What are podcasts and why are they booming?

Target groups, authors and paths to success

Not a day goes by without a new podcast making headlines. Listeners enjoy gripping stories, while journalists and brands have discovered the podcast medium as a new communication channel.

Podcasts are on everyone’s lips: Every third person already listens to a podcast at least occasionally. And the number of podcast listeners is expected to double in the next few years. More and more creative people are starting their own podcasts and more and more companies see podcasts as a direct line to their target group.

At the beginning of the year, a memorable moment occurred: for the first time, more than half of the respondents in a survey said they had already listened to a podcast at least once in their lives. Many train and car drivers, joggers and hobby cooks can no longer imagine life without audio stories.

What is a podcast?

“Podcast” is a neologism made up of the legendary Apple iPod and the English word “broadcast”. The term simply refers to the distribution channel: Anything that sounds and can be subscribed to via an app or iTunes is considered a podcast. Video podcasts are also possible, but far less common. This article is exclusively about audio.

The contents and types of podcasts vary widely. The boom was started by the true-crime format “Serial”, in which journalists reopened a real murder case in elaborately produced audio pieces. Dozens, sometimes hundreds of hours of work go into a single episode of such podcasts.

Much more common, however, are simpler formats like “Hotel Matze”, which are no less worth listening to: Two or more people talk about a topic, record the conversation and publish it in one piece. People talk about “talk podcasts”, but true fans do not mean this in a disrespectful way.

One in three people already listen to podcasts. And the global podcast audience is expected to double in the next few years, according to Google.

The podcast format was invented at Apple, where it eked out a shadowy existence for a long time before exploding with the advent of smartphones. Statisticians now count around 700,000 podcasts – and the number will continue to rise. Because Google is now pushing the format. Google manager Zack Reneau-Wedeen announced that they want to double the global podcast audience in the next few years. The third big player is Spotify. The Swedish music streamer recently bought up the podcast label Gimlet and the hoster Anchor, and its war chest is further filled: Spotify wants to invest 500 million Swiss francs in podcasting. For good reason, because podcasts are listened to by a very attractive target group.

How do you listen to a podcast?

That’s the beauty of the format: everyone in possession of a smartphone has a podcast player in their pocket. Apple Podcasts” is preinstalled on iPhones. Simply open it, type a term into the search field or tap one of the suggested titles, and you’re listening.

On newer Android phones, the app “Google Podcasts” is installed, which works very similarly. Otherwise, Pocket Casts or Spotify are recommended. Many people already use the latter app for music streaming. However, podcasts can also be found via the search function.

Who consumes podcasts?

This was investigated by ARD’s advertising and market research agency, AS&S, in a representative study for Germany. According to the study, a good 50% of respondents knew the term “podcast” in 2017. 30% had listened to at least one podcast in the last 12 months. 15% said they listened to at least one podcast a week. At the time, this corresponded to a listener group of 10-20 million people in Germany alone – not including the audience in the rest of the German-speaking world.

30% of listeners are under 30 years old. 40% belong to the 30-49 age group. And still 30% are over 50 years old.

Other characteristics also make typical podcast listeners an attractive target group: according to the study, they are well educated and have an above-average income. In addition, they can be addressed in a differentiated way with podcasts by tailoring the episodes to their own target group.

Podcast as a hobby

Many creatives make podcasts purely for fun. Projects like “Herrengedeck” are works of pure passion. The creators are not (primarily) interested in making money, but in the community and the topic. For example, the Swiss journalist Giulia Creasta started her sex podcast “spitzohr” because in her opinion there is too little open talk about sex. She does the podcast primarily for those around her, she says. If other people listen, that’s a nice plus.

Journalistic podcasts

The second motivation is a journalistic one: more and more media houses are experimenting with the format. Swiss radio SRF, for example, successfully launched the series “Edi” about the life of a petty criminal. The audio pieces were first launched as podcasts and only aired on the radio much later. Every Wednesday, the Süddeutsche Zeitung goes into depth in “Das Thema” about a topic the newspaper is currently covering. And Die Zeit produces “Servus, Grüezi, Hallo”, a trinational “chat podcast” in which a journalist from Germany, Austria and Switzerland talk about the peculiarities of each of the three countries. The media houses have the advantage that their journalists have mastered storytelling (even if the print journalists still have to acquire the audio know-how) and that they have a large platform with which they can publicise the podcasts. The big American podcast role models “This American Life”, Radiolab or Serial are also journalistic in nature.

Podcasts as a marketing channel for brands

The third group of podcast producers are brands and companies that have discovered podcasts as a communication channel and marketing tool. The taxi company Lyft portrays its drivers in “Pick me up”, Slack tells stories from the world of work in “Slack Variety Pack” and in “HeadLights” Daimler CEO Dieter Zetsche himself talks about his beginnings at the German carmaker. At a time when the media is struggling with dwindling reach, companies are looking for new communication channels. In addition to social media, which they fill with short fodder, they rely on podcasts for longer, more complex and more intensive content. They value the direct line they can establish with their biggest fans. The fact that typical podcast listeners have above-average purchasing power (see above) increases the attractiveness of the medium even more.

The quality of corporate podcasts varies widely: some make their first attempts in-house, have heard that podcasting is easy and just start. Others rely on professional podcast agencies such as Gimlet Creative (USA), Podcastmania (Germany) or the Swiss Podcast-Schmiede.

Easy access, steep path to the summit

The beauty of the podcast medium is actually the low barrier to entry. Anyone can become a podcaster. The downside is that many podcasts get lost in the mass of new releases. Although there are more and more listeners, they have an almost endless choice. That’s why a successful podcast needs a strong concept with a clear focus, audio know-how, good marketing and a lot of perseverance. More on this in a later article.

Nico Leuenberger ist Gründer der Podcast-Schmiede, die Podcasts für Brands und Organisationen produziert. Er moderiert den Podcast des Think Tanks Avenir Suisse und hat mit "abverheit - Ideen, die nicht funktionierten" einen Podcast übers Scheitern kreiert. Nico hat Journalismus und Organisationskommunikation studiert und lange beim Radio gearbeitet, bevor er sich der Zukunft des Audio-Storytelling verschrieb.

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