Podcasts - How to Determine the Best Length

Goals

To understand how to determine the best length for a podcast episode, with an eye to how academic and/or non-profits/think tanks approach this, if that kind of niche information is publicly available.

Early Findings

  • Podcasts are often listened to while people do other things, Think of them as a multi-tasking medium. One of the ways to determine the optimal length of a podcast is to understand what those "other things" are. For example, the average commuting time in the US is 26 minutes. If a podcast is longer than the average commute time, a reasonable assumption could be that the podcast will be less satisfying for those who listen to podcasts while commuting. However, an average, by its very nature, means many peoples’ commute takes shorter, while others take longer.
  • The overall average length of a podcast in 2019 is about 37 minutes; the average length of a podcast in the video games category is twice that.
  • The 37 minutes figure referenced in the previous bullet point includes all podcasts, whether they’re popular or not. So that begs the question of how long is a popular one? It turns out that the average length of a top 100 podcast (in October 2018) is 53 minutes. Rob Walch from Libsyn also has data from 2017, based on Libsyn popular downloads.
  • In July 2019, Megaphone reported that podcasts are getting shorter. In August 2019, research showed that the most popular commercials on YouTube were just 6 seconds long. And in December 2019, RAIN News was comparing the total length of daily news podcasts with the amount of ads in them, and how long they took to get going.
  • At the end of the day, though, perception is reality. Edison Research interviewed 1,000 Americans who were familiar with podcasts, but don’t listen to them. Why? Because, 50% of Americans say: “podcasts are too long”.
  • According to research of radio fans, two-thirds of listeners do come back to a podcast later to continue listening, but the same survey says 21% of listeners (one in five) never come back.
  • 2016 data from NPR One shows typical podcasts lose 20-35% of listeners within the first 5 minutes. In fact, the drop-off rate is higher in the first 5 minutes than at any other time during the episode. NPR goes on to say their data also suggests that 18-30 minutes may be a “sweet spot” for keeping an audience engaged. NPR isn’t saying much about its methodology here, but we can assume they’re working from a large, if NPR-centric, data set.
  • The attention span of audiences is very short and has started to decrease. It has been recently widely reported that a person's attention span has decreased so that it is shorter than a goldfish’s.
  • Know your audience! When the audience of a podcast is clearly defined and known, their specific needs can be met. For example, "new moms may not have much listening time while caring for young children. Business executives may not have time to listen during business hours, but they want to continue their education away from the office. Kids may have a shorter attention span, especially for non-entertaining content. Agricultural workers may have many lonely hours away from the Internet, and they may be eager for something stimulating."
  • Something to keep in mind when figuring out the length of a podcast is this quote from the book Beyond Powerful Radio by Valerie Geller and that is: “There is no such thing as too long, only too boring.

Summary Of Our Early Findings Relevant To The Goals

  • As we only had one hour for this research, we spent 15 minutes scanning to see if we could find anything specific to academic and or non-profits/think tanks and what they are doing in this space. We made the call to spend the bulk of the research time to actually getting some valid and useful data points, as that was determined to be much more important.
  • We found nothing (other than the NPR data points) that even remotely pointed to best practices in the desired space, so we instead presented overall best practices for podcast length, as we determined it was still valid simply based on the fact that people are people and everyone, regardless of the type of podcast, still have listening habits that are likely shared universally.
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Proposed next steps:

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