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  • Writer's pictureRon Jaworski

2020 was the year of audio and voice – can 2021 top it?

Updated: Feb 10, 2022

As moments go, audio and voice are having a major one.

It seems 2020 was the year everyone realized people spend a lot of time listening to content. Showing its digital chops left and right, audio fundamentally changed both how people behave and businesses operate. It has slowly but surely become a necessary element of the media mix, whether it’s for publishers, advertisers, or listeners alike.

On the other side of the coin, voice AI made another step forward thanks to pandemic-fueled demand for chatbots and voice assistants in healthcare and customer service.

All of this happened during a turmoil of a year (that’s me being restrained), which makes it all the more fascinating.

In a way, there’s a lot of pressure this year to maintain and excel in business in a far less uncertain environment. Let’s take a look at the major/noteworthy audio and voice-first events that made for a memorable year we’d all otherwise like to forget, and how they’re going to affect 2021.

Podcasts keep on growing

The least surprising development of the year was the growth of podcasts so I’m not going to waste too much time here.

Year in and year out, podcast listening has been registering all-time high records. Suffice to say, in 2020 about 104 million Americans listened to podcasts monthly, which is more than ever before. The spoken word segment was particularly strong, growing 8% in 12 months and attracting an increasingly diverse audience.

On the platform side, Spotify continued to ramp up its podcast efforts with some high-profile exclusive deals like adding Michelle Obama and Joe Rogan to the fold and by acquiring podcast hosting service Megaphone in a deal worth $235 million. SiriusXM bought a major podcasting network Stitcher for $325 million, and Amazon decided to step into the podcast ring, albeit late in the year, by purchasing the podcast network Wondery for $300 million.

With streaming media being the undoubted winner of 2020 (Zoom was a close second), it will be a major surprise if the trend of big acquisitions and talent signings doesn’t resume in full force. According to Spotify, more people in the 18-24 age group listened to podcasts for the first time in 2020 so it’s fair to assume we still haven’t reached the peak point when it comes to podcast consumption, big acquisitions, and talent signings.

Spotify's 2020 Wrapped

Audio news profited big from COVID-19

In the pandemic-laden year, one particular content segment stood head and shoulders above else: news. The ubiquitous impact of the pandemic both on the local and global level, racial tensions, and the U.S. presidential election were arguably the biggest stories of the year, and they all affected audio consumption – for the better.

Adding audio content to their repertoire provided numerous media giants a helping hand in creating a great user experience while looking to stay afloat amid all the uncertainty. The move to audio articles in editorial content was present before COVID-19 – 2020 only made the move more obvious and necessary.

Powerhouses such as The New York Times, The Washington Post, and McClatchy were already gradually investing in their listening experiences, hoping to provide otherwise busy audiences with a familiar and flexible way to consume in stories and get a new revenue-generating stream in the process.

The global quarantine mandate only sped up existing plans (if not downright created them) to approach audiences via eardrums. The publishing industry recognized the shift in user media habits, increasingly adding text-to-speech audio versions of news articles. The inexpensive and scalable AI technology generates audio content within a matter of seconds with ads inserted into the content, offering listeners a way to get up to speed on the latest news developments while doing something else, inside or outside.

Right about as things began to slowly return to the old normal, we launched our first-ever report on audio engagement. It revealed some interesting facts and confirmed our suspicions: audio articles tend to be listened to all the way through.

The total listen-through rate (LTR) for audio content was 59%, which means that more than half of the total listenership listened through the entire content. This is in contrast to text articles that have much quicker drop-off rates due to the reader’s ability to quickly skim through it.

So, with a clear indication of a market need, where will things go in 2021? On one side, there is a fleet of news publishers with a first-mover advantage who will likely focus on polishing the user experience. On the other side are publishers who are jumping on the bandwagon now as they realize there are no additional costs to production, and every published article can easily be audiofied.

In both cases, the potent mix of AI and machine learning will play an important role, whether it is in creating an even more engaging listening experience and/or maintaining or improving user satisfaction and loyalty.

The impact of audio advertising

2020 has been a masterclass in how to pivot and adapt, and if anyone felt that on their skin – hard – it’s the advertising industry. The coronavirus crisis accelerated the shift to digital advertising but also created ad-spending declines. So, advertisers had to adapt to changing consumer behavior, and audio provided a safe haven due to its immersive and intimate nature.

One major highlight was the fact that the total ad completion rate was 91%. This means that almost everyone who listened to audio ads listened to them in full. You have to admit – that is an extremely rare occurrence in the advertising world.

Percentage of ads listened and the type of ads

Ad completion rates among listeners to audio articles

It’s not just ads in audio articles, though. According to Adobe’s survey:

  1. 58% of people find smart speaker ads to be less intrusive than other major formats (TV, print, online, social)

  2. 52% find them more engaging

  3. 57% find them more relevant to their needs and interests.

Furthermore, slightly more than half of the users said they found it easier to recall the brand behind a smart speaker ad versus other major ad formats and subsequently make a purchase at a later time. Thus, it’s fair to assume that audio advertising has a growing importance in delivering a great user experience as it’s able to reach the listener at the right time and place, and perhaps even more importantly – in the right context.

Audio is an inexpensive space for brand awareness, which is why more world’s mega brands, and some lesser-known ones, doubled down on audio and took a chance. Some did a really good job of pleasing their audience’s ears, and that’s a trend that will likely see the biggest increase in 2021.

