podcasting trends

10 podcasting trends to watch in 2021

How will podcasting change in 2021? Last year (2020) was the biggest year yet, with a record number of new podcasts launched. But I know 2021 is poised to be even bigger, as annual ad spend will pass $1B  while Spotify, Apple, and Amazon compete for listeners attention on a whole new scale.

In this episode, I’ll cover the top 10 podcasting trends to watch in 2021, including everything from platforms to monetization, marketing, video, and of course, sponsorship. But in the end, what’s the one thing that matters most of all?

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How did podcasting grow in 2020?

2020 was a record year for new podcasts launched. To give you some stats…

  • Listen notes counted 809,000 new podcasts in 2020
  • My Podcast Reviews counted over a million new podcasts.

Either way, it’s a huge number. And in 2021, I expect a new record to be set.

But in case you’re worried that you’ve “missed the boat” or there are “too many podcasts out there for me to start now,” I want to reassure you that there’s still plenty of room for you.

According to Single Grain, in 2020 there were…

  • 500 million blogs
  • 31 million YouTube channels
  • 800 thousand active podcasts

I know it’s easy to see successful podcasters and their long-running shows and assume that “they got there first, I’m too late.” But the numbers tell a different story, where you can more clearly see just how small the podcasting space still is.

That’s why I’m so excited for both new and experienced podcasters alike to learn more from these top 10 podcasting trends for 2021. I know this will be a year of big, exciting growth in our industry, and no matter how long you’ve been podcasting (or how short), the opportunities are huge.

Podcasting trends for Apple, Spotify, and Amazon 📱

If I were to summarize these first few trends in a sentence, it would be,

“The big players will keep getting bigger.”

Spotify, Apple, and now Amazon are all making huge investments in podcasting. They’re all buying technology, and they’re all buying something else, too: content creation houses. (I wouldn’t be surprised to see more Spotify and Amazon original series by the end of the year.)

The real question is: will Apple be able to retain their majority hold on podcast listeners?

1. Spotify will continue investing heavily in podcasting. Both in tech and in content.

In their own words, Spotify is trying to become the world’s leading audio platform. They may have started out in music streaming, but they’re clearly dreaming of a much bigger future.

Over the last two years, they’ve been on an acquisition spree. In 2019, Spotify acquired Gimlet – the production company that created Startup among many other great podcasts and Parcast, a storytelling production house.

They also acquired Anchor, a free podcast hosting platform. (Click here for my full list of recommended podcast hosting platforms.)

Then in 2020, the acquisitions just kept coming. Spotify acquired The Ringer, Bill Simmons’ digital brand, as well as Megaphone, which was the 2nd largest deal in podcasting for all of 2020.

It’s clear that they’re going to continue investing heavily in podcasting, not just the tech, but also in companies that can help them create custom content. They infamously bought the rights to Joe Rogan’s podcast in 2020, and they’re developing their own new shows with big names like Michelle and Barack Obama.

These acquisitions all indicate that Spotify is becoming a content house, not just a streaming platform. They’ve also been doing a lot to launch their own proprietary technology for ads called SAI. I don’t know how well I see that getting adopted yet, especially not by indie podcasters like us, but we should all keep an eye on the way Spotify continues to invest in podcasting.

2. Amazon will become a critical name in podcasting for the first time.

Last year, Amazon invited podcast hosts to submit their shows for to both Amazon Music and to Audible and then I think a few months later, they rolled out podcasts on Amazon Music.

At first, this might not seem like a big deal. But there are two big reasons why I’m keeping a very close eye on Amazon.

  1. Alexa. She is everywhere, and continuing to grow as more people purchase Echo devices for their homes. So if Echo becomes the preferred way to listen to podcasts, then Amazon will become key.
  2. They’re acquiring Wondery. On December 30, 2020, Amazon confirmed their plan to acquire massive podcast firm Wondery, whose podcasts have a reputation for being adapted to screen. So if you put two and two together, it seems that Amazon might be trying to compete with Spotify in the original content creation arena.

Quick tip: If you have a published podcast, you’re eligible to submit your show to Amazon. Click here to submit your show.

3. Apple will start having to make legitimate improvements to keep their market hold.

Up until around 2018. I think Apple was kind of chillin’. They were by far the biggest listening app, and they didn’t have to do that much to compete for attention.

But now, listeners have more options. And Spotify, in particular, is taking away their listeners. 

