Podcasts need Netflix-style previews

I don’t need a trailer - just drop me in the middle of a conversation

It’s funny how easy it is to spark someone’s interest in something that they profess not to care about, with very little prompting.

By way of a ‘for instance’, my partner has taken to playing podcasts out loud in the house as she’s getting on with other things. Recently, it has generally tended to be old episodes of The Ricky Gervais Show, which she listened to in its entirety over lockdown, but while I don’t personally like Ricky Gervais’ comedy much, I often find myself getting drawn in. I wouldn’t choose to listen to it, but if it’s on in the same room, I start actively tuning in, almost against my will. 

It’s much the same thing that happens if I’m working while she’s watching The Real Housewives of Bognor Regis or something else I find similarly tedious; I may not like it, but I’ll find myself latching onto the narrative and wanting to know what happens next. 

Maybe it’s something to do with the specific weirdness of my brain, but I suspect it’s part of human nature - and I think it’s something that podcast platforms should make more use of. 

Podcasting has long had a problem with discoverability. While platforms like Apple Podcasts, Spotify and Goodpods have all experimented with various software-driven features or curation efforts to make it easier for listeners to find new shows, the fact that most people still discover podcasts through word-of-mouth recommendations shows that we still have a long way to go in improving discoverability.

Video streaming platforms have also been grappling with the same problem, and have arguably made more progress than podcasting. Netflix in particular boasts one feature that I think would suit podcasting very well. 

As you’re using the company’s smart TV app, when you linger over a particular title as you’re scrolling through the various carousels on the homepage, it’ll play a little preview with a snippet from the show: a teaser, designed to lure you in and make you want to watch more. The same thing happens after you finish a movie or series, where it’ll play a preview of another title it thinks you’ll like.

Although this can be a bit hit-and-miss, it often works, and at the very least is great for introducing me to new titles that I haven’t heard of before. YouTube does a similar thing with its ‘autoplay’ feature; when you finish a video, after a short pause, it’ll automatically move on to another video from the algorithmically-generated recommendations in the sidebar, potentially exposing you to new content. 

This could work gangbusters for podcasting. Imagine finishing an episode, and then before the next one kicks in, you get a thirty-second snippet of another podcast that the platform thinks you might like based on your previous listening. Not a trailer, or a pre-cut ad, but an entire segment designed to drop you into the middle of a conversation and fuel that need to keep listening and find out what happens next.

It’s not an outlandish concept in and of itself - the idea of using short clips as a promotional tool to drive interest in podcasts has already taken off on social media, so why can’t it be extended to listening services as well? 

Spotify has taken some early steps in this direction; the redesigned app experience it rolled out last year includes automatically-generated previews like this on the home page, but in my opinion it doesn’t go far enough. Integrating these previews between podcast episodes, where people are already listening and are primed to take a chance on a new show, is a better bet. It might be a little interruptive, but frankly, if we want to really move the needle on podcast discoverability, then maybe something interruptive is what we need. 

Podcast trailers are a fine promotional tool, but live previews and teasers are under-explored territory in terms of listener acquisition - and if a brief, overheard snippet is enough to pique my interest in a Ricky Gervais podcast, then they might be one of the most powerful tools around.