Alexa … Serve Me My Content

I should cop to my bias at the outset. I  have been on the podcasting bandwagon since shortly after Apple added the format to its iTunes player in 2005. Personalization and portability, along with the seamless continuity of media experiences across different contexts, was the magic for me. And it is not surprising that the same recipe is at the heart of the most successful digital media brand of our era: Netflix.

But even as technology made podcasts easier to find and consume, the medium remained in its audience niche. Only about a quarter of digital media consumers listen to a podcast in any given month, according to Edison Research. And it may stay that way. I am not here to evangelize podcasting as the next big thing. In its current form, it likely won’t be. But it is the best indication of how undervalued and compelling on-demand audio content is at the very moment when the channels for audio are set to explode.

Our media consumption is not only developing increasingly hands-free interfaces but screen-free delivery channels as well. Yes, video and TV do seem to be everywhere now. We are also seeing the emergence of voice search (via Siri, Google, and Cortana), in-car voice commands, voice assistants (Google Home and Amazon Echo), wearables, and voice interactions with TV and set-top boxes. In many of these cases, the media delivered in response to commands and queries is audio.

To wit: Amazon’s Alexa just added a Flash Briefs capability to its Echo device that lets the user queue up audio programming, such as trivia games, daily headlines, and short shows from major media outlets. Bloomberg, The Wall Street Journal, NPR, Mic, and many local news outlets already have Flash Briefings that a user can subscribe to and hear in a prescribed order when he or she asks Echo to play his or her news.

Some forward-thinking content providers are already experimenting with sophisticated interactive audio content. Allrecipes has voice recipe search that can then walk you through the cooking process or send the recipe to your phone. Good Housekeeping has a similar feature for stain removal.

I think we are seeing the beginning of something huge. Untethered from the muss and fuss of podcasting and connected by the ease of voice commands, audio content will be critical to ambient computing and hands-free media. In fact, as these interfaces and audio channels become that much easier to use, you may find people relying less on their screens when they know a background audio experience is an alternate way to consume their content. Do you really need to yank your phone out of your pocket every few minutes to check headlines or the latest development in a breaking story once you get used to asking Siri or Google to speak or play it? As the car becomes more connected, it will be a primary venue (if it isn’t already) for on-demand, screen-free media delivery, but so will ambient devices.

The rise of diverse new audio channels just begs for publishers to provide audio alternatives. Some, such as NPR, have been doing this all along by making their hourly radio newscasts available when you launch their apps. Others, such as The Economist, have experimented with audio versions of content such as digital magazine editions. Most recently, The New York Times’ very successful, 6 a.m. podcast, The Daily, enjoyed some of the best real estate available. It is being integrated as a Play button at the top of The Times’ homepage and mobile app homescreen.

This is going to be a process of publishers integrating audio more overtly into their pages and consumers seizing that opportunity. We will see better integration of audio in apps and on the web with Siri and Google. Just as app indexing and deep links have allowed top-line searches to find results within apps, look for voice assistants on all devices, linking into your audio content.

But this opportunity requires publishers to both think about porting their content to audio and rethink the place and purpose of their media in people’s lives. Ambient devices are woven into the fabric of everyday life and tend to field requests for answers, not media. And their role is to sit dormant in the background until a need occurs. This is a different context for content. Listen up. When the delivery mechanisms diffuse into the physical environment itself, the need is for solutions, not just more media.  

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