Will Google Reinvigorate Podcasts?

By Sam Harris

Google may have just put a little oomph into the podcast market.

The recent announcements of the search engine’s big plans for the medium has the potential to dramatically change the way that people of all types discover and listen to podcasts. It’s certainly an ambitious plan to ‘double podcast listeners’ over the next few years. However, if any brand is able to do that, it’s Google.

We recently finished up our own piece of research into audience needs in the UK podcast market (and where brands fit in). This makes now an appropriate time to reflect on the state of this audio upstart currently and how the changes proposed by Google may impact the landscape going forward.

Solving the Podcast Audience Problem

There’s a big elephant in the room when content creators start waxing lyrical about podcasts: it’s still a relatively small market.

According to RAJAR’s most recent MIDAS report, podcast reach in the UK rests at a relatively paltry 11%, with a 3% share of the audio market. This has been stable over the past few quarters. There are some signs of growth as OfCom reports that 42% of UK listeners say they are listening to podcasts more often now than in the past – and we can see from RAJAR that reach among young people (15-24 year olds) has been growing at a steady 2% per quarter. However, it’s still a pretty small market in comparison with other media behemoths.

To increase the number of people exposed to these audio products – and, hopefully, up the number of listeners – Google plans to transform podcasts into ‘first-class citizens’ and deliver them to the search engine’s users in the same way as video, images, and URLS.

In real terms: when you currently search “dealing with grief” in Google, you might get back some articles discussing how to come to terms with the death of a loved one. With Google’s changes, you might also get an episode of ‘Griefcast’ – an award-winning podcast in which comedians (light-heartedly) discuss their own thoughts about death and grieving.

Android phone users can already see this in action: using the Chrome browser to search for certain topics will now deliver a list of episodes from relevant podcasts. Looking for information about Elton John? Google might deliver you an episode of ‘George Ezra and Friends’ where he was recently interviewed.

This is big news for brands who are thinking about dipping a toe in the podcast water but have been put off by market size. If Google’s plans take off, this will dramatically increase exposure around a previously underappreciated (but very powerful) form of content.

Impacting the Intimacy of Podcasts

If rolled out successfully, Google’s promotion of audio content will impact the way that listeners discover new podcasts. But it might also start to erode the strong feeling of intimacy connected with these products.

There’s a powerful connection that develops between listeners and their most loved podcasts – intimacy is one of the hallmarks of the podcast medium. Although podcasts can be listened to by millions of people, listeners feel that superlative hosts are speaking to an audience of one. As one young man from London pointed out:

It’s like having a range of smart friends who follow you around and speak about interesting things just to you.

Our research suggests that this intimacy manifests in the way that people are discovering new podcasts: word-of-mouth, curated lists from favourite magazines/websites, and recommendations from other podcasts dominated the increasingly personal (highly editorialised) ways that listeners discover new podcasts.

Google’s plans would obviously mean that listeners will stumble upon podcasts more frequently, and in a less curated fashion. However, will this mean that listeners develop a less intimate relationship with podcasts as a result?

Changing the Format

Functionality is interesting to think about as we move forwards in this space.

Google’s changes would have an impact on the way consumers find and consume information. As audio results become a more common segment of the search engine landscape, we’ll surely start to see content creators generating SEO-ed content that appeals to different needs.

This raises fascinating questions around audience needs and content hierarchies between video, audio, and text: if you’re searching for a recipe in the kitchen, for example, are you more likely to choose a podcast (hands-free, eyes free), a video (a more visual aide), or a text recipe (easier to skip around)?

This change might also have an impact on the shape of podcasts. In our own research, we’ve already seen audio products like Gimlet’s 2-minute ‘Chompers’ (an interactive Alexa skill aimed at children) pushing the boundaries between podcasts and a new kind of audio product. Will adult podcasts also begin to change their shape – shorter, more targeted, etc – in order to snap up new listeners with a variety of different content needs?

Podcasts in 2018 and Beyond

Of course, there are plenty of reasons to be sceptical about just how much of an impact that Google’s plans will have on the podcast market – and we’ll just have to wait and see how much of their grand plan makes its way into reality.

But these recent announcements give us a tantalising glimpse into what the podcast landscape could look like in the next few years – and this is more than enough to get us excited about where podcasts are going next.

By Sam Harris

Hook Research is a media research and content development agency. We are proud to provide consumer insights and brand strategy to some of the biggest organisations across media, youth, and entertainment all over the world. Want to have a chat about how we can help your business? Get in touch at enquiries@hookresearch.co.uk