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  • Writer's pictureRon Jaworski

Spoken word audio scored big in 2021 - here’s a recap

Updated: Feb 10, 2022

I know I will sound like a geek, and that’s perfectly fine, when I say that one of my favorite times of the year has become the release of the Spoken Word Audio Report by Edison Research.

The 2021 iteration brought a treasure trove of insights that once again show the upward trajectory of what is arguably the hottest media today.

The big reveal:

Three-quarters or 75% of all adult Americans listen to spoken word audio each month while 45% of the 13+ population listen daily, up from 43% in 2020.

Spoken word audio, which comprises podcasts, audiobooks, talk radio, news, and sports, continues to grow. Its share of audio listening has increased by 40% over the last seven years and 8% this year, slowly nibbling away at the music’s share of listening.

Trends, changes, listener behaviors and preferences - I take a deep dive into the spoken word segment of the audio landscape and dissect what’s going on behind the scenes.

Demographics - literally everyone

It’s interesting that the time spent listening to the spoken word is fairly consistent across every age group, which shows the medium’s universal appeal.

In 2021, spoken word audio daily listeners across all demographics averaged 2 hours and 6 minutes per day listening to said content. This suggests that during one of their favorite past times, daily consumers really focus on listening and immerse themselves.

The 35-54 and 55+ age groups spend 30% and 28% of their time listening to spoken word audio, while somewhat surprisingly, those aged between 13 and 34 spend 26% of their time doing the same.. I find this slightly unusual as younger audiences are generally touted as audio’s biggest fans.

However, there is a reason why Gen Z and Millenials are considered key audio demographics. They registered the highest increases in listening, clocking in at 116% over the seven-year period and 18% over the past year.

Young audiences being superfans of audio coincides with findings from the Audio Publishers Association’s Sales Survey published in June this year, which found that 56% of audiobook listeners are under the age of 45, up from 52% in 2020. Additional data from the Immersive Media & Books 2020 Consumer Survey shows that 41.5% of Millennials and 43% of Gen X engage with audiobooks.

In terms of gender, men spend 32% time listening while women spend 24%.

Spoken word listeners are also increasingly people of color. While the White/Other ethnicity spends 29% of its time listening to spoken word audio, compared to 22% of African-Americans and 27% of Hispanics/Latinos, the latter two have increased their listening time by 83% and 80% over the last seven years, which is 3.6 times more than the White/Other category.

So, the conclusion is that young people are a major growth factor in terms of listening, but also multicultural listeners. The emerging demographics to watch for are non-white people of all generations, along with young men and women, which somewhat goes against traditional publishing thinking.

What do people listen to?

In terms of content type, it’s interesting to note that listening is evenly distributed between spoken word audio and music, both at 50% among daily spoken word audio listeners. Once again, this shows just how great strides the spoken word has made in the last few years.

When it comes to specific spoken word topics and genres, News/Information is by far the most listened to with 56% of monthly spoken word audio listeners. Comedy/humor follows at 47%, Movies/TV at 42%, Food at 37%, Mystery/Thriller at 36%, History and Wellness/Self-improvement at 35%, and so on.

On average, listeners tend to listen to 10 genres, with younger demographics listening to 13 and older adults listening to 5 genres on average.

Basically, every spoken word audio topic is represented on a monthly basis, more or less. This points to a consistent level of dedication when it comes to audio content. Audiences appreciate the option to get up to speed on the latest developments, whether it’s information or entertainment.

Also, short-form audio formats like audio articles or audicles, as I like to call them, tend to be listened to in their entirety, as opposed to text articles that have much quicker drop-off rates due to the option to skim through them. These have tremendous potential as a retention tool because once listeners come to rely on an audio version, they stick around.

Why do people listen?

One of the more fascinating insights lies in the motivations behind listening to spoken word audio.

Last year’s report revealed that listeners are big on multitasking benefits. No other medium is as easy to engage with as audio when you’re doing something else. It’s simply easier to listen and receive information at any time and place, which is a major reason why people listen in general, not just to the spoken word.

Not much has changed in 12 months, as audio continues to be perceived as a productive use of time. Multitasking is still the primary reason why people listen to spoken word audio, listed by 71% of the U.S. adult population of monthly listeners. The feeling of the spoken word being tailored made for them is crucial for 62% of listeners, while for 60%, perspectives they don’t hear in other media, the desire to better themselves, and processing info more efficiently are also the major reasons for listening.

