Podcasting’s Dirty Little Secret: Podcast Listenership Hitting a Plateau?

Gartner Hype CycleUPDATE: Podcasting News offers the thought that “podcasting appears to be somewhere between their Peak of Inflated Expectations and their Trough of Disillusionment.”, quoting Gartner’s Hype Cycle.

Earlier this week I reported on statistics from the upcoming Arbitron/Edison Internet and Multimedia 2007 report. Despite a healthy upswing in people who had heard of podcasting (37% up from 22% in 2006), there was only small incremental increase in the number of people who have ever listened to a podcast (13% up from 11% last year). I’d like to offer further insight and information and then get some feedback on this matter.

So what does this mean? I choose to see this as the end of a quick uptake of podcasting by early adopters and the beginning of a hill that needs to be surmounted. There are two things that we need to help us bust through this apparent plateau:

1. Better education of the audience

Many people still think you need an iPod or other MP3 player to listen to podcasts. For that matter, many think that Apple invented it. People need to know that a podcast is really nothing more than portable, on-demand, digital (oh wait…look at that…P.O.D.) content. We need to emphasize the benefits of podcasting: time-shifted, niche content, listen when you want and listen where you want.

2. Creation of better, easier-to-use solutions

Podcasts need to be much easier to find, subscribe to and consume. We need better solutions. Right now iTunes is the most frictionless solution for finding and subscribing to podcasts. This only contributes to the misconceptions I pointed out above. In addition, there are a lot of things that iTunes could do better. We need a viable competitor to iTunes since competition only helps push innovation. I’m not sure who that could be, but it’s needed.

Tom Webster, who presented the stats in London, offers some great insights.

On the other hand, this is 13% of America we are talking about–and while I am not…yet…at liberty to release the percentage of Americans this year who subscribe to Satellite Radio, it is pretty close. So, on the one hand, growth is relatively small, but on the other, podcasting has acheived a similar penetration to Satellite Radio, without the benefit of a honkin’ big marketing campaign, Howard Stern, or Oprah.

So podcasting has an audience that rivals satellite.

Consumer-controlled content is clearly the future for both audio and video, and podcasting, by whatever name you choose to call it, is the precursor to that vision of the future. But realizing that vision takes vision–and persistence. If you think podcasting isn’t “broken,” think on these graphs again…Somewhere, though, somebody will see this data for what it is–a challenge to work harder, to claim the greater prize. Some of you reading this will do the work to make podcasting different, and better, than it is today–and those people have the opportunity to reap great rewards.

Very well put. And with that…what do you think? What do these numbers mean for podcasting?


  1. says

    Here is a personal view from Europe.

    Podcasting is here to stay whatever we choose to call it. Venerable institutions such as the BBC, The Times and Telegraph are all promoting podcasting and social media with citizen journalism. That amount of branding awareness is invaluable even if some people are still confused. When the Queen delivers her annual Christmas message (as she did last year)to her subjects you know this is a cross generational tool. Should we care that some people may think podcasting means Apple iPod only? Personally no. Some people think they have been abducted by aliens and the US never did land on the moon.

    That being said, as your graphs show there is always a take up lag from the expectations of those promoting the technology to those using it. It’s the old ‘Crossing the Chasm’ from innovator, to early adoptor to early majority. Showing my age, I have seen it a number of times in the IT hardware and software industries. Microsoft were pushing Windows in the early 1980’s. HP, Xerox Apple and even IBM had GUI tools. (I was in application software development. We were ‘courted’ by all to support their platforms). It took another 3 – 4 years before Windows started to sell in volume to corporates and DOS and all its flavours died away. The same applied to desktop colour printers in offices. In many cases PowerPoint, Harvard Graphics and Lotus Freelance were banned outside of the in-house graphics teams. Colour prints could only be used for external presentations and proposals. It took 3 years+ for colour printing to become acceptable in business. Now 10 years later even home printers use colour.

    What can we do as an industry to ‘keep our nerves’? Accept it will take longer than we think. Business, especially in Europe, will be cautious and want to see lots of successful applications, metrics and ROI. That when replacing traditional ways of doing things a lot of people take comfort in in the known (AKA ‘the old woolly jumper’ syndrome – ignore the new one and keep wearing the old one.)Traditional media agencies (i.e those without a new media group) have a vested interest to not promoting this area as the whole paradime of direct contact and no media buying revenue (as content delivered over the internet for free) undermines their organisation, cost and client billing structure.

    Podcast Agencies and independent content producers need to manage costs and internal expectations based on a ‘build’ rather than a ‘bang’. This is a not a 1500 meter race but a Marathon. Different approach.

    Having said that a 15% share of the audience in a few years is excellent. There are people out there attracting (and hopefully retaining) large audiences. As we heard at the London conference Wiggly Wriglers gets 20k listeners per podcast. First Direct have had over 30k so far. One of our clients has had nearly 10k for a podcast and another a 60% participation from its members. They have applied ROI metrics and compared to other communication methods and are pleased. Podcasting is now in their marketing mix and budgets.

    What we are finding at the moment is that given a choice 90%+ people take their content at the desktop as ‘play now’ rather than via an RSS feed. What is critical – make your content so valuable to your audience and they will subscribe but accept that many will regularly listen/watch but only do via ‘play now’.

