Podcasts are an intimate experience, but they aren’t interactive. PHD’s Amelia Ward challenges us to imagine a podcast experience resembling a Choose Your Own Adventure novel, unique and rich for listeners, podcasters and advertisers. It might not be too far off if voice technology continues to grow.
You might fall in love with the sound of your favourite podcast host, the intimacy of their voice inside your headphones. It could be inspirational, heartfelt, intelligent, educational and familiar, but it’s ultimately one-way dialogue. The linear design of podcasting means that as much as you get to learn about your favourite podcast and host(s), they know nothing at all about you.
But imagine podcasts that were interactive and immersive, like a Choose Your Own Adventure novel or interactive video game.
In order to imagine this future, we need to look back into the past. The 70s were a goldmine for interactive experiences. In 1972, Atari released the arcade game Pong – not the first video game ever made, but it was the first commercially successful one. It established interactive gaming as one of the universally most popular pastimes.
In 1976, the first Choose Your Own Adventure book was published. Interactive storytelling was created and opened up an entirely new experience to young readers. Fast forward to 2018 and Netflix released Black Mirror: Bandersnatch, arguably the most successful interactive production in recent years.
We’ve had digital video-on-demand since the 90s, so why has it taken so long for interactive storytelling and consumer decision-driven content to be part of our everyday TV consumption? The answer is that ultimately limitations in technology held us back. This in turn has limited consumer demand, which of course, resulted in a lack of content being produced.
Similarly, podcasts have existed since 2004. We’ve had attempts at interactive content since then; platforms such as Entale have added pictures, maps, links, and quotes on the screen as the story is being told.
There are also the slightly clunky interactive podcasts like 3D Escape Room: Frequency, which is described as an “interactive 3D audio escape room where you must find and solve all the [audio-based] puzzles within 60 minutes”. In each episode you need to figure out the code and then skip ahead to the correct podcast, named with that same code. There are a number of decoy podcasts in the series, so you can’t cheat.
Both are great examples of attempts to create some form of interactivity with listeners across the podcast platform. But what’s still missing is a seamless engagement experience between listener and podcast. A conversation-style exchange that allows for deeper interaction and immersion into the podcast.
What’s holding us back right now is legacy technology. But with the popularity of smart speakers, voice-enabled devices and advanced natural language processing, the podcast landscape is set to evolve considerably.
In the near future, imagine a podcast experience like this: You’re listening to your favourite true-crime podcast, and the host describes basic information about someone involved in the crime. You interrupt and ask, “Hey [Alexa/Google/Siri], tell me more about John Doe” and your host starts delving more into the nitty-gritty of John Doe’s story. You are more invested in certain details of this character, while other listeners can focus on other areas specific to their interests. Podcast listening becomes a truly interactive, choose-your-own-adventure experience, a chance for podcast consumers to feed their craving for binge-listening and instant gratification.
What’s in it for podcast content creators? The opportunity for real-time feedback from listeners. The types of topics or features that get interrogated and the characters they care about most. This rich data will feed content strategy and creation to ultimately drive engagement, success and popularity. And of course, advertisers benefit from new opportunities to present their brands in more meaningful environments where consumers are actively engaging with them rather than passively consuming their ads.
Once podcasting technology catches up to consumer expectations and behaviours, you can expect to see the entire podcast experience change. The voice and audio landscape will become less broadcast and more conversational, with interactive storytelling becoming part of our everyday audio experience.