It’s no secret in the last decade, the podcast ecosystem has experienced a complete transformation. Once a singular format reserved for conversations primarily around technology and geek culture, it is now one of the most universally loved and consumed forms of media with topics ranging from comedy, and news to pop culture, true crime, and so much more. As podcasts have diversified in topics, so have their audiences. Podcast listenership has exploded in the last decade to become a near universal medium that over half of the country enjoys on a regular basis. (Source: Statista)

This audience is not only large – but also highly engaged. Nearly a quarter of Americans are tuning in weekly in a big way, listening to on average eight episodes a week (Source: SXM Media – The Podheads).

A major engine behind this transformation is large investments, including Spotify who invested approximately $1B on podcasts starting in 2020 (Source: Bloomberg). While not every streaming platform is thriving with their podcasts, IHeartMedia recently reported that “podcasting contributed a record 10.5% to the business’s revenue” in Q2 (Source: Podnews).

Cultivating Connection through Relatable Hosts

One of the most important forces driving this transformational shift in listenership and engagement is the podcast host, someone who is often seen as transparent, honest, and relatable. The podcast environment creates a distinctive intimacy with the host. You feel like you’re in the room, a part of their conversation, and getting to know them on a personal level through the content they share each week. And Podcasters aren’t shy in soliciting audience feedback – they want to hear from their listeners, encouraging them to call in or share their opinions.

This uniquely curated, easy-to-access environment has propelled podcasters to become some of the most influential figures in media. A study conducted by Deloitte revealed that “Nearly 40% of listeners surveyed are more influenced by the advertisements they hear on podcasts versus advertisements in other places. This figure increases to about 50% for Gen Z and millennial listeners” (Source: Deloitte).

Podcasters have been able to capitalize on and translate this influence into a (cult-like) fandom. Because listeners share such a personal connection to the podcast host, they feel a sense of community with other listeners.

Trust is Paramount

What it all comes down to is trust – in an age where data has become overwhelming and misinformation is rampant, 85% of listeners report seeking podcasts out as a trusted source of information more or the same as other mediums (Source: Axios). This is a stark contrast to social media, where 39% of consumers said they expect the news they see there to be largely accurate, while a majority (59%) said they expect the news there to be largely inaccurate. (Source: Pew Research)  Despite media discourse on new social media platforms’ meteoric rise, it’s actually audio where users are paying more attention. Listeners spend on average 60% more time with Audio than social media (Source: Audacy). And even the reasons users are turning to podcasts over social media and other media platforms are more fulfilling – the majority of users listen to podcasts to improve/motivate.


The Gen Z Difference

The mental health benefits of podcasts over social media have attracted an audience that is notoriously hard to reach and resonate with – Gen Z. Insider Intelligence reports that, “Podcasts offer a marked contrast with social media: Nearly a third of Gen Z listeners believe that social media has hurt their emotional well-being.” (Source: Insider Intelligence) Listenership amongst this group has exploded in the last five years in particular, with monthly listenership growing by 57% in that time frame. What is even more remarkable is their engagement with the format – these listeners are starting young and consuming remarkable amounts of time weekly with podcasts.

And most importantly, they’re focused on the content. SXM Media reports that “Despite the trend of multitasking while consuming content, a surprising 82% of Gen Z listeners have reported listening to podcasts without doing anything else.” (Source: SXM Media) For a group that is infamously hard to break through, podcasts offer an unparalleled opportunity to connect with this group over other mediums, and allow brands an unmissable opportunity to connect. This group is open to hearing from brands as they listen as well – 43% of Gen Z listeners ages 16 and above have purchased a product after hearing a podcast ad; one in three have asked someone to buy a product for them after hearing it advertised in a podcast. (Source: Insider Intelligence)

Forging connections through podcasts

The impact of audio in joining together a community of strangers is undeniable and podcasts are filling a void in listener’s lives that cannot be found with other formats. The influence of podcasts spans far beyond listeners earbuds, with 80% of listeners reporting that they feel like friends with their fellow listeners and are forming extremely strong attachments with their favorite hosts (Source: InsideRadio). Listeners are proud to be a part of their pod, each with their own unique identity:  New Heights’ 92%-ers, The Toast’s Toasters, Call her Daddy’s Daddy Gang. The Guardian refers to this reciprocal relationship as a “high-exposure, high-volume” model, where the mundane topics are what fuel interest and the more you’ve listened and engaged, the more you are rewarded (Source: The Guardian)

