Is Podcasting Success Due To Headphones? A New Study Offers Insights Into Listening Habits.


Researchers have discovered what could be another reason why podcast advertising has been so successful for marketers. Just-released research says it may have to do with the fact that more listening is done to podcasts via headphones that with speakers.


A series of studies conducted among more than 4,000 participants by researchers at UC San Diego’s Rady School, UCLA, and UC Berkeley found that audio messages heard while wearing headphones make a deeper and more intimate and emotional connection – and can be twice as persuasive – as those heard while listening through speakers.


“We find that headphones produce a phenomenon called in-head localization, which makes the speaker sound as if they’re inside your head,” said study co-author On Amir, professor of marketing at the Rady School of Management. “Consequently, listeners perceive the communicators as closer—both physically and socially. As a result, listeners perceive the communicator as warmer, they feel and behave more empathically toward them and they are more easily persuaded by them.”


In one situation researchers surveyed 1,310 adults who listened to a clip of a mother and daughter talk about being homeless. Participants were randomly assigned to listen to the audio either on headphones or on speakers. Those who listened to the clip with headphones reported they felt more empathy towards the mother and daughter and that they came across as more genuine, compared to those who listened to the same audio on speakers.


The paper’s fieldwork—conducted on the UC San Diego campus—measured behavior changes. Passersby on campus listened to a segment of a podcast and had the opportunity to write a letter in support of the communicator they heard receiving an award. They also could sign up to learn more about how to help spread the word about the communicator’s company, Aira. Those who listened to the podcast via headphones were significantly more likely to agree to help the communicator by writing an award nomination letter for her and they were more likely to want more information on how to help the company, compared to participants who listened via speakers.


Headphones also facilitate a more loyal and engaged audience for on-air personalities.


“Clearly, our research suggests that influencers, bloggers and podcasters want to try to make sure that people listen by headphones because that creates that attachment,” Amir said. “Our research proposes that it is not only what or whom people hear that influences their judgments, decisions and behaviors, but also how they hear the message.”


The researchers noted the advertising implications for their study with U.S. radio advertisement spending projected to reach $14.8 billion in 2022 and U.S. podcast advertising revenue estimated to reach over $2 billion by 2023.


“If the aim is to have listeners feel close to the communicator, or be particularly persuaded by their message, such as in a public service announcement, managers should consider placing their advertisement or message on a program often consumed via headphones, like a podcast,” said Alicea Lieberman, assistant professor of marketing at the UCLA Anderson School of Management. “On the other hand, if a message does not require listeners to experience any feelings of closeness to the communicator, then where the message is placed (e.g., podcast vs. talk radio) would be less essential.”


According to The Guardian the inspiration for the study came while Lieberman was listening to a favorite podcast, This American Life in her car as opposed to the usual headphones and she did not feel as connected to host Ira Glass as she usually did.

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