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Ask any podcaster how much of their listening is on a smart speaker, and the answer undoubtedly will be some variation of “not so much.” But like traditional radio, podcasters expect listening on the devices to grow. At Podcast Movement in Orlando Thursday, the consensus was that there is still much to be figured out before voice-activated opportunities are fully realized. 

The latest Voicebot research shows that some 66.4 million Americans own a smart speaker, a 40.3% increase from a year ago. That means more than one in four U.S. adults have access to a smart speaker-based voice assistant. But Voicebot reveals that while 39.9% have tried to access podcasts on a smart speaker on a monthly basis, only 26% have been successful. And only 11% have used voice assistants to access podcasts via their smartphones. And many podcasters say smart speakers represent even less of their listening than that figure suggests. 

Bret Kinsella, CEO of Voicebot, told a Jacobs Media “Broadcasters Meet Podcasters” session that he believes that’s because most podcast listeners simply need to learn a new habit. “Most podcast listening today is people accustomed to listening on the smartphone,” he said. “They have to become aware of it.” The good news is that when podcast fans do cozy up to smart speakers, they’re likely to listen to more shows. “It’s incremental listening,” he added. “Yes, it’s a small amount, but each of these segments grows every year.” That applies to voice assistants, too. Once consumers start leaning on the technology, their research shows they grow more comfortable and begin using voice assistants more on their smartphone or in the car, as well.

Kinsella says that unlike the digital shift to mobile that occurred relatively smoothly—since it was largely a change in how the same material was presented online—the smart speaker evolution will likely be more challenging, because it is moving to a platform where there’s not a lot of podcast content.

In addition, many podcasters have yet to invest in skill-building. There are currently about 1,000 podcast-focused Alexa skills, a miniscule number considering the hundreds of thousands of on-demand shows that have been created.

Skills: Simple Or Interactive?

What may have been the first radio station-created Alexa skill came from Federated Media’s country “K-105” WQHK Ft. Wayne, IN. James Derby, Chief Strategy Officer/Director of Programming at Federated, said that first skill allowed users to perform eight different tasks and they quickly realized it needed to be stripped down. “We cut it down and made it real simple,” he said. “You can listen to the radio station and you can listen to podcasts on a different skill.” While that presents a challenge in promoting the skills to listeners, Derby said his experience shows users simply don’t discover all the things that can be packed into a single skill. 

To increase use of the Federated’s smart speaker skills, Derby says the company has promoted it heavily over the air, as well as on podcasts, social media and any other platform where the company touches listeners: “It’s advertising on radio specifically and telling listeners that this is the way to find those podcasts. Be aggressive about it. You can’t do it just once, it’s about repetition.”

Will Mayo, Chief Strategy Officer at Spoken Layer, said the best analogy may be how websites built today are agnostic to whatever browser someone uses. “There’s too much focus on the skills features. Just make it simple and don’t make it interactive,” he advised. “At the end of the day users don’t care, they just want their content.”

Still, discerning the right path for increased listening on smart speakers just isn’t clear yet,” offers Rachel Batish, Senior VP of Product at Audioburst. She says a case could be made for just the opposite strategy: “Maybe once the podcast skill is more interactive and has more options to continue listening is when the smart speaker will gain more traction among podcast listeners.” Batish also urged podcasters to put more pressure on Amazon, Apple and Google to take podcasts into consideration as they’re fine-tuning their technology.

As smart speaker adoption rates continue to grow, Derby believes they may actually prove to be a better fit for podcasting than traditional AM/FM radio. “I look at smart speakers as an on-demand service; broadcast radio is not an on-demand service,” he said. For instance, when someone turns on the radio and hears commercials and not music, it could be a turn-off. “That’s not the service people come to expect on a smart speaker,” Derby said. “That’s where podcasts fit in.”