Ever been listening to an episode of your favourite podcast and forgotten momentarily that the host isn’t actually your best friend?
Well, a recent psychological study suggests you wouldn’t be alone there (in more ways than one).
The study was led by Stephanie J. Tobin, a senior lecturer in Psychology at the University of Queensland. Overall, the research found that regularly listening to podcasts can satisfy some of our most basic psychological needs, including our need for social connection.
So as a podcast creator, could you be bringing more comfort to your listeners than you perhaps realise? And how can you use these insights to provide a better experience for your listeners moving forward?
Why People Listen: Highlights of the Study
The study, titled ‘Why people listen: Motivations and outcomes of podcast listening’ compared podcast listeners to non-listeners to learn more about the psychological benefits of listening to podcasts.
Prof. Tobin said she did the research because “As an avid podcast listener [her]self, [she] wanted to know more about who listens and what they get out of it.”
More than 300 adults took the online questionnaire globally. The survey tested for things like the need for cognition (enjoyment of thinking), sense of belonging and social relatedness.
The study found that respondents were more likely to listen to podcasts regularly if they had a higher need for cognition, an internet-based curiosity and an openness to experience.
But the real stand-out takeaway (for us, at least) was how podcasts help listeners battle loneliness. Those respondents who listened to more hours of podcasts per week were more socially engaged with podcasts and experienced stronger parasocial relationships with podcast hosts.
If you’re wondering what a ‘parasocial relationship’ is, it’s a one-sided connection between an audience member and a host. So again, that feeling like you really know a podcast host personally who probably has no idea who you are. That’s a parasocial relationship.
Those respondents who developed parasocial relationships with podcast hosts had a stronger sense of relatedness. And relatedness is our need for social connection and belonging. So, in other words, those who had strong parasocial relationships were less lonely.
Interestingly, the genre of podcast had no impact on the numbers. So whether the respondent listened mostly to comedy or true crime was irrelevant. It was the hours of listening that mattered.
How Podcasts Help Fight Loneliness
The study’s findings aren’t necessarily surprising to many of us in the podcasting industry. But it’s interesting to see solid data that confirms podcasts as a tool for managing loneliness. We only need to think back to how podcast listening rocketed during the pandemic to remind ourselves how clearly this is the case.
There are a whole load of ways podcasts as a medium can satisfy our need for social connection. For example, podcasts are known for their intimacy. Listening to a recognisable human voice whenever you want the company is an undeniable comfort. It’s like having a friend you take around with you who only talks when you actually want them to. What’s better than that?
The authenticity of the format also adds to this feeling of hosts being real people. While advertisers are doing everything they can to change this, most podcast hosts aren’t commercially minded when planning their shows. Unlike radio, they don’t let third parties dictate what they say.
Are We Replacing Our Friends With Podcast Hosts?
Of course, this is not to say we should all cut off our real-world friends and replace social gatherings with sitting at home listening to podcasts.
But what it does mean is that those who have the potential to experience loneliness can use podcasts to cope. Maybe they live alone, are isolating due to illness, live away from home or are housebound. Whatever the reason for feeling lonely, they can find genuine comfort in listening to podcasts when human interaction isn’t available to them.
As a podcaster, this gives you an opportunity to have a positive impact on your listeners’ mental health and satisfy their need for social interaction.
Which takes us to our final point…
What Can Podcasters Do With This Data?
In a nutshell, this study emphasises the importance of ‘showing up’ for your listeners. This means publishing regular content, having an episode schedule that your audience can rely on and avoiding any content that might alienate or offend them.
You might also want to think about how you can create more intimacy and engagement with your listeners.
This can mean anything from small details like addressing your listeners directly all the way to reading out their feedback and comments while you’re on air. Making your audience part of your podcast in this way will only do great things for loyalty.
It’s also worth considering how you could be using other platforms to create a community space for your listeners. For example, you could try live streaming your podcast somewhere like Twitch, where the audience is encouraged to interact with each other as well as the host in the chat feature.
Creating a community for episode discussion on a platform like Discord is also a nice way for your listeners to meet, discuss and engage with one another as well as you. This can scale well, too, because your listeners can interact and participate without you needing to constantly be there.
Did you know that we have our own Podcraft community for podcasters on Circle? It’s free to join, and it’s a great place to get (or give) podcasting help, advice, and encouragement.