The New Golden Age of Audio

Editor’s Note: Throughout this piece, you’ll find examples of “Audio in Action” on the Spotify platform. Make sure you have headphones handy, and get ready to listen up.

You’ve heard it before: we’re in a golden age of content. And it’s true — who could deny it in the wake of Game of Thrones’ big-budget battles and social media dominance? — but we’re not just talking about prestige TV. In fact, we don’t need to talk about it at all except as a bridge. Because while that show’s final season has taken over pop culture this year, its domain extends far beyond the screen. SZA, The Weeknd, and Travis Scott’s Thrones-inspired hit “Power Is Power” stacked up 35 million Spotify streams in a month after debuting on April 18. And there are enough podcasts about the series that Vulture keeps a running top 10 list. Why is this important? Because audio content doesn’t just go everywhere that video does, it also goes everywhere else.

That’s why we’ve entered a new golden age of audio. Companies are investing in sonic branding. Cities are embracing in-ear audio tours. Gimlet and Crest Kids launched the voice-activated tooth-brushing podcast Chompers last year. And the percentage of Americans who listen to streaming audio has doubled since 20121, while Spotify Free users with multiple devices are listening for 2.6 hours daily2. Right now, with 50 million songs and 250,000 podcasts on Spotify,3 much of the world’s digital audio catalog is in the palms of our hands. It’s also in our cars and homes: we saw massive increases in both in-car4 and smart-speaker5 streaming across 2018.

Meanwhile, screen exhaustion is real. Our recent trend survey told us that 56% of Gen Zs and millennials agree there’s too much visual stimulation, and audio offers a nice escape from that.6 “Screentime used to just be associated with leisure, but we're realizing the effects it can have on us,” says Gimlet’s Director of Voice Wilson Standish. “Whether it’s parents trying to figure out how to limit access for their kids, or someone who works in front of a computer looking to give themselves a rest, people are looking for entertainment and educational alternatives.”

Audio in Action: Sonos on Dissect

Dissect host Cole Cuchna breaks down classic LPs on his Spotify Original podcast, but for a Sonos sponsorship he broke down their speakers instead — with help from his daughter.

Music has long occupied that space, and now podcasts are making their presence heard. Nearly a third of all podcasts currently in circulation launched in 20187 and by March of this year, more than half of American adults had listened to an episode.8 What’s more, on Spotify we’re seeing that podcast consumption doesn’t take away from music — it’s additive engagement. People who add podcasts to their mix stream more than twice as much audio on a daily basis than those who listen to music alone.9

Unlike other media, audio can be our constant companion. It moves with us whether we’re on-the-go or winding down — at home, out in the world, or en route. Think about the times you’re listening. Sure, you might be sitting still, but it’s much more likely you’re on the treadmill, cooking dinner, hosting friends, playing video games, cleaning your apartment, driving somewhere, studying, or working. In fact, 64% of Americans between the ages of 15 and 38 say not only can they multitask while listening, but that audio makes them more productive.10 Audio enhances and accompanies our screenless moments — even while we sleep — which, as it turns out, make up most of our free time.

Audio bends around our lives, but that doesn’t mean it’s background noise. Those screenless moments are frequently the most meaningful in our day. With music streaming and playlists in particular, we can match our every mood, mindset, and activity — our context — with exactly the right score. Cognitive neuroscientist Amy Belfi says, “We like filling our days with sound because it makes us feel something — usually ‘good,’ but we listen to stuff that makes us feel sad when we want that, or energetic, or calm. We know how to use music to shift our moods. That makes [our day to day] a more personal and curated experience.”

We see this behavior on our platform constantly. That could mean someone cueing up Spotify’s Songs to Sing in the Car playlist on a long drive, blasting Beast Mode during a workout session, or playing a song from their high school days at a dinner party with the old crew. To that last point, Belfi says a song can actually drop you back into the emotions you experienced when you first heard it. Indeed, our research tells us that music is the top trigger for nostalgia.11

Audio in Action: Snickers’ Hunger Spotter

Snickers brought their message — “you’re not you when you’re hungry” — to life with audio. Using Spotify’s streaming intelligence, they found when fans of certain genres (like pop) listened to music different from their norm, and called out that behavior.

