Listeners’ sonic attention is worth fighting for

By Karl Oskar Teien

Schibsted News Media

Oslo, Norway


Fuelled by wireless headset adoption and an ever-growing selection of content made for listening, the audio trend represents a major opportunity for any company that aims to be relevant during all those moments when users are away from their screens.

Although we cannot accurately predict how much total screen time (and news publishers’ share of it) will grow in the coming years, we clearly see that time spent on audio is growing rapidly. Around the world, more people are listening regularly, and each person listens for a longer period of time.

Media product teams would do well to follow the audio trend.
Media product teams would do well to follow the audio trend.

In Norway, the share of users listening to podcasts per month has nearly doubled, from 24% in 2017 to 43% in 2020, with Norwegian-language podcasts leading the charge. Users aged 16 to 24 years show the highest adoption rates, with listeners in this group averaging nearly two hours per day on podcasts or audiobooks. Among Swedish users in general, average time spent on podcasts and radio daily already matches that of digital news consumption.

While audio as a product is nothing new per se, there are many ways in which the current move to audio is different from traditional broadcast radio.

It is fuelled partially by hardware adoption, led by AirPods’ exponential growth as it has captured more than one-third of the wireless earbuds market. And several other wearable devices have also seen double-digit sales growth over the last few years. A 2022 report estimates three in four U.S. teens now own AirPods. The convenience of these new devices means people now wear headphones more often and in situations they previously wouldn’t — even while talking to their friends.

Additionally, our mobile devices are always connected, enabling users to listen to any topic, any time, while doing other things. The ability to multi-task is, as one would expect, one of the main reasons users turn to audio in their busy lives.

Lastly, the sheer volume of content is growing rapidly, with an entire publishing industry transitioning to audiobooks. There are also all-time high investments from tech and media companies going into the podcast industry.

As users move to AirPods for consuming content, we also see that several audio-first start-ups have emerged over the past few years. In addition, industry experts talk about wearable audio as the first mass market adoption of AR devices. For many young users, audio is the primary channel for news. Clearly, publishers who want to stay relevant must find their place in the audio domain.

For news organisations, understanding the opportunity that comes with audio starts with acknowledging how the newspaper landscape has changed. We’ve gone from a world of physically distributed newspapers — where there was little competition and a general scarcity of information — to a world of unlimited digital distribution and global competition for attention.

In this world, news organisations are not just competing against each other but rather against any company distributing their product on a screen. Those other companies include technology giants with massive budgets and a world-class ability to get users addicted to their products.

We know that tech and streaming giants dominate users’ visual attention, and it seems unlikely news publishers will turn the tide on that any time soon. But in the audio world, news as a category gets an outsized share of users’ attention, accounting for 30% of top podcast episodes despite comprising only 7% of podcasts.

However, increasing audio content production for news organisations does not come without its challenges, including:

  • The cost for voice actors and studio time remains high.
  • Recording and editing takes much more time than the actual audio output.
  • There’s a risk of spending significant resources on content of low interest.
  • The nature of news as perishable limits the types of content that can be produced without becoming outdated as stories evolve.

Today, publishers mostly accept the fact that investments in the audio domain are expensive, and that it will be worth the effort in the long run. But there are also ways technology can enable production of more audio in smarter ways.

The team at Aftenposten has found readers will listen to synthetic voices almost as much as human voices.
The team at Aftenposten has found readers will listen to synthetic voices almost as much as human voices.

Firstly, the need for studios may soon disappear, as cheaper and more mobile recording setups hit the market. Companies like Nomono (which Schibsted recently invested in) are challenging the existing workflow as well as the costs associated with high-quality podcast production.

Secondly, for narrated articles, we might soon get rid of the need for both studios and narrators entirely as text-to-speech technology matures. A synthetic voice that can read any text input out loud offers some unique advantages, including unlimited production of narrated articles with near zero marginal cost as it converts a written text into audio within seconds. Since it is connected to the publisher’s content management system, it also enables flexibility to update and edit published stories, without ever needing to step into a studio.

The fact it can be scaled across the entire daily article output of a newspaper also means users can rely on the feature to listen to any article they prefer and do so while commuting or cooking at home. Since many users cancel their subscriptions because they simply don’t have enough time to sit down and read all the articles they pay for every day, solving this “bad conscience problem” for subscribers might be a key factor in reducing the churn rates most newspapers are seeing.

Early results from text-to-speech experiments at Aftenposten show the gap between human and synthetic voices is closing in terms of listener retention. Additionally, users opting for audio consumption complete more of each story compared to text. Plans for enabling users to save stories for later listening, as well as the ability to queue synthetically narrated articles after premium flagship podcasts, may all lead to more widespread adoption of audio as a mode of news consumption. The result might be a significant increase in the total time users spend engaging with Aftenposten’s journalism each day.

Looking back at the battle for users’ screen time, as described earlier, could it be that by focusing on users’ eyeballs, we miss an emerging behaviour change that may one day account for most of our time? The next frontier in winning user attention might in fact be about sonic attention, and those who make the right investments now may be on a course to become the giants of the audio world.

This article is included in Schibsted Future Report 2023. See the full report here.

About Karl Oskar Teien

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