What is the perfect duration for a podcast?
With more than 1.5 million podcasts in existence and some 34 million episodes floating around the podsphere, it’s no longer a simple question. Individual episodes can range in length from mere minutes to multiple hours, with outliers in each category, demonstrating success is possible at any duration.
When we launched the Evening Standard’s audio project, we began with some assumptions based on our own listening experiences. Podcasts we liked tended to weigh in between 20 and 40 minutes per episode. So, we made content to fit that duration.
It was a fair starting point, but over the past 18 months we’ve moved a long way from that assumption. We now publish audio content covering a range of durations, and our largest audience by far comes to content which ranges from 45 seconds to seven minutes in length. Right now, content in this category is reaching brand new audiences in the millions every month.
With that in mind, here are seven reasons I believe news publishers should consider short-form audio content as an important part of their content strategy.
1. The podcast market has matured.
It’s true that podcasts are trending shorter, overall. At least one study shows both the average and median length of a podcast reduced by around two minutes between 2018 to 2019.
But that’s not the full picture. Audio-on-demand is booming, with more publishers jumping on board the pod-wagon. In 2018, Apple revealed there were more than 500,000 podcasts in existence. By 2020 — just two years later — stats showed that number had tripled. With more podcasts being made, we’re seeing more diversity in the ecosystem and a greater range of durations being covered.
2. It’s a way to differentiate in a crowded marketplace.
With increased market saturation, publishers need to make their shows stand out. The middle ground — that popular 30-60 minute bracket — is highly populated by some very successful shows. The overall podcast audience is expanding rapidly: Edison research shows listenership in the United States grew 16% between 2019 and 2020. That means there is still room for the right shows to compete there, but you’ll have to work harder to beat off the juggernauts from now-major publishers.
One way to differentiate is to go long. Joe Rogan has demonstrated great success with his multi-hour, unedited ramble chats — which demonstrates appetite, at least among a certain type of audience, for content you might listen to in multiple sittings. But there is plenty of room at the other end of the spectrum and some additional factors which, for me, make the shorter duration space a much more compelling prospect.
3. It’s a way of testing format.
While Pascal’s truism about short and long letters still stands (not least for blog posts such as this one), it’s undeniable that a shorter content format can make it easier to scale your production, and, importantly, allows you to test that format very easily.
In such a fast-moving media space, a “lean start-up” mentality can pay dividends: Create a minimum viable product, launch as quickly as possible, then iterate based on feedback. If you demonstrate success with your short podcasts, it’s easy to then justify increased production cost to build out a longer format.
4. It allows users to sample your product.
With a proliferation of podcasts available to choose from, selecting a new show can be a challenge. Longer podcasts require a level of investment from the listener that a short podcast doesn’t demand. Creating a feed of short programmes provides listeners the opportunity to dip in with a limited time commitment. And if they like it, there will be plenty more available in your feed to binge on.
5. It can promote your flagship content.
At the Evening Standard, we’ve been creating an ecosystem of content with varying durations with the aim of migrating listeners between shows. We’ve found our short content reaches a large audience, making it a great opportunity to promote our longer content.
When we started promoting the two existing seasons of the weekly interview-based series Women Tech Charge in our short Tech News bulletin, Tech & Science Daily, we saw a measurable uptick in listens to the longer feed.
6. Daily podcasts rise to the top of subscribers’ feeds.
When you subscribe to a show in Apple Podcasts (still the largest source of podcast traffic in the world), it gets added to your “library.” Every time a new episode is published, that feed moves to the top of your library menu. This gives an advantage to podcasts that publish more frequently.
Creating short content allows you to publish multiple times per week, or even daily, so you stand a greater chance of occupying that prime piece of real estate at the top of a user’s feed.
7. Platforms are looking for short content to fill space in their own feeds.
Podcatchers are not the only means of listening to on-demand digital audio. Smart speakers and virtual assistants have changed the way users can interact with the Web and have given rise to new genres of audio news content.
Amazon’s Flash Briefings and Google’s Narrative News are version 1.0 of this, providing a home for radio bulletins on demand. But for nearly two years now, Google has been working with publishers to create a personalised, algorithmically curated feed of single topic stories from multiple providers, called Your News Update. Meanwhile Spotify has been quietly working on Your Daily Drive, a personalised playlist, updated daily, that combines music and news.
These personalised products are version 2.0 of short-form audio-on-demand, and platforms developing these new products require content. At the Evening Standard, we’ve super-charged our audience growth by providing content to both Your News Update and now Spotify Daily Drive, reaching a brand new audience in the millions with our journalism. This has also driven our Tech & Science Daily podcast to No. 9 on the Spotify overall podcast charts, and No. 1 in both the Technology and Science categories.
Short-form audio will never replace long-form podcasts. But as the on-demand ecosystem matures, there is space for content at a range of durations and audience demand across the spectrum. Publishers looking to build their footprint in an increasingly competitive space will benefit from considering short-form content as an important part of their content portfolio.