Apple’s response to Spotify’s acquisitions and increased interest in podcasting is extremely important for us hosts. Because right now, a lot of our success metrics are tied to Apple specifically.

For example, when podcasters talk about “hitting the charts,” those charts are Apple’s only, so they’re only counting listeners using Apple Podcasts.

Will Spotify try to compete with their own charts? And will it be easier to chart there, which might attract more podcasters to try and drive their listeners to Spotify instead of apple?

I don’t know. But it’ll be interesting to see. 

The other huge thing that Apple dominates is reviews. It’s not a game that I expect Spotify to play. (You can’t leave reviews on any albums. And I don’t see why they would expand into reviews just for podcasts.)

But within Apple, we know reviews matter for their algorithm, although we don’t know how much. That said, I think reviews function critically as social proof. So as long as Apple is still relevant – and I certainly don’t see that changing this year – then getting reviews is still important, because they show other listeners that people are enjoying your show.

Podcasting trends in content creation 🎧

Although it’s important to keep an eye on the big players, I’m personally more excited by the trends I’m seeing in content creation (aka episode creation). I think 2021 will be a year for creativity for podcast hosts, as more new podcasters continue to launch and try new things.

4. Episode quality and listener experience (LX) will matter more than ever.

Listeners are savvy, and they’re used to great shows. That’s why podcasts will have to put out high-quality, engaging content in order to compete. That means your episodes will need to be both valuable and well-produced if you’re serious about growing your audience.

This doesn’t mean you need to spend a crazy amount of money. You don’t need a private recording studio, a $500 microphone, or anything like that. But spending a little bit of money on the right microphone and then spending most of your time on creating great episodes will make a huge difference. 

It’s also important to imagine how your listeners tune in. They might be commuting, cleaning, walking, or otherwise multitasking. So you have to find ways to keep your content both straightforward and engaging throughout.

5. More podcasters will explore creative formats, lengths, and even production styles.

I expect that 2021 will be the year that new and experienced hosts alike start to try new things. Which I think is really exciting!

Historically, I think when we hear “podcast” we assume that the show will air regularly, on the same day of the week, with roughly the same episode length and format. But here are a few ways I can see that evolving:

  • Some hosts will stick to a proven 60-minute episode, while others might try a six-minute episode. (I think any length could work for the right show.)
  • Some hosts will mix it up, with two episodes per week in different formats. (Many podcasts already do this successfully. For example, a 60-minute “standard” weekly episode, plus a short 5-min “bonus episode” on Fridays.)

There are also some standard podcast formats that have worked since the dawn of time. But I wonder if there’s room for something new. I don’t totally know what that’ll look like. For example, narrative podcasts take a lot of time and money, but maybe more hosts will adopt a “narrative light” approach, with a little bit more scoring or a little bit more of a soundbite style.

Lastly, I think this will be a notable year for listener interaction. Especially in a post-pandemic world, finding ways to connect with real people in a virtual way is more critical than ever.

And as podcasters, we’re in a great position to actually reach a wide audience with our passions, professions, or platforms. So I expect most hosts will find ways to poll their audiences and bring them into the conversations. (I know this is in my plans, personally!)

6. More hosts and businesses will create high-quality limited podcast series instead of defaulting to continuous programming.

Right now, most podcasts run continuously, with plans to release content regularly.

But lately, the TV industry has embraced limited series to huge success. For example:

  • Hulu released Little Fires Everwhere
  • Netflix released The Queen’s Gambit
  • HBO Max released The Flight Attendant

(All three are excellent, by the way!)

In podcasting, a few limited-series found success, too. The most notable I’m aware of is WeCrashed, a Wondery series on the spectacular fall of WeWork.

In 2021, I predict that more businesses will use limited podcast series as cornerstone content. The benefits for a limited series are huge:

  • Your project has a finite start and end
  • You can focus on producing extremely high-quality content
  • You can tell a story from start to finish (optional)

In short, I think there’s an opportunity to approach podcasts with a quality over quantity mindset. Wouldn’t you rather listen to 8 excellent episodes than 80 mediocre episodes?

Podcasting trends in marketing 📈

7. SEO knowledge and implementation will become critical as search engines will start to adapt to a more podcast-driven world.

For a long time, I’ve said that Google can’t listen to podcasts. And as it turns out, now they can.

In 2019, Google started including podcasts in search results near the top, similar to YouTube videos.

Of course, they’re only including podcasts listed in Google Podcasts.

