Have you heard? Audio is the new everything

How to prepare yourself and your organization for a world where podcasts, audio books, YouTube’s audio mode, smart speakers and ‘hearables’ rule.

The rise of audio is a trend that just won't quit.

Suddenly, the world of content is all about asynchronous audio. Podcasts are the new blogs. Audiobooks are the new eBooks. Smart speakers and virtual assistants are the new search.

More YouTube users are even listening to videos without watching them.

If you think that blogs, ebooks, browser-based search, video, augmented reality and virtual reality is really where everyone's attention will be focused over the next three years, I think you're about to change your tune.

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Welcome to the audio-first world. Let's look at the trends.

Podcasts are the new blogs

One way to look at the rise of asynchronous audio is to notice that media consumption keeps expanding. Americans now consume an average of more than 12 hours of media per day.

Media consumption has moved beyond those times when we're looking at a screen or page, and into those times when we cannot consume visual content. People now consume media while walking the dog, doing the dishes, shopping, hiking, gardening, waiting in line, commuting and in other situations where we're not able to focus our attention on visual content. Asynchronous audio is the only medium that can be consumed like this.

And that's driving the podcast medium. The number of people who listen to podcasts keeps growing. More than half of all Americans over the age of 12 have listened to a podcast. Some 86 million people listen to podcasts. Within three years, the number is projected to be 132 million.

In an attention economy where attention is the most coveted user resource, podcasting is the attention king. People might listen to a podcast that lasts for an hour or more -- that's an hour or more of attention. Now compare that with a blog post that, even if readers consume the entire post, it's unlikely to capture more than five minutes of attention.

People skim blogs. But something like 80 percent of podcast fans listen to entire podcast episodes.

And podcasting is high impact for both the content and the advertising. A Mindshare study found that audio storytelling has a much higher emotional impact than visual storytelling. And the same goes for the emotional impact and memorability of advertising.

Podcast users are more likely to trust advertising they hear on a podcast over other media.

People love to listen. And not just to podcasts.

Audio books are the new ebooks

A Pew Research Center report found that the popularity of audiobooks keeps growing. The number of people who listen to audiobooks has roughly doubled since 2011 to around 20 percent of the population. They found that not only are audiobooks growing, but the rate of growth is accelerating. Since 2016, the study found, the growth in audiobook listening has increased by 6 percent, while the reading of ebooks has actually declined.

In general, the Pew study found that while the reading of books in print is still by far the most popular format, the percentage of adults who read a book in any format declined since 2011 from 79 percent to 72 percent (during the same period when audiobooks doubled).

And it's no wonder. Researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, found that the "semantic representations" evoked by listening to an audiobook and reading a book are "almost identical."

Yes, listening to content is powerful. But it's also.... easy.

Smart speakers and virtual assistants are the new search

By the end of next year, it's likely that half of all searches will be voice-based.

Smart speakers and the virtual assistants that live on our smartphones and wearables have made searching facts fast and easy. Remembering who that actor is in a movie, finding out if a store is open, checking the weather -- gradually everyone is learning that these searches are faster and easier when you ask an assistant and get the answer spoken back to you.

Listening to video is the new watching

Here's an unexpected trend in the consumption of content on YouTube: People are increasingly playing a video, then ignoring the visuals while enjoying the audio.

Google's YouTube Music even offers a toggle switch to "audio mode." The idea of that feature is to avoid having to download video when it's not going to be watched anyway. Song requests via the Google Home smart speaker and Google Assistant virtual assistant are often provided from the audio of YouTube videos.

And it's not just music. Lots of people are using videos like podcasts. They start the video, then just listen.

In other words, the world's biggest video service is surprisingly audio-centric, and increasingly so.

Why asynchronous audio is taking over

Audio has a unique and intimate relationship to the human brain; sounds can trigger memories. That's why brand "jingles" are so effective and important.

Sonic branding is one of the hottest areas of marketing right now. This is the creation of sounds that brand a product line. Sonic branding always existed in the form of advertising jingles and slogans. But now, it's of growing importance on the products themselves. The sound smart speakers make when listening, for example, is very important to the brand. The short music or sound played at the beginning of podcasts or even TV shows is carefully engineered. Even smart light bulbs are getting into the sonic branding racket. Philips light bulbs are being outfitted with "sound logos."

The unique sound of a podcaster's voice also becomes a kind of "sonic branding," where users grow affinity and trust toward a specific podcaster, as represented by the sound of their voice.

What hardware and other technologies are driving it

When people think of wearables, they tend to think of smart watches. But, according to IDC, the hearables subcategory of the wearables market grew an incredible 250 percent since last year and accounted for nearly half (47 percent) of the wearables segment -- up from a quarter the previous year.

Smart speakers are now one of the fastest-growing categories in consumer electronics. Nearly one-third of American households now have at least one smart speaker, and most smart speaker owners have more than one.

Increasingly advanced digital signal processing technology is transforming both talking and listening. And that's why the hearable and smart speaker products coming out this year are so incredible.

Products like Bose’s new wireless Noise Cancelling Headphones 700 focus on giving the wearer precise control over what they hear -- for example, offering a range of noise cancelation.

A product called the Jabra Elite 85h goes further, enabling a feature called "SmartSound," which uses AI to automatically mute different kinds of environmental sounds. The product can now identify more than 6,000 different sound types.

Sony new WF-1000XM3 wireless earbuds bring the world of active noise cancellation to the world of high-end earbuds.

Amazon recently announced several new products that feed our growing obsession with asynchronous audio. Their Echo Frames smart glasses, Echo Buds earbuds and even Echo Loop smart ring are all about audio.

One of the most interesting products to come out of Bose is a pair of smart sunglasses called Bose Frames that don't use bone conduction or earbuds to project audio into the ear, but high-quality directional speakers. This enables all day audio, unlike earbuds, which grow uncomfortable after a while.

And while asynchronous audio pushes content consumption to the screenless moments of our lives, new interface technologies are pushing it even further. A new version of the denim jacket from Levi's and Google is mainly about controlling audio from the sleeve of a jacket during times when fishing a phone out of your pocket to control audio may not be the best idea -- like when you're riding a bicycle.

How you can prepare for the future of the audio-first world

If you provide content for customers, partners, employees or others, make sure you optimize that content for voice search and virtual assistants.

In marketing, offer the public voice experiences via podcasts, smart speaker skills and more.

Understand and leverage sonic identity and sonic branding.

The most important first step in staying on top of the audio-first world is to know that it's happening. And more importantly, know that this trend will likely continue.

Over the next few years, we'll be living in an increasingly audio-first world. Make sure you're heard.