radios are no longer designed just for passive listening—they're smart, interactive tools that enable us to live our lives in different ways. Today, we don't look up the weather report; we call out to Google. With a few words to Alexa, groceries magically arrive at our doorstep. Siri turns off our lights and turns on our air conditioning. And for the 37 million people who listen to NPR broadcasts each week, these devices provide instant access to local public radio stations. As Julia Chen Davidson, Google Home's head of partner marketing, noted at a recent Advertising Week panel, users rely on their Google devices to "help them with the little tasks, so they can get back to the stuff that matters."

At NPR, we're seeing this audio resurgence play out across our programming and our platforms in exciting ways. This past year, smart speaker streaming has helped drive an 8 percent increase in the number of hours that people listen to digital broadcasts, while overall listenership for flagship shows like "Morning Edition" and "All Things Considered" has grown substantially over the past three years. Between 2014 and 2018, the audience for NPR podcasts more than doubled, to 130 million downloads by 16 million users each month. Young, educated, tech-savvy listeners are largely driving this boom, with a recent survey by GfK MRI finding that 40 percent of podcast listeners are between the ages of 18 and 34, and 37 percent are college graduates.

Humans are drawn to audio experiences in part because, as a species, we're wired for sound. Hearing is the only one of our senses that stays on duty when we're sleeping. Brown University neuroscientist Seth Horowitz argues that sound not only grabs our attention and evokes our memories, it actually changes our brains, stimulating our desires, emotions and imaginations in ways we don't fully recognize or understand. When it's late at night, and we're home alone, it's the sound of the creaking floorboards that makes us shiver. Through the power of sound, a radio segment or podcast can transport us from our car or living room to a war zone, a courtroom or even a galaxy far, far away.

As a marketer, I'm pleased that technology is helping us bring public radio programming to a growing audience. As a parent, I'm encouraged about the positive societal effects. The Smart Audio Report finds that 92 percent of us are listening to content with other members of our household and 66 percent are using smart speakers to entertain friends and family. More and more parents are turning to kid-friendly programs and podcasts, because they see audio as a healthier alternative to computer and TV screen time. Edison Research SVP Tom Webster notes that smart speakers provide "an unobtrusive way for entertainment and technology to be used without having to be focused on a phone or earbuds [that] shut you out of society."

What's also exciting is the way listeners are reacting to what they're hearing, including from brands that sponsor NPR. In a recent survey, 88 percent of NPR's podcast listeners say they've taken action because of a sponsor announcement—from seeing a movie to checking out a financial planning app to visiting a website—and 80 percent of NPR podcast listeners say they hold a more positive opinion of brands that support NPR.

Of course, marketers are taking note of these trends. The IAB reports that digital audio ad revenues topped $1.6 billion in 2017, a 39 percent increase over 2016. As the vice president of global media for a major financial services company commented earlier this year, "Audio offers an intimate atmosphere where people can connect with brands." Millennials, in particular, are drawn to "authenticity and storytelling."

But as marketers are learning, this new platform requires new ways of thinking. The brands that are most successful in the smart speaker space are finding creative ways to build brand loyalty in this new and unique environment. One great example is Peppercorn Media, which developed a "Word of the Day Quiz" Alexa Skill that they promoted to people listening to NPR's Flash Briefing on the Amazon Echo. In the first week alone, more than 10,000 people responded by playing the quiz—a 5.5 percent conversion rate.

Those numbers are music to any marketers' ears.

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Through rigorous reporting and unsurpassed storytelling, NPR connects with audiences across platforms: 30 million radio listeners each week, 40.7 million at NPR.org each month, 16.4 million monthly podcast users and 11M monthly streams across voice-activated devices including Google Home, Amazon Alexa and Apple HomePod. Through its distribution network—reaching more than 100 million monthly—dynamic measurement tools and high-impact sponsorship, NPR continues to define the future of listening with its commitment to taking audio everywhere.