Patreon, which prides themselves as a membership-only platform that gives creators the tools they need to reliably reach their fans, has become a popular platform for Podcast hosts to provide their followers with exclusive content in addition to their weekly episode drops. Patreon is further cultivating the pod-community with the introduction of the community chat feature, where listeners can share photos, text and emoji reactions while interacting with content.

Connecting the senses beyond the stream

While innately an audio medium forging parasocial relationships, podcast fandom spans beyond listener’s headphones with a level of host-listener intimacy unique only to podcasting. The rise of “vodcasting” (podcasting with video) has allowed for hosts to extend their reach to new audiences and leverage their social following to promote their podcasts and drive downloads and streams. Vodcasts provide the opportunity to gain traction with viewers and capture their attention across multiple platforms and mediums. This convergence of audio & video provides opportunity for podcasters and brands to go beyond the traditional host-read brand placements and connect sight, sound and motion to resonate with consumers. Vodcasts are satiating a need for more information that consumers are looking for in entertainment – a peek behind the curtain into your favorite celebrity’s life as they invite you in to their living room for a cocktail and gossip. Artfully executed in a way that caters to our fragmented attention spans, allowing for passive consumption, becoming another open tab in the browsers our brains have become.

Podcasts = Culture

Podcasts are pushing pop culture in new directions, blurring the lines of traditional media and popularizing the dramatized storytelling of real life events. Even with podcasts and vodcasts, listeners want more. The 2018 release of the Dirty John TV Series, from the podcast of the same name, brought podcasts to the big screen and over the past 18 months podcasts have taken over our TVs with a huge rise in streaming adaptations: WeCrashed, The Dropout, Air and BlackBerry, among many others. While these stories have been told countless times, podcasts have forged the narrative int to the “edu-tainment” space and satiated a need for consumers want for more information under the guise of entertainment.

How Zenith is advancing podcast strategy for our client’s brands

The time, trust, and influence of podcasts all prime brands to create authentic and long-lasting connections with consumers when done right. Listeners are open and eager to hear from brands, but it starts with finding the right shows and hosts to ensure executions feel genuine and to maintain the trust brokered by the medium. Our team uses our audience-centric and data-led approach to align brands with the right programs that reflect brand values and growth audience opportunities, not based on reach or genre alone. When we find the right shows for our brands, we build long-term relationships with them to reinforce brand presence and engagement with their audience for the most meaningful, fruitful connections and to maintain the trust that podcasts inherently hold.

This was the case earlier this year, when Buffalo Wild Wings partnered with Travis & Jason Kelce — arguably the most relevant player personalities catapulted to the national spotlight thanks to playing each other in Super Bowl LVII & their #1 rated podcast, New Heights. Their weekly podcast features discussion around League news, brotherly banter and antics and hosts some of the top professional athletes and coaches in the game.

New Heights provided a platform to align BWW with cultural conversation and authentic voices, which was needed to drive their core KPIs and drive consideration for the brand. The platform allowed for BWW to bring forward their own talent Brock Purdy & Sauce Gardner, to deliver key brand message points around various promotions and helped them grow share in the burger category, which much like Brock Purdy, are unexpectedly great. The Kelce brothers genuine love for BWW proved the platform to be the perfect environment to drive brand love, with Travis & Jason sharing their memories of the brand dating back to high school and authentically highlighting their favorite menu items. The partnership has been a continued success for BWW, aligning the brand with viral moments and the immense trajectory of the Kelce brothers (IYKYK).

Zenith builds these authentic, unique and effective campaigns by leveraging research-backed tactics, data-led strategies and exclusive access through partnerships across audio, influencer and beyond. We ensure success for our clients, if you’d like more information, please get in touch.

Written by Kaitlyn Saar, VP Strategy and Brittany Doyle, VP Content, at Zenith USA.

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