Podcasting Plots to Retain New Listeners Post-Pandemic by Embracing Niche Topics, New Promotional Strategies

22% of consumers say they listened to podcasts more than usual during the pandemic, as podcast companies observe spikes in niche-topic titles
(Getty / athima tongloom)
April 12, 2021 at 12:00 pm UTC

Key Takeaways

  • 32% of Americans say they now listen to podcasts at least weekly.

  • Several podcast companies say they saw spikes in listenership through the pandemic, even during typically slow periods for the industry.

The business of podcasting seems to have proven immune to the negative impacts of the coronavirus pandemic. 

The industry has seen an increase in listenership, according to Morning Consult trend data and insights from industry leaders, which includes new listeners discovering the medium for the first time, as well as existing fans listening to podcasts more frequently. Advertisers have caught on and maintained a growing interest in the medium throughout the pandemic.

Podcasting is a “sticky medium,” said Jason Saldanha, chief of business development and content at PRX, a non-profit audio company responsible for distributing titles such as “TED Talks Daily” and “The Moth Radio Hour,” so many executives anticipate that new listeners will stick around.

But as vaccines become more widely available and the country prepares to return to its new normal this year, podcast companies are nevertheless preparing strategies to hold onto those listeners who became invested during the pandemic: embracing niche topics, signing on more celebrities and expanding their marketing.

Roughly one-quarter (22 percent) of U.S. adults said they’re listening to podcasts more due to social distancing and stay-at-home habits, according to a Morning Consult survey conducted March 23-26, 2021, a slight uptick compared to 18 percent who said the same when Morning Consult asked in March 2020.

About 1 in 3 Americans (32 percent) said they now listen to podcasts at least once a week, according to the most recent survey. When asked to reflect on their pre-pandemic listening habits, 26 percent said they streamed podcasts at least weekly. 

Those figures are reflective of internal data at leading podcasting companies and, notably, buck seasonal trends which usually see lulls in the summer and winter holiday months.

PRX, which typically sees more than 70 million downloads per month, saw downloads increase by 33 percent from 2019 to 2020 for a total of more than 1 billion downloads, said Chief Marketing Officer Donna Hardwick. In November, that increase was 54 percent, and 29 percent in December.

Wonder Media Network, an independent podcast company that creates educational content surrounding social justice topics, saw downloads remain high in August, typically a low month in terms of downloads industry-wide, said co-founder and Chief Marketing Officer Shira Atkins, with many listeners and creators vacationing.

The network’s “Encyclopedia Womannica” show, for example, saw listenership increase by 40 percent year over year from August 2019 to August 2020, Atkins said.

Although podcast companies have more or less adapted to listeners’ new consumption habits, adjusting their content, production and promotion strategies, summer and fall of 2021 will likely bring yet another shift in consumer behavior.

Niche podcasts are one key area for growth. The genre, which highlights interests such as gardening and baking, saw a spike in interest during the pandemic, and companies are betting that this space could be an area for opportunity.

That’s the case for iHeartMedia Inc., a radio giant and one of the largest publishers of podcasts, which also saw growth in both podcasts about niche topics and across its overall network. It was up to 30 million unique listeners last month alone, a record for the company, said Hetal Patel, iHeartMedia’s executive vice president of corporate research and analytics.

The company is gearing up to launch a slate of travel shows as that industry rebounds, for instance, with some fronted by unknown creators living in interesting places and others led by celebrities.

“We want to be there if podcasting moves into more and more niche genres,” said Conal Byrne, chief executive of iHeartMedia Digital Audio Group.

The celebrity podcast is also here to stay, executives agreed, with A-list celebrities such as Bruce Springsteen -- who now hosts a show with former President Barack Obama -- and Demi Lovato signing on in 2021 to get behind the mic, and even more who launched podcasts in 2020.

Saldanha said that while celebrity-led podcasts drive visibility for the industry, not all of them are of the best quality. PRX plans to marry access to Hollywood talent that came as a result of the pandemic with its production and storytelling capabilities to engage audiences moving forward, he said.

iHeartMedia, which has been in the celebrity podcasts game since before the pandemic, partnering with the likes of Will Ferrell and Shonda Rhimes, also plans to continue recruiting A-listers for audio projects, Byrne said.

And while kids’ podcasts boomed during the pandemic, Rob Walch, vice president of podcaster relations at Libsyn, a podcast platform that hosts more than 75,000 shows, predicted that older audiences will increase their listening when they go back to their offices, presenting opportunities for podcasters who can target that demographic.

“It’s harder to listen at home to a podcast than it is when you’re on your own,” Walch said. “You’re not going to listen to ‘The Joe Rogan Experience’ with your kids in the room.”

To assuage consumer demand, podcasters across the board have increased their output, experts said, quickly crowding the marketplace in the past year. 

“The volume of content has never been higher, but we’re still fighting for only five or six slots in the average listener’s playlist,” said Will Malnati, chief executive of At Will Media, an independent podcast studio that creates branded podcasts for partners including Netflix Inc. and Verizon Communications Inc. 

As podcasting continues to increasingly overlap with other digital mediums, with movie stars taking to audio and TV series investing in official companion podcasts, the industry is looking to expand its marketing and promotion strategies to different platforms.

For big networks such as iHeartMedia, it’s fairly easy to “use all of our marketing firepower to shout very loudly” about new shows, Byrne said. For the small and mid-sized podcast companies that account for such a large portion of the industry, however, standing out takes a bit more calculation and planning. In the post-pandemic era, many of these companies are leaning into social media marketing. 

At PRX, Hardwick’s team is exploring opportunities on audio platforms such as Clubhouse and expects to roll out content there sometime this summer. 

Jessica Cordova Kramer, co-founder and chief executive of Lemonada Media, said promoting shows on Instagram has proven successful, and that the company will continue to analyze trends on the platform to optimize its campaigns as consumer behavior changes.

“I expect when people go back to work, our social content might need to go up at different times if people aren’t constantly online anymore,” Kramer said. “Right now, people are listening to podcasts whenever then can, but we expect when people start going back to a commute, those numbers will fluctuate more throughout the day.”

While specific listening habits might change yet again, it’s not likely that new podcast fans will abandon the medium or the shows they’ve discovered in the past year anytime soon.

“Avid podcast listeners have only found new opportunities to listen to podcasts that’ll likely last and grow beyond the pandemic,” said Veronika Taylor, managing director for the Americas at the podcast company Acast. “And that doesn’t even cover all the new listeners that podcasts have adopted over the past year.”

Alyssa Meyers previously worked at Morning Consult as a reporter covering brands and marketing.

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