  2. says

    I think your call for more work and committment are right on the mark. The phenomenon of podfading is not going to disappear which means that the rest of us need to be even more dedicated to producing high quality content.

    Three things are needed from all podcasters:

    1)Ever increasing quality of our production
    2)Consistency in scheduling
    3)Topically relevant content (whatever our topics may be)

    This doesn’t mean spending more money on our equipment or hosting or websites. Just throwing money at a problem doesn’t solve anything (just look at mainstream media and networks). We can make smaller incremental changes over time. Improve the SEO on our blogs and sites. Support other podcasters. Encourage our listeners to evangelize not just our shows but podcasting in general.

    Looking at the graph, we’re past the early adopters and that’s good. The real numbers for growth lie with the rest of the public. That will require work and constistancy but the payoff for sticking around and working is going to be huge!

  3. Jason Van Orden says


    The reason I have a problem with the fact that many people think you need an iPod to listen to podcasts is that there are a lot of people who would listen to podcasts, but that don’t want to go out and invest in an iPod.

    So one way to increase the audience of podcasting would be to educate the public on this one point—they can listen to podcasts without an iPod.

    You are dead on when you say we need to realize that many people will listen/watch by play now and not subscribe. That’s fine with me as long as they get my content.


    You make excellent suggestions for incremental changes we can all make.

  4. says


    100% agree that some people are confused.

    We just have to keep educating everyone. My point was that we are not alone as mainstream media like the BBC, The Times etc is helping but we should not be complacent. We all have to do our bit.

    As Jamie said – well targeted content, good production values and delivered regularly – will connect with and build an audience.


  5. says

    The key point that I always raise when pitching potential clients on podcasting is about the quality of the audience rather than the quantity. Metrics are fuzzy, even in old media. Everyone says they want to target their audience, right? Well, this is the most highly targeted cost-effective solution I have come across in over 15 years in production.
    An interesting problem I have also encountered: people see less value when it’s priced at its real worth. You almost have to quote ridiculous prices just so people will take you seriously. Up is down, black is white.

  6. Jason Van Orden says


    Thanks for the reminder that podcasting is about the quality of the audience.

  7. says

    Hello Jason,

    I really enjoyed the discussion, especially as someone coming from “traditional” marketing background who’s just beginning to dabble in podcasting privately.

    Mat makes one of the strongest arguments, in my opinion, for helping podcasters weather the next phase of the podcasting wave – after the early adopters. It’s all about quality of audience. Targeting and segmenting are so very important to smart advertisers these days, that you really can’t overstate the power of having a known and captive audience. This is and should continue to be the USP for monetized Podcasts.

    I really think Adrian hit a key problem on the head in his posts. Consumption at the computer via downloads or streams rather than taking the podcasts with you makes podcasts, practically, a less flexible medium than they should be. In essence the podcast has to compete with TV (also an inflexible medium which you have to sit to watch). Podcasts should theoretically offer you more flexibility and solving this dilemma (more of a perception than a technical issue) will be paramount to podcasts reaching the next level of acceptance.

    You are right in stating that it is partially an educational issue as well as a technical issue (less making it easier for people to subscribe and more making portable MP3 devices easier to interface with more “standard” media players like car radios, home entertainment systems, etc.).

    Anyhow, thanks for great info, discussion and show!

  8. says

    Jason –

    Thanks for the great article. It really is good food for thought. I’m presenting on podcasting tomorrow at a women’s action & media conference, and what really strikes me is how well this medium serves targeted audiences.

    First, it’s a great way for folks to find audio by people who share their interests and demographics

    Second, it’s an almost unbeatable way for organizations and groups to “narrowcast” their content to the exact people they wish to reach. For organizations that want to do a lot of promotion and publicity and just plain communication to an invested audience, however small, podcasting is a great way to do it — and it’s so cost-effective, it’s a little scary.

    How many other ways are there to reach precise populations who have given their permission to be reached, bypassing spam filters in the process?

    From where I’m sitting, the real challenge for podcasters in the coming years are:

    1) Content — creating quality work on a regular basis… the kind of content that people actually WANT to receive on that regular basis

    2) Metrics — reporting back to an often-skeptical world about the results.

    We early adopters are often so busy pushing the envelope and seeing what’s possible, that we lose track of the reporting. But the people writing the checks and building out strategies, are interested in metrics — proving to their bosses that their plans work and they were worth the money spent.

    Ultimately, it seems to me it’s all about justification. And taking that justification to the next level, to where the people we once pitched to, are approaching us, asking for our help to make their marketing/promotion/narrowcasting dreams come true.

    Again, thanks for the great article!

    Kay Stoner


  1. […] I listened to 10 “Podcasts” today. Not a single one via RSS. Does that mean podcasting is stagnating? Who knows, but audio on the web has blossomed! How many companies (and individuals) got off the pot and started posting audio because of the explosive growth of podcasting? Give me a break! Look at the big picture. Without podcasting, these initiatives would not be in place. I’m feeling good about where we are. It is time to get away from pinning the success of the medium on the success of the term.   […]