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2021 was the year platforms came for our ears

The war for attention is now all about audio

Illustration by Alex Castro / The Verge

In 2017, Netflix CEO Reed Hastings infamously told investors his streaming platform not only competes with its counterparts for attention but also with sleep. Now almost five years later, and as the pandemic continues on, our visual attention is maxed out. If you’re not streaming a show, maybe you’re playing a video game, or working, or on a Zoom call. The tech and content platforms of the world realize this, so instead, in 2021, they focused on something other than capturing whatever’s in front of our eyeballs: they came for our ears.

Look at who got into audio and podcasting this year. Meta, formerly known as Facebook, a company known for copying any service that takes time away from its own, started supporting podcasts on its main app. The impetus? To keep you inside its world and away from competitors, like Spotify or Apple Podcasts, that might capture your free ear attention. Twitter, an app already reliant on you reading it, launched its live audio product Spaces — a way for you to interact without actually having to look at the screen. (Same with any of the live audio launches this year.) Meanwhile, Amazon Music acquired Wondery at the end of 2020 and, this year, launched some of its first, high-profile original shows, acquired hosting platform Art19, and debuted its first podcast-oriented feature with synced transcripts.

In a chat with me for Hot Pod Insider, Kintan Brahmbhatt, Amazon Music’s director of podcasts, directly acknowledged the play for attention Amazon is making and the maxed-out screen real estate.

“Customers have more time for their ears than they do for their eyes,” he said. “If you look at it from a share of attention perspective for customers, we think more and more customers will have more time to listen to things, and podcasts are here to stay.”

The New York Times also launched its own audio app in beta with an explicit outline of where it might be able to conquer still-unaccounted-for ear time. The below chart, tweeted by Alex Rainert, the Times’ head of audio product and design, demonstrates the blank spaces the company’s app can occupy — as well as where its competitors hope to dominate.

Alex Rainert

Even video streaming services now recognize the pull of audio in helping it dominate everyone’s time, both visual and audio. Netflix made its first podcast-oriented hires this year, while HBO Max started distributing exclusive podcasts directly in its app. YouTube started rolling out free background listening for its Music app and hired someone dedicated to podcasts on the platform.

Taken altogether, every app now has an audio component that they’ll use to compete with one another for that attention real estate. It makes sense — the biggest tech companies mostly depend on ad revenue, and they’ve put ads everywhere they can. Audio is the newest frontier for them — a fresh place to shove ads and lay claim to more of our time.

I don’t see a reason this strategy wouldn’t work. Presumably, the platforms can turn some portion of the millions of people who don’t already subscribe to podcasts into listeners, and globally, the opportunity is massive. I view this year as one in which the groundwork was laid. Companies were acquired, public statements were made about the power and interest in audio, and during the next one, we’ll see the true marketing and content budgets put to work.

Walks, cooking time, and commutes are open for the taking, and looking ahead to 2022, the platforms are hoping they can conquer it all.