Will Facebook ever become a podcast-listening destination?

Probably not, but it might help bring in casual listeners.

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Will Facebook ever become a podcast-listening destination?

Facebook made headlines this month with the launch of a podcast player within its main app. Given the major investments in the medium from big tech companies like Spotify and Amazon, it’s easy to wonder whether Facebook will make a serious effort to enter the podcast listening wars.

Matt Deegan reviewed Facebook’s current podcast offerings and was pretty underwhelmed:

The roll-out seems somewhat limited. US listeners are the only ones that can tune in, and participation for podcasters seems invite-only for the moment.

This means that even if your podcast episodes are pulled through and published they won’t show up in an international user’s newsfeed, or even on a Page if you visit it.

Whilst I can understand a slow roll-out to get the tech right, this isn’t something that really works for podcasters. You can’t really give it a shout-out if a load of your listeners can’t use it. It’s also frustrating for shows that want to take part but aren’t invited, or those that are international with a big US audience …

… Part of the trouble is they’re trying to force a Facebook-centric model onto the podcast community. To (eventually) list a show on Facebook it seems you have to attach a show to a Facebook Page. Which works if your brand is a single show, that has a Facebook page. What happens if you have multiple shows? You don’t seem to be able to list more than one RSS feed. And then, what about networks? Does the BBC have to create a Facebook page for each of their shows? And even if they do, those pages will have zero followers, which will likely affect the content surfacing algorithm.

This is just Facebook’s opening salvo, of course, and it’ll eventually open to all podcasts, both domestic and abroad.

But once Facebook does open the floodgates, how much energy and effort should podcasters place on the platform? Is there any chance it’ll become a major podcast listening destination?

My guess is that a podcast’s most devoted listeners will never choose Facebook as their main audio-listening app. When I listen to podcasts, it’s a very intentional act, and I want to quickly access my list of subscriptions. I’m not going to trust the Facebook Newsfeed algorithm to deliver me the right episode at the right time, nor do I want to click through five buttons just to get to the podcast episode I want.

That’s not to say that Facebook can’t drive value for the industry. For instance, I think there’s a lot of potential for casual podcast discovery. Facebook has 2 billion active users, after all, and the Newsfeed is a powerful distribution mechanism, especially for passive consumption. A good audience development strategy might focus on finding these casual listeners and then funneling them toward a dedicated podcast listening app like Spotify or Overcast.

I also think Facebook podcasts will perform well for those who already have a large following on Facebook. If you’re a well-known figure with 1 million Facebook subscribers, then you pretty much have an instantaneous audience waiting for when you debut your podcast.

Several years ago, Facebook decided to launch a serious challenge to YouTube in the video space, and though YouTube still remains the dominant player, it's hard to deny that Facebook has achieved significant video reach across its main app and Instagram. If it really is serious about building a podcast audience, then it’ll no doubt gain traction. Over the next year we’ll get to see if it’s actually committed to the cause, or whether this is just another shiny object it pursues and quickly abandons.

Are tech companies spending dumb money on podcasts?

Speaking of the podcast wars, Amazon just signed a deal worth $80 million for a celebrity-driven podcast. Bloomberg reports:

Amazon.com Inc. is buying exclusive rights to “SmartLess,” the podcast hosted by actors Will Arnett, Jason Bateman and Sean Hayes, hoping the celebrity-interview program can draw more listeners to its subscription-based music service …

… Amazon didn’t disclose the terms of the deal, which lasts three years, but the total value is between $60 million and $80 million, according to a person familiar with the matter. That would put it slightly ahead of the roughly $20 million a year that rival Spotify Technology SA paid for “Call Her Daddy,” which stars advice guru and comedian Alexandra Cooper.

I’m on record as being fairly bullish on the podcast industry, which I think is poised for massive growth. But I can’t help but wonder whether all these huge podcast deals we’ve seen lately amount to little more than big tech companies spending dumb money.

Just because a market has the potential to become big doesn’t mean you can’t over-invest too early. Just look at the dot com bubble burst as an example; even though the tech industry did indeed take over the entire economy, the 90s bubble caused a rush of investment into bad companies that had no viable business strategy.

If you get too far ahead of the market, then you’re essentially flying blind. Based on our best available data, the podcast industry only generates about $1 billion a year at this point, meaning that $80 million deal for a single podcast represents 8% of the entire market.

Yes, I know companies like Amazon make bets that aren’t meant to pay off until years in the future. Still, it feels like the market is getting frothy and is due for an eventual correction.

Can news outlets diversify away from journalism?

The LA Times signaled that it might be willing to move beyond its journalism to bring in new subscribers. Its editor listed live events, audio projects, comedy, poetry, and music as potential new projects it wants to launch.

This reminded me of a thought experiment I often have in which I imagine how an outlet like The New York Times could diversify into mediums like fiction and short films. I wrote about that thought experiment over here.

Virtual events are here to stay

One silver lining of the pandemic is that it forced publishers to take the plunge into virtual events, and Nieman Lab reports that many will probably stick with the medium:

“A lot of people were watching our events in the hours and days after they had aired,” said Jessica Weaver, the Tribune’s creative director for editorial events. “The live experience was really important, but the afterlife of these events was equally important. We realized we could make them far more accessible than our other events. We’re streaming them not only on our website, but also on all of our social platforms.”

What's the difference between a podcast and an audiobook?

It used to be easy to tell them apart, but now their industries are increasingly merging with each other.

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Simon Owens is a tech and media journalist living in Washington, DC. Follow him on TwitterFacebook, or LinkedIn. Email him at simonowens@gmail.com. For a full bio, go here.