How to hit the mark with Gen Z podcast listeners

Why authenticity is key for tapping into this young and engaged demographic

Gen Z is a demographic that grew up on the internet. From the kids born in the late 1990s who built followings across Twitter and YouTube, to the teens that survived the COVID-19 lockdown by binge-watching TikTok, this generation has been at the heart of emerging online trends and has the biggest voices on these platforms. 

It’s also a demographic that advertisers are extremely keen to reach, and as a larger proportion of them than ever before switch off from traditional media channels like print and TV, podcasts can be a perfect way to engage with them. When podcasting first started to enter the mainstream around a decade ago, Gen Z was quick to adapt to this growing medium, and quickly became engaged and loyal listeners. The number of listeners aged 13 to 24 has continued to grow, going up by 57% in the past five years, according to the SXM Media and Edison Research 2023 Gen Z Listener Report. 

On the Spotify platform alone, more than three billion podcast episodes were consumed by Gen Z listeners in just the first half of 2023, according to Spotify’s Global Culture Next Report, which was a 76% increase year on year. What makes this generation of listeners so special is how engaged they are with their chosen media, which makes them a key demographic for advertisers and publishers that want to invest in this format

Working collaboratively with podcast hosts 

An expert in this particular demographic is Jay Richards, co-founder of Imagen Insights, who consults with brands and agencies about how can successfully reach Gen Z audiences. During a session at the Radio Academy Festival, which took place in September this year, Richard spoke about the power of Gen Z podcast listeners and why brands should be working creatively with hosts in order to leverage the trust that they have with their listeners. 

“The interesting thing that we're seeing with podcasts and with Gen Z is this desire for them to follow the host,” Richards tells PodPod. “Gen Z are falling in love with the specific podcast hosts themselves and following them wherever they go, so if they say they’re only available on Spotify, they’re going to be on Spotify and I think a large part of that is happening because of this desire to feel closer to whoever these entities are.”

This trend did not start with podcasts, and is in fact seen with influencers across other social media platforms such as YouTube, where creators have amassed millions of subscribers and are able to retain that following in other mediums. One example of this is Emma Chamberlain, a Gen Z content creator who has 12 million subscribers on YouTube, who was able to double the amount of downloads for her show after (briefly) taking it exclusively to Spotify at the end of last year.

Spotify’s Culture Next 2023 report also highlighted that 44% of Gen Z podcast listeners are more likely to trust ads on Spotify than on social media because of their intimate nature. The company’s global head of business marketing Grace Kao told PodPod that for brands who want to build emotional connections with audiences, she recommends advertising on shows that have a large Gen Z following like Anything Goes with Emma Chamberlain.

“When it comes to talking to Gen Z, our latest Culture Next trends report found that this cohort prefers familiar voices and sources that they trust, which is something advertisers should take note of,” says Kao. “Podcast hosts are able to create intimate connections with their listeners, and this engagement with the content transfers over to the ad experience.” 

Richards also emphasised that brands who want to reach Gen Z audiences on podcasts must work creatively and collaboratively with the hosts, and trust them to take the lead on these projects. This can be done through allowing them the creative freedom to script their own host-read ads or even building multiformat campaigns across other social media platforms.

“We have to always remember that there's a reason why their audience loves them,” explains Richards. “Podcasting companies and brands need to understand that if they're going to partner with a podcast host, they need to allow them to be themselves - because there's a reason why their audience is following them and it’s because they expect them to be a certain way. If you take that away and sanitise that and clinicalize that, then it's actually not gonna have the same desired effect.” 

Building multiformat campaigns beyond audio

Another important thing to remember when looking at Gen Z podcast audiences is that they’re constantly engaging with multiple online formats. They’re not only listening to hosts’ podcasts, they’re also following them across social media and attending their live tours to seek deeper connections, which means that brands and publishers need to be thinking about how they can curate campaigns that expand into multiple formats. 

Nearly half of Gen Z podcast listeners find that video podcasts allow them to feel more connected to the hosts, according to the Gen Z Podcast Listener Report, which makes it a great format for nurturing those deep and emotional relationships with listeners. Nearly half of respondents also said that video gives them a better understanding of context and tone as they’re able to see their facial expressions and gestures. 

“I think the podcasters that resonate the best are the ones that are able to build deep, authentic connections - video or no video,” says Kao. “That said, I do know when podcast creators leverage the power of audio and video together, they are able to deepen Gen Z engagement.”

“Podcasting itself is inherently quite personal and that experience is only heightened through video and immersive experiences.” 

It’s also important to note that 71% of Gen Z podcast listeners who watch video podcasts said that they are actively watching while listening. For advertisers investing in branded content, this could be a huge advantage for visual branding. In the partnership between BrewDog and That Peter Crouch Podcast, for example, the brewery company made its flagship Waterloo bar the home of the podcast and served the hosts drinks as they record so that their branding is on-screen in the video episodes of the podcast. 

The importance of sonic branding 

Other ways that brands can engage with Gen Z podcast listeners is through sonic branding and creating an audio identity that is easily detectable on podcasts. Sonic branding agency Amp recently released a study on how Gen Z audiences respond to advertising and found that 18% of respondents were more likely to engage with original music from brands, more than they would with licensed or pop songs. Original branded songs can also sometimes go viral on social media platforms; Just Eat’s Katy Perry song cover, for example, went viral on TikTok amongst many Gen Z users, as did the 'Dumb Ways To Die' public information video produced for Metro Trains Melbourne. 

Amp research and insights consultant Hannah Cahill told PodPod that podcasts are an especially powerful tool for advertisers when they use sonic branding, as the majority of audio podcast consumers listen to shows while doing something else, which allows the information to be processed in a slower and more effective way. 

“We tend to have a high processing route where we're absolutely focused, and a sort of lower processing where things are processed gently in the background,” says Cahill. “When things are processed in that slower and more low energy way, they actually tend to last longer and the effect lasts longer, and so what you end up with is you're actually building a deeper connection.” 

The Gen Z Podcast Listener report also highlighted that 78% of this demographic tends to binge-listen to content rather than just listening weekly. Gen Z podcast listeners are also consuming podcasts at a higher and faster rate than ever, 11% more than Millenials (aged 27 to 42), according to the Spotify Culture Next report.

With sonic branding, advertisers can create jingles and songs that are easily identifiable with their brand and have that ‘meme-able’ factor in order to reach binge-listening Gen Z podcast consumers. as Cahill notes that branding is more likely to get stuck in people’s heads when it’s sonic, which can be especially helpful for brands that have increased awareness as their main objective. 

Each of these tools can be effective in engaging with Gen Z listeners on their own terms, but the most important thing is to put authenticity at the heart of all of them. The best way to gain the trust and loyalty of Gen Z listeners is by learning about what they want to hear and what platforms they like to interact with, and curating campaigns that would be most suitable for them. 

“The podcasting audience is huge,” advises Cahill, “with over 75% of US teens and adults listening to streamed audio every month, and 45% once a day, making it a fantastic platform for engaging all generations, enhancing brand trust, and creating long-lasting impact.”