A teardown of Spotify's podcast integration

Capturing "share of ear" via carefully crafted discovery and storage experiences

I want to talk about Spotify podcasts, because what most people don’t understand is how a bunch of specific decisions in their integration of podcasts have allowed it to be a huge success (even compared to Spotify’s success in general). It’s a great lens into Spotify’s UX (user experience) chops, integrating different content into enjoyable discovery and consumption experiences, and the future of the Apple/Spotify duel over audio and “share of ear” in general. 

Podcasts are extra successful for Spotify

Podcasts have been around to a large degree since 2000 or so, and were on iTunes since 2005. Late 2018, Spotify rolled out podcasts and subsequently made some strategic acquisitions like podcast network Gimlet media. Now just a few years into the game they’re close to or already eclipsing Apple’s spot at #1 in worldwide podcast streams. Point being, they showed up late to the podcast party and have taken over in just a few years.

Spotify’s podcast success doesn’t simply reflect their success overall. In fact Spotify’s growth in market share of podcasts is increasing while their share of music streaming is decreasing as Apple pushes to catch up. If you want a look at just how much weight they’re putting into podcasts, look no further than the Q3 earnings report which was just released. Podcasts led the pandemic revenue rebound with double digit Y/Y growth, and take a look at the section in the earnings report on audio content in general. Music is that last paragraph :) 

Long story short, as we dive into the product it’s fair to say we’re peeling open what has been a success story so far. Let’s look at two key decisions they’ve made which drive most of the experience.

Keep discovery close

As we scroll through the home screen on my Spotify, what do you notice?

One route they could have taken would be to divide podcasts and songs into separate experiences. This is essentially what Apple has done by breaking off podcasts into its own app. Instead, there are countless small decisions in that video about how to keep podcasts and music together in the discovery flows. Too many, in fact, to go through all of them, but explore on your own and you’ll find the rules are quite complex (can you find the way podcasts sneak into the “Made for you” section?).

As an example of one of these decisions, you can see that whether a podcast is directly next to an artist or album depends on the area. They are side by side in my Recently Played or at the top where you have these 6 “dive in” options, but otherwise mostly separate for example in “New releases for you” (all music) or “New episodes” (all podcasts). They’re combined in the search bar, but if you explore you’ll see that after you put in text you then reveal facets to filter down to podcasts or music only. These initially hidden facets keep podcasts and music together unless you really want to do the extra work to separate them. 

My own experience would support the insight that music and podcasts can be part of the same discovery flow. When I go running, I look for something to listen to. Sometimes I find a podcast that looks good, other times I see a playlist that looks like the better move. It also lets podcasts piggy-back off of the more natural, scroll-y exploratory discovery behavior you find with music. Podcasts monetize extremely well but the number one problem for podcasters is discovery, specifically building an initial audience (which is a problem Spotify already uniquely solves for new musicians). So this is basically the equivalent of putting high-margin items in the checkout line of the department store.

Separate but subtly connected libraries

Now let’s quickly scroll around the Library which behaves in ways you might not have realized yet.

At first glance, this storage area of the product seems to be in contrast to the discovery experience in that podcasts and music are kept separate. The two big tabs at the top make that clear. Under music you have playlists, artists, and albums and under podcasts you have episodes, downloads, and shows. Keeping them separate in this way makes sense because podcasts and music do behave differently in storage. The episodes tab under podcasts will have any partially completed podcasts at the top so you can just continue playing, while that entire concept of a partially completed song is understandably nonexistent in the music experience. Downloads is the most prominent permanent storage option for podcasts, which accounts for the fact that podcasts are typically large in size and consumed on the go, and the fact that people have much more of a “save for later” need with podcasts. You download it, listen to it, and then it disappears from your Library. Not so with music where if you like it then you want to add it to a permanent playlist to come back to again and again.

The video gave this away already, but beneath the seemingly clean surface is a clearly intentional way to break the rules. You can add podcasts to playlists, and then find them living happy lives as imposters under your music tab. What’s more, adding podcasts to a playlist also means you start getting recommendations for other podcasts to add to that playlist. All of a sudden, the neat separation of playlists OR downloads, music OR podcasts is broken.

There’s room for speculation, but I think what you’re seeing here is some slightly awkward UX in pursuit of a big bet around podcast discovery and creation. It seems somewhat unclear why I’d want to add podcasts to a permanent playlist (I doubt many people listen to podcasts more than once) unless the intention is to share that playlist with others. So a good guess is that Spotify’s hope is that social activity can further improve podcast discovery and their bottom line in the future. I would definitely be interested in the all-time best podcasts as curated by someone I follow (especially a podcaster!). And importantly, I do think Spotify’s bet is that creators (aka people you follow, not your friends) will be the ones curating music and podcasts into playlists that then get shared. More on that in a bit.

Spotify itself is also algorithmically creating playlists with podcasts in them, including some with both music and podcasts (which is the answer to that easter egg question from earlier about where you can find podcasts hiding in the “Made for you” section). Their recently released earning call describes a “Your Daily Drive” playlist beta in the UK which mixes music and podcasts sort of like talk radio, and I would guess that you’ll see more radio-like blends of podcasts and music in the coming months. Regardless, the Library, while intentional, does seem to be a bit clunky in design and I wouldn’t be surprised if playlists get their own tab sometime soon. 

Takeaways and what to watch for

Fitting multiple different content types into one seamless experience isn’t easy, and I personally think the podcast + music experience on Spotify is markedly better than shows + movies on Netflix or docs + sheets + etc on GSuite. I certainly question Apple’s decision to separate podcasts into a separate app, both for the discovery UX and because Spotify’s focus on leveraging discovery and curation behavior from music to podcasts seems like a killer benefit to podcasters and by extension to Spotify’s revenue. 

I also think there’s one more strategy at play under these product decisions, which is a bet on musicians/podcasters as creators within Spotify. With newly released video podcasts, the aforementioned ability to create playlists with audio and podcasts, and what I’m sure will be live DJ type playlists soon, Spotify may be trying to leverage podcasts as a way to put a huge moat between themselves and Apple via a wealth of totally unique content. Right now with rare exceptions you can get the same stuff on Apple and Spotify, but as Spotify continues to blend all audio together in one app and into different playlists/podcasts/etc they also create more unique content you can’t get anywhere else and can’t build on your own (as an aside, I assume it’s been licensing reasons that have kept them from handling Soundcloud type live DJ sets earlier, but if a podcaster can actually just auto-play Spotify songs then it cleanly handles that attribution issue). Given the rise of podcasts and the deep loyalty people build for their favorite podcasters, I think it’s a killer strategy and way to make the next move. Both Apple and Spotify talk about “share of ear” in the sense that music and podcasts are always competing for the same finite resource of attention, but it seems that Spotify is taking it a step further and actually blending them together in the product. As of Q3 podcasts are only streamed by 20% of Spotify’s MAU, but it seems fair to say that they’re a bigger proportion of their bet for the future.

Send me your thoughts! My hope here was to shine a light on what I (and apparently Apple) think is a tricky feat of combining these things into one experience, and what it means for the future. But I’d love to know what I missed!