Voice wars: how podcasts will win the battle

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This post was previously published on TechCrunch and is reprinted here with permission.


Perhaps you’ve noticed, in the past five years, voice assistants and smart speakers have taken off. Chances are you’ve spoken to Siri, accepted some hands-free help from Google Assistant, or accidentally tripped your Amazon device’s wake word (let’s just agree to call her “Lexi,” shall we?)

If you’re reading this, there’s a strong possibility you have a smart speaker. A recent report suggests American homes have amassed 160 million of these devices in the past few years. Add to this a pandemic that turned even the most social of butterflies into homebodies and it’s no surprise people are using their voice assistants now more than ever.

But what are they used for? Sure, the timer is handy now that there’s all this time to bake cookies; and adding everyday items to a shopping list by voice command is mightily convenient. But let’s be honest, the virtual assistant revolution won’t be won by the device that can turn your lights on and off. (Hint: They all can.)


Voice assistants are in your home, your pocket, and your earbuds too. They’re literally at your beck and call. And you are calling: according to estimates, 128 million people used a voice assistant at least monthly in 2020, an uptick of 11% from the previous year.

In 2018, Amazon controlled 24% of the virtual assistant market, followed by Apple (22%) and Google (20%), with the remainder made up of smaller outliers. Just as the humble PC and now-ubiquitous smartphone had long evolutionary journeys, the voice assistant has followed in the footsteps of its ancestors and finally reached maturity.

And like PCs and smartphones, the voice assistant operating system with the largest market share will control so much; where we’ll search, where we’ll shop, and where and how we’ll consume content. That’s the war these rival operating systems are now preparing for.

The voice war will be won by the virtual assistant that attracts the most users with its quality of service.

That battle is currently being waged between the familiar tech giants and a few select competitors offering white label alternatives. As manufacturers across a range of industries consider incorporating voice into their devices, they’re very concerned about losing the intimate connection they’ve cultivated with their users. It’s the reason new owners of one familiar luxury automotive brand will soon be saying ‘Hey Mercedes’ and not the well-worn wake words we’ve quickly come to know.

The tech giants are on to this. Amazon is now offering a white label version of its voice assistant (which Fiat Chrysler plans to use). Note the growing nexus between virtual assistants and the automotive industry; more than 60% of car buyers say the availability of a voice assistant is a factor in their purchase decision.


In parallel, audio content has fast-become one of the hottest commodities on the market. In a bid to improve both the quality and diversity of their offerings, the familiar players have turned to the ever-expanding world of podcasts.

This February, iHeartMedia acquired podcast tech company Triton Digital for $230 million on the heels of acquiring Voxnest in October. Late last year, Spotify acquired podcast host Megaphone, following on from high-profile exclusive deals with ultra-popular podcaster Joe Rogan and the Obamas. In 2019, Spotify took over the podcast creation platform Anchor, acquired the Gimlet podcast network for $230 million, and initiated its first nascent attempts at curating spoken-word playlists.

Last September, Amazon joined the race and launched its own podcast directory to compete with Apple’s monopoly. In December it acquired podcast network Wondery for an estimated $300 million. Also last year, the satellite radio behemoth SiriusXM bought up the podcasting and ad distribution companies Stitcher and Midroll for a deal thought to be worth $325 million. Google, an unusual latecomer to the game, finally launched its iOS-version podcast app last year.

And alongside these mergers and acquisitions, even as the market condenses, new enterprising initiatives are being pushed forward; innovative audio-centric apps like Clubhouse are the latest rage, indicative of the current zeitgeist.

The supply follows demand. Monthly podcast listeners topped an unprecedented 100 million in 2020, a 40% increase in just two years.
People are “screened out,” and they’re turning to audio. And there is so much available; depending where you check, there’s around 2 million podcasts, and about 40 million episodes available today!


The first competitor to successfully leverage the popularity of this audio explosion into its voice assistant’s capabilities and deliver a winning listening experience will also win this battle.

An easily accessible, frictionless audio ecosystem that allows listeners to search, sample, discover and share audio content — these are must-have features for any successful voice assistant.

Cracking the “TikTok experience” will be key for the audio arena. Creating a user journey that allows listeners to easily skim audio content, scan search results and dip and dive between short and long audio formats through a seamless interface is essential.

At a minimum, the next generation of voice assistants must remove obstacles and stumbling blocks to content discoverability. Personalized feeds of compelling, authentic audio experiences will be required just to stay relevant.

Users need a navigable operating system capable of conveniently retrieving results. One that can hone in on desired or required content and information quickly and effortlessly.

Few of us have the patience to browse to a second page of search results. The tolerance among listeners for irrelevant audio results will be even lower. New types of audio content and new formats will be required to fuel this expedited audio delivery mechanism. Audio search and extraction methods will require improvements to meet that need.

Aristotle pointed out that nature hates a vacuum. These missing features will be the weapons used to wage – and win – the coming war.

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