The next big thing in podcasts is talking back
Vince Major and Michael Tucker, hosts of the podcast Beyond the Screenplay, thought they knew what their audience wanted for their next episode: a deep-dive into Back to the Future — a “no brainer,” says Major. To be sure, though, they decided to poll their listeners. They didn’t go to Patreon, Instagram, Twitter, or the other places creators often chat with their audience. Instead, they went where their listeners already tune into their show, Spotify, and used its new polling tool to ask. The people spoke up — they wanted The Godfather.
“[The polls] kind of just let the podcasting technology catch up in some ways,” Tucker says. “The place where people are actually listening, they can now also participate.” Although the co-hosts only started using these polls within the past year, they say their listeners are taking advantage. They’re talking back.
“Podcasting has always been this sort of one-way street,” says Mike Mignano, head of creation platform at Spotify. “A creator publishes content; the audience listens; that’s it.”
Now, however, interactive elements are making their way into the space. Spotify is giving all its Anchor creators the ability to make polls and Q&As and is testing interactive ads. Other apps, like Facebook, are trying things as simple as just allowing listeners to leave comments — a mainstay YouTube feature — while podcasting apps in China already allow listeners to build “listening circles” and “discussion groups.”
“When I first downloaded Chinese podcast apps, I was shocked at how interactive they were,” writes Helen Li in Rest of World.
Although interaction is big abroad, it’s unclear how popular it can be in the US in these traditionally audio-only zones. Do people want to touch their phone while they’re in listening mode? “It’s not really in the mindset of podcasts yet to give that instant feedback to engage,” Major says.
In the US, interaction fervor is nascent but bubbling up. On the just-launched Fireside, the live audio app co-founded by Mark Cuban, the first thing you see when you go to its website in big, bold, white font reading: “The future of entertainment is interactive.” Same thing with Twitch, which itself is reportedly working on a specific live audio integration: “We build communities around live content that’s interactive, diverse, and always next level.”
In Fireside’s case, viewers can react with emoji, ask a question, or leave a written comment. On Twitch, listeners can pay to have their name pop up in their favorite streamer’s video and join in the chorus of commenters.
Amazon, which entered the podcasting space last year with podcasts on Amazon Music and Audible (and also owns Twitch), might be working on something podcast-specific, too. In a survey provided to podcaster attendees of a recent industry conference, the company mentioned the possibility of a polling feature. Toys and games have also already relied on Alexa as a mediator and guide for interactive moments, so it’s easy to imagine the smart assistant taking on a bigger role in podcasting and ads.
“We haven’t really seen anyone yet crack the code on true listener-to-creator interactivity on listening platforms,” Mignano says. “So I think it’s just the natural evolution of content and media on the internet, and I think, hopefully now, we can finally catch podcasting up with the rest of the mediums.”
There’s also the challenge of making interacting with audio feel natural. Backtracks, a podcast analytics and advertising platform, has developed an SDK that pairs with AirPods to detect head gestures. A podcast ad could say something like, “Nod your head to learn more,” and give you a chance to dive deeper into what you’re hearing. Backtracks CEO Jonathan Gill sees this as more palatable than asking someone who specifically is listening to something rather than watching it to look at their phone.
“If you’re asking someone a question, and you expect them to answer on the phone by looking at the phone, after a certain amount of time, you miss the use case of your audience,” he says. “So one reason to do this as part of the listening experience is somebody could be walking, running, they could be in their house, outside, and then if you ask a question or interact with [the gestures], it actually fits into the context.”
One of the biggest reasons behind this push for interactivity is the hope that it’ll make podcasts stickier. If you can talk to your favorite podcaster in one specific place or build a community in one app, chances are you’ll return to that place. Then, of course, there’s the ads functionality, an especially critical function in audio, which has primarily relied on promo codes to attribute sales to listeners.