On top of that, I recently learned that starting in 2020, Google Podcasts is now transcribing podcasts automatically, which means that Google can more easily crawl your episodes for keywords.

Note: These are internal transcripts used by Google’s technology, not public transcripts for your listeners. If you’re looking for my favorite tools for transcription, I use and love Otter and Podscribe [affiliate links].

These are all strong indicators that podcasters will need to start prioritizing SEO, and thinking like marketers if they want to maximize their exposure via search. Practically, that means…

  • Using keyword research to plan and publish your episodes
  • Publishing your episodes on your website
  • Including transcripts for all episodes

8. Video platforms will become increasingly important for podcasters. (YouTube and TikTok, in particular)

YouTube for podcasters

Google owns YouTube. Therefore, YouTube videos show up first in a lot of Google searches, which is a great way to get your content in front of more people.

On top of that, YouTube alone is already a search engine. So although videos are not technically podcasts, they will put you in front of new people. And if your primary interest is getting in front of more people and potentially building up your platform or building up your business, then YouTube can be a great way to do that.

In 2020, livestreaming became increasingly prevalent, so it’ll be interesting to see how those strategies spill into 2021 and into podcasting, more generally.

TikTok for podcasters

The other huge name in video in 2020 is, of course, TikTok. And it’s here to stay, along with Reels on Instagram, Video Pins on Pinterest, and all other video-driven features that social media companies rolled out in the last 12 months.

Using TikTok is now a proven strategy to build your audience as a podcaster or online business owner. It might not be the right fit for every podcaster, but it’s worth giving serious consideration if you think your audience is on TikTok.

But even if you aren’t personally on TikTok, there are implications on the podcast industry more broadly. This is one more step toward “bite-sized” content, and I’m interested to see if there’s a market for more “bite-sized” audio content.

I don’t think podcasts will turn into 60-second episodes. Far from it. But I do think more podcasters will mix in short (under 5 minute) content with their existing long-form episodes to hook the attention of new listeners.

Podcasting trends in monetization 💰

9. Annual podcasting ad revenue will top $1B dollars this year.

No matter where you look, studies continue to show that listeners are receptive to podcast ads.

Whether or not you personally find them annoying, they’re far less intrusive and frequent than TV and traditional radio ads. And when you add in the inherent trust listeners feel toward their favorite podcast hosts, it results in industry-leading conversion for ads compared to other mediums.

From a tech perspective, I also think 2021 will bring something called Dynamic Ad insertion Into the conversation more frequently. With DAI, imagine swapping out ads from past episodes and replacing them with fresher ads. You wouldn’t be editing the episode content, only the ads.

Based on new features released by my favorite podcast hosting platforms in 2020, it’s clear that they think DAI will become more important, too.

10. Many indie podcasters will experience a mindset shift around podcast monetization.

When students ask me about podcast monetization, most are asking me about booking traditional sponsors. And there are now networks like Podcorn that make it easier than ever for new podcasts to find sponsors.

However, I don’t personally believe it’s worth it unless you have enough ears on the ad. To me, one of the most important shifts I see coming in 2021 is that more podcasters will start to think about their podcasts as marketing channels instead of revenue channels.

Here’s what I mean.

You can still use ads on your podcast. But instead of having a sponsor pay you upfront to sponsor your podcast, you’d try promoting your own business, your paid membership, or even affiliate partnerships.

This shifts your mindset away from, “I need to build up my podcast to 5,000 downloads per episode to start monetizing.”

Instead, now you can think, “Even if my audience is tiny, a few of them might still want to buy something from me. I should pitch them.”

Podcasting trends in 2021: a summary

Whew, what a long post. (Did anyone read this whole thing instead of listening to the episode?)

As we close this post, it may feel like the industry is growing bigger than ever. And it is! But I also want to reassure you that there’s still plenty of new podcasts to launch in 2021. And if you already have a podcast, consider how you might want to tweak or adjust your content, marketing, or monetization strategies to maximize your growth potential this year.

Have you left a review for Wit & Wire?

You may have heard me say that podcast reviews are crucial for all podcasters. They help offer social proof that people are enjoying your show, plus they factor into Apple’s algorithms. So if you’re enjoying Wit & Wire, I’d love to ask for your review:

  1. Head to witandwire.com/apple, ideally on your phone.
  2. Scroll down and click the 5-star rating.
  3. For bonus points – and the chance for a shoutout on our podcast! – add a quick sentence about what you enjoy about the show. Feel free to include your podcast name.

A huge thank you in advance!

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