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Shaping the blob: a user research approach to podcasts

How we researched our podcast audiences

Abstract image of podcast audience Josh Laincz

It’s Monday and, unless you have a hungry pet, beeping wakes you up and the routine begins—shuffling through some form of food, caffeine intake, and stumbling out the door on the way to work. Most people have some sort of journey to work, and with urban densification and suburban sprawl, commutes are getting longer. So how do you deal with an ever increasing amount of time spent traveling?

For many, the answer is podcasts. Against the backdrop of never-ending TV shows and less interest in radio, podcasts are gaining in popularity. Figuring out the right topic, and how long and how often to talk about it, is crucial to launching a new podcast into the sea of existing content

Vox Media offers a number of podcasts across its various networks—like The Vergecast from The Verge and Today Explained from Vox.com, plus a host of new sports podcasts on the way. With podcast consumption on the rise, and the podcast marketplace getting crowded, it’s imperative that we understand who we’re catering to.

This is where user research comes in—where we look at a large group of people and figure out how to distinguish a couple of distinguishing features from the entirety of the podcast audience blob. It’s sort of like carving a stone sculpture: we start with a giant block and try to make it resemble something beautiful, or at least semi-human.

To chip off the first giant pieces from our block, we try to establish general information about our audience with surveys about age, income, occupation, their media habits, and broad questions about what people like or feel like telling us. This results in a spreadsheet, potentially quite small or—if the survey was given to verbose tech people with things to get off their chests—large enough to cause Google Sheets to crash. Repeatedly.

From this information, we can look at statistics or general trends, like that 70% of The Verge podcast consumers listen to podcasts during their commute. This shaves a few big pieces off of the stone, creating a very general and rough outline with no clear features.

But we’re trying to make the giant block resemble something semi-human, and numbers can’t tell the whole story. So we use the survey to guide how we’ll proceed next. We can sort the survey respondents by a number of factors and choose a few that best represent the majority of users, and maybe a few that buck the general trends.

These few we can interview—we just have to make sure that we ask the right questions. This is where knowing something about blobs, humans, and carving is helpful. Anthropologists know about those things, and not just because we occasionally study dead people and their stone carvings. We study groups, individuals, and everything in-between. To formulate questions, to continue to chisel away at the block, we go beyond reading through open answer fields in surveys; we specialize in ethnography and participant observation. We go through the same motions as the people we observe, listen to the same content, and try to understand key aspects of content or format that might attract people.

I am a bit biased in my research because I am a linguistic anthropologist, so I go through websites, podcasts, and surveys looking for key linguistic markers—another way to chip the block down to size. A linguistic marker is a phrase used by members of a community that marks them as a member of that community. For instance, when podcast listeners reported “feeling smarter” or “being well informed,” that had a couple of different meanings.

People do listen to podcasts to “be informed” about news. They listen to news-based podcasts from NPR or the New York Times on their phones during commutes instead of reading a morning paper. However, they also listen to interview-based podcasts like Recode Decode with Kara Swisher to gain a deeper understanding of a topic that they don’t know about. A number of the people we interviewed said that they pick a podcast by topic to learn. They search for podcasts about new topics or podcasts by people they heard interviewed on other podcasts and became curious.

That’s what anthropology does: it looks at what people do, how they talk about what they do, and asks “why?”

I use the language of survey respondents and interview subjects to formulate my larger questions, to guide the final chisel selection. The block has a clear form by the time we do interviews, but interviews put faces and voices to a piece. Those faces and voices form the center of the sculpture, while larger, more theoretical questions give the piece relevance beyond the words—relevance beyond specific podcasts or brands .

For instance, we first limited our interviews only to people who listen to Recode podcasts, but we asked them broad questions about when they listen to podcasts and what other podcasts they listen to. The answers formed a clear trend. For example, many respondents listen to shorter, 15 to 30 minute news podcasts in the morning, and listen to longer interview podcasts during their evening commute or at home at the end of the day.

These respondents don’t really like podcasts longer than an hour because, while they’re curious, they’re also driven and have commitments and interests they need to get to. Since everyone we spoke to listens on their phones, they take their podcasts wherever they go and listen when they have a spare moment. A few power users even increase the playback speed to optimize their information density.

Beyond information, people listen to podcasts to laugh or to listen to deep discussions about the latest plot twists on their favorite TV shows. They also listen to audiobooks and music, often while they are unwinding at the end of the day, or at the gym, or doing the dishes. They fill empty space with voices they know so well that they feel like they’re in the company of friends.

This is just a brief sketch of the final form of the story of podcasts. Like most descriptive projects, it can always be improved or expanded upon in the future. That’s the beauty of user research: it provides answers, but also a never-ending stream of questions to push future development.

Alannah Berson is a displaced Pacific North-Westerner and user research intern on the Vox Product team. She recently completed her MA in Anthropology at the University of Chicago. She has three computers, two phones, and one raging note card addiction.