Being aware of more content, encouragement/positivity, feeling more mature, needing a break from negativity, and preferring listening more than reading round out the top ten reasons, which is also the average number of reasons people tune in every month.

However, things are different when it comes to young and multicultural audiences, specifically. They are more likely to cite other reasons such as meaningful connection, social media visibility, as well as an opportunity for education, new perspectives, and self-improvement.

Digital audio has continued to grow in 2021. This can largely be attributed to podcast listening, which hit an all-time high in 2021, with 57% of the U.S. 12+ population listening to a podcast. Podcast’s share of time with spoken word audio has increased by 176% over the last seven years and 16% in the last year.

Audiobooks also set a few records as more than 71,000 audiobooks were published in 2020. This represents a 39% growth over 2019, the largest growth in new titles since 2015, and the highest number on record. Furthermore, the percentage of adult Americans who have ever listened to an audiobook rose to 46%, up from 44% in 2020.

Long-form audio such as podcasts and audiobooks make it possible to easily find content that is tailor-made for specific wants and needs, something that helps people stay connected and identify with.

The reason for the growth in listening can also be found in audio’s inherent nature. Audio stories captivate because it’s a medium that is deeply embedded in human history through oral storytelling. Spoken word audio can be much more than just narration because it’s an intimate form of media where the listener is constantly building their own images of the story in their mind.

So, listeners benefit from someone’s inflections or intonations as some nuances are better and easier to communicate via audio than text.

Another major factor here is technology, particularly mobile devices. They are a major factor in spoken word audio’s growth as they account for 35% of spoken word audio listening, followed by AM/FM radio receiver at 29%, computer at 27%, and smart speaker at 24%.

In fact, the share of time spent listening to spoken word audio on a mobile device has increased by 278% over the last seven years and 10% in the past year. The ability to consume audio on-demand at any time and place is massive, which is why eardrums are and will continue to receive a steady stream of content.

Why does this matter?

As of the start of Q4 2021, ExchangeWire has tracked $10.84 billion in investment within companies offering digital audio products, spread between both specialists and generalists companies.

In addition, publishers’ audiobook revenue grew 12% in 2020 to $1.3 billion, the ninth straight year of double-digit growth.

This is highly indicative that the digital audio market is maturing, with numerous media players recognizing the advantages of having audio assets.

Despite the ongoing pandemic, digital audio has shown remarkable resilience and adaptability. More than half or 54% of listeners agree that spoken word audio engages the mind in a more positive way than other media. What’s more, 51% listen to spoken word audio with other people while 45% say it’s becoming a more important part of their life.

So, listeners simply developed new habits and preferences while working and schooling from home. They truly do appreciate the high-quality, screen-free convenience and entertainment that digital audio provides.

From the monetization aspect, the growth of programmatic capabilities has opened up new ways to make digital audio ads relevant to users. These are highly engaged audiences as 22% say they notice ads or sponsorships while listening all the time, while 57% say they sometimes notice them. Also, young and multicultural spoken word listeners are more likely to notice ads and sponsorships in spoken word audio.

This is all thanks to major advancements in adtech. Today, creatives can be dynamically personalized using a wide array of data, from behavioral characteristics down to the time of day and weather. This makes sure ads are captivating enough to catch and hold listeners’ attention while building brand awareness.

It’s not just about ad revenue. According to eMarketer, the number of U.S. paid digital audio subscribers is rising faster than previously expected.

What’s more, over 130 million people in the United States are projected to subscribe to paid audio in 2023, despite the slower rate of growth.

Bottom line - audio is exploding.

Throughout last year, I was making a point about audio slowly reaching the mainstream level of its video counterpart.

Higher growth is likely happening because listeners are actively seeking better and more immersive experiences. One huge advantage audio has is being able to go beyond the limitations of video by providing access across devices, at any time and place, and more importantly - in any, and right, context.

Audio is the future of media and content, and it has never been a better time for publishers and content creators to start thinking more intentionally about their approach to this growing listenership.

At the very least, audio deserves serious consideration when it comes to overall media strategy. With each passing day, it becomes more of a necessity than a nice-to-have feature due to audiences expecting a listening experience.

In fact, not having an audio content strategy is the equivalent of not having a digital strategy 10 years ago. It’s that big of a deal.

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