In a growingly saturated advertising environment, consumers have high, often unrealistic expectations for ads targeted at them. Audio works incredibly well in that regard due to its intimate and immersive nature that leverages storytelling. As a result, people don’t feel like they are being bombarded with promotional and marketing messages. With more and more people getting used to listening, we can expect a more diverse range of stories and experiences that will create the feeling of being directly spoken to by the brand.

Voice assistant usage goes up significantly

While I’m mentioning smart speakers, the adoption rate of smart home devices on the whole isn’t slowing down. It’s not the sexiest of stories but it’s a wholesome one as the market grew notably. More than 55% of U.S. adults now own either a smart home device or a smart speaker, more and more integrating them in daily routines.

Smart Home and Smart Speaker Ownership U.S. Adults report from

As a result, the usage of voice assistants is the highest it’s ever been. Talking is a fundamental part of being human so about 27% of U.S. adults use voice assistants or voice interfaces to interact with their smart home devices on at least a monthly basis. When it comes to smartphones, voice assistant users rose 11% between 2018 and 2020 while daily active users climbed 23%. Furthermore, hearables ownership has risen about 23% during the same period while voice assistant usage through hearables grew by 103% from 21.5 million in 2018 to 43.7 million in 2020.

While voice assistant usage will likely continue to grow on smartphones and in cars for the time being, I’m also thinking there will be an increase in the number of voice assistants themselves. There is technology such as the open-source voice assistant Almond which you can freely adapt to you needs with a distinct focus on privacy.

Then, there’s GPT-3 – OpenAI’s AI that generates text using pre-trained algorithms. Dubbed as the largest artificial neural network ever created, GPT-3 is better at creating content than anything else before.These are just two examples that will enable voice enthusiasts to create their own voice assistant without the tethers of big tech.

All the signs point to 2021 being the turning point where the number of leading voice assistants will go beyond Alexa and Google Assistant. The focus will be on multiple voice assistants with a specific domain or expertise that are privacy-minded and not focused on serving ads and product suggestions.

On that note – if you’d like to get a peek at what 2021 will likely bring in voice AI, check out this awesome Voicebot article featuring 50 industry leaders sharing their two cents.

Radio is still on the radar

In an environment where we are constantly hearing that young people don’t listen to the radio anymore, it came as somewhat of a shock that 55% of all Gen Zs listen to AM/FM radio each day. The omnipresence of smartphones played a big role in keeping the oldest audio format on-air (hah!), along with the pace at which technology and culture move these days.

We live in the age of the 24-hour-news cycle and endless information online, and the young population is the one that regularly consumes news and information the most. That is not going to change any time soon, and with the further development of the ‘car as an entertainment platform’ concept, I bet radio listening will sustain its position in 2021 – although I’m not sure how much.

Momentum from video (and social media) – wait, what?

Perhaps the most fascinating or surprising developments (depending on how you see it) were courtesy of YouTube and Netflix. Two video giants in their own rights announced audio-centric features:

  1. YouTube rolled out audio-only ads when listening to music and podcasts in the background on desktop;

  2. Netflix introduced audio-only background playback on Android.

Introducing audio-only background ads can be seen as a way for YouTube to keep up with the different ways users are engaging with the platform. Audio-only ads are an untapped market – something one of the world’s biggest music streaming platforms will likely be exploring further in 2021 in an effort to rival Spotify.

As for Netflix, the audio-only mode essentially turns it into a podcast platform on mobile devices. What I find heartwarming is the fact that Netflix, of all companies, is recognizing the power of audio. As mobile experiences go, audio fits perfectly due to its portability so I’m guessing this is a way to increase the consumption of particular shows when looking at a screen isn’t an option.

On the social media side, Twitter announced Audio Spaces – dedicated spaces for live conversations with another person or with groups of people. It’s a continuation of the network’s audio-centric features that also include letting people record and tweet up to 140 seconds of audio.

our new experiment brings people together to connect directly in an intimate, conversational Space. we imagine the best Spaces to feel like a well hosted dinner party. y’all rolling your eyes, we know. but stay with us! — Spaces (@TwitterSpaces) December 17, 2020

This new audio wave suggests we’re in for a social audio future, where social media will have a strong audio component. I expect more developments in this area in 2021 and beyond, especially in the number of audio-centric social platforms. The likes of Clubhouse have already created buzz with their audio-only approach to social media.

So far, the feedback has been positive and shows a desire for a more immediate, multi-media approach to online discussion, similar to what Twitter did with text. It will take some time for the users to bite – we’ll just have to see how hard.

Will 2021 up the stakes?

In a year that saw more downs than ups, audio was one of the few media-related developments that had an upward trajectory. It was 12 months of pure action: some of the industry’s biggest names solidified their presence, various tech companies arrived at the party in some form, and to top it all off – companies that had no or marginal ties to audio decided to dip their toes and go for a swim.

By all means, 2021 will continue audio’s upward trend. Investments in creating and improving listening experiences will drive significant improvements in user responses, which in turn will generate more revenue. I envision consistent innovation in creating a rich digital ecosystem of advertising, marketing, and revenue opportunities.

When all is said and done, media companies should not only recognize that listener behaviors have outgrown the pre-pandemic levels, but understand the scope of opportunity that audio represents. The key will be to balance their media mix budget accordingly as investments in audio have proven to be a significant driver of growth.

One thing is for certain: implementing audio-based solutions and voice interface to existing infrastructure and establishing new ways to reach potential and existing audiences is a trend that won’t go away anytime soon.

TrinityAudio presents 2020 in numbers for Voice and Audio consumption - Infographic

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