All of which means music drives high engagement, and the same can be said for podcasting. There’s a podcast to match every passion, from niche interests to mainstream obsessions (like sports, politics, and entertainment). “Whether you're a flat-Earther or a reptile collector, there's a podcast out there talking about what's happening in your world,” Standish says. “People seek out the community they identify with, and it’s so intimate of a medium, you feel like you’re a part of the conversation. Podcasters kind of act as our aspirational friends.”

Furthermore, our research shows two-thirds of listeners give their favorite podcasts their full attention.12 “Technology has evolved so much, but our brains are still wired to retain and share information audibly,” says Standish. “With podcasts we've seen that your brain is firing in ways it's not with TV or movies, where a lot of the decisions are made for you. With a podcast, I get to be the set decorator, to be the stylist, to decide what everybody looks like. You’re a creative contributor.”

All of this is great news for advertisers looking to reach highly engaged audiences in an impactful way — audio’s ubiquity allows you to fill otherwise unreachable gaps in the consumer’s journey, while streaming’s emotional quotient means we’re receiving new signals about individuals’ real-life context. Plus, a fun side effect: if we’re listening on-the-go, we’re likely not stopping to mute a 15-second ad, and we’re certainly not walking away from the TV to cram in a chore during a commercial break. Of course, knowing when and how best to reach your audience is key.

Belfi recently completed a study to determine when in the listening process music fans determine how much they like a new song. She first played a snippet and asked them to rate it, then did the same with progressively longer clips. “Within 750 milliseconds, people's ratings were pretty good at identifying how they would eventually feel,” she says. “People can make a judgment about whether or not they like the audio in an ad in a very short period of time. You want it to be congruous with whatever they're listening to.”

Audio in Action: Gordon’s Gin and 3D Audio

In this 3D audio ad for Gordon's Gin, a surround-sound commute gives way to an on-the-go happy hour as ice cubes clink and tonic is poured. Make sure your headphones are on to experience the effect!

So, the pressure’s on: research says consumers expect brands to reach them in relevant moments, and for ads to be contextually aware.13 And with our streaming intelligence — our first-party dataset of real-time contextual insights from our logged-in audience — we can help you acknowledge your audience’s context to communicate authentically across platforms in real time. Consider Baskin-Robbins’ Spotify campaign, which used audio to reach listeners during the hottest months, tempting them with cool confections and a “find a shop” CTA that drove 430,000 store visits.14

Audio ads supercharge impact — driving lifts in ad recall (68%), brand awareness (26%), and purchase intent15 (18%) — yet we often hear marketers say they need video to showcase their product or service. Standish predicts an “explosion of experimentation about what else audio can compliment or enhance,” and we see this synergy on Spotify, too — multiformat campaigns that include audio ads show a 160% increase in purchase intent over video ads alone.16

The music and podcasts that people listen to reveal who they are: fitness enthusiasts, true-crime buffs, commuters, new parents, gamers, socialites, or fans of totally epic metal clearly written to score visuals of dragons in flight. Through audio, brands can reach consumers in exactly the right context, and serve them exactly the right message. And as the technology develops — see Spotify's new voice-activated ads — consumers will increasingly be responding to that message in real time. We’d warn you, Westeros style, that audio is coming, but we think you know the truth: it’s already here.

1 Edison Research and Triton Digital, The Infinite Dial Study 2019
2 Spotify First Party Data, Global, 2018, based on daily content hours / daily active users, free users, multiplatform
3 Spotify First Party Data
4 Spotify First Party Data, Global, January 2018-January 2019
5 Voicebot Smart Speaker Consumer Adoption Report, January 2019
6 Spotify trend survey among 4,000 respondents 15-37 globally [U.S., MX, BR, FR, DE, U.K., PH, AU], February 2019)
7 Chartable, March 2019
8 Edison Research and Triton Digital, The Infinite Dial Study 2019
9 Spotify First Party Data, Free Users, November 2018
10 Spotify trend survey among 4,000 respondents 15-37 globally [U.S., MX, BR, FR, DE, U.K., PH, AU], February 2019)
11 Spotify Nostalgia research, survey conducted among 2078 respondents in US, UK, BR, PH, March 2018
12 Crowd DNA & Spotify, We’re All Ears, Global, 2018
13 YPulse, Spotify DITL Recontacting Study, August 2017, U.S., U.K., AU
14 Spotify Placed Analysis, 2018
15 Nielsen Brand Effect benchmarks for all studies run through August 31, 2018
16 Nielsen Brand Effect benchmarks for all studies run through August 31, 2018