How audiobooks can take on Netflix

How audiobooks can take on Netflix

The key to the growth of the audiobook market has been greater awareness and an increase in new adopters. However, the general perception of audiobooks—as is emphasised in their marketing—is that they facilitate the consumption of books whilst multi-tasking, e.g. doing housework or commuting. I believe it’s time to start changing this perception.

The Audio Publishers Association’s latest survey revealed that the number one reason people enjoy listening to audiobooks is because “they can do other things while listening”. This approach has served the industry well at bringing in new customers. However, return on investment is often many times higher when you channel spending into retaining and exploiting your existing customer base, rather than focusing on growth. 

So how do publishers increase consumption—and therefore revenues—amongst their existing customer base, who might already be listening at every multi-tasking opportunity? Answer: remove the multi-tasking. Produce audio content that will demand the listener’s full attention. Reward the listener for providing it. And beyond that, exploit the advantages of audio that television can’t deliver, enticing consumers to forgo that latest Netflix release in favour of the new “must-listen”.

Here are three ways audio producers and publishers can help make that happen.

Not what we're aiming for

1. Increase production values and immersion

Entertainment giants Netflix and HBO dominate the competition for consumers’ free time by delivering dramatised content with the highest production values. ‘Audio drama’ is the audio publishing world's equivalent: fully dramatised productions with a full cast of actors, sound effects and music, all at a fraction of the production cost of film and TV.

Publishers have already seen great returns on their investment in celebrity narrators and with publishers already owning the world’s best source material, there is ample opportunity to develop content that offers similarly breath-taking moments and rewards the listener for committing their undivided attention. Adaptations of Neil Gaiman’s work, such as Neverwhere are perfect examples of how the listening experience is able to match the giants of television. Audio has a tremendous advantage over film and TV in that it allows the listener to close their eyes and visualise the storyworld for themselves.

This is further enhanced with the use of binaural audio (aka 3D audio), which delivers astonishingly realistic 3D sound on any standard pair of headphones. This ability to make the listener feel present in, and intimately surrounded by, the story can be far more affecting than television when considering the disconnect one experiences watching a distant screen. A recent neuroscience study showed that audiobooks are more emotionally engaging than film or TV - so publishers would be mad not to juice their audio stories for all they're worth.

2. Emphasise audio’s uniqueness

Audio adaptations that provide fresh perspectives enable publishers to expand revenues on existing fans of certain source material. Multi-award-winning video game Hellblade: Senua's Sacrifice uses sound and perspective to great effect, placing the listener inside the head of the protagonist who struggles with psychosis, establishing a greater connection with, and empathy for, the character. Placing the listener at the centre of the narrative in audiobooks is the approach we champion at The Owl Field, for its effectiveness in engaging the listener and, with the use of 3D audio, its capacity to tap into the user-centric virtual reality market.

Meanwhile, content written specifically to exploit the advantages of audio encourage consumers to shut off their television and enjoy listening for the unique experience it is. This has prompted some authors to forgo print altogether, such as Brian Freeman, whose latest thriller will be an audio-only release, written in first-person, as opposed to his usual third-person narrative for print. As well as drawing in new customers, unique audio experiences will be key in retaining customers by preventing their loss to the free and similarly-booming podcast market, a space where innovative experimental content thrives.

3. Think interactive

A key development for audiobooks and home listening is the rise of smart speakers. Millions of Americans already own a smart speaker and ownership is similarly on the rise in the UK. Even at this early stage, according to the aforementioned study, 19% of audiobook consumers listen using a voice-enabled device.

Asking Alexa to resume an audiobook is far more convenient than fetching a mobile and untangling some earbuds, so it’s likely consumers will continue to transition their home listening to smart speakers just as they have with music. The user interface on smart speakers is also substantially better suited for people living with sight loss as the interaction is entirely without visuals. Audiobook listening through speakers generates an interesting household dynamic and the potential for group and family listening; content developed with this dynamic in mind could turn ‘family film night’ into ‘family listening night’.

Additionally, the interactive nature of smart speakers presents a further advantage over television, in that it creates an opportunity to involve the listener in the narrative, allowing them to have personalised engagement with the content. A recent example is the BBC’s interactive The Inspection Chamber, where users affect the narrative by responding to a series of questions.

There are encouraging signs that audio consumption at home is on the rise, but with the constant and increasing competition for the consumer’s attention, changing the public perception of audiobooks to one that goes beyond multi-tasking will be key for the industry going forward. To do this, publishers can expand on the success of investing in celebrity narrators by being increasingly brave in their spending and experimentation, with fully produced dramas, immersive 3D experiences and interactive content for smart speakers.