How Authenticity in Podcasts Drives Community Engagement (A Quantitative Study)

Photo by Mark Rohan on Unsplash

In the 1930s, Roosevelt’s fireside chats offered comfort and assurance to Americans in the despairing and uncertain time between the Great Depression and the Second World War.

Today, we have something similar. Only, instead of one person talking, there is a diverse spectrum of people — from business moguls to moms to student activists to comedians. Instead of linear, pre-planned programming, there are myriad topics we can choose from, on-demand. And instead of listening by the fireside, surrounded by loved ones, we’re listening through our headphones, solo, on the go.

Yeah, I’m talking podcasts.

If youre like me, you’ve increased your podcast consumption during the COVID-19 pandemic. (Ok, the data show that most people’s podcast consumption has decreased in lockdown, but that’s ruining my point.) Anywho, I’m American but was living in Scotland when the pandemic hit and found myself alone and isolated in a tiny flat, legally — and geographically — unable to surround myself with loved ones in a scary time. Already an avid podcast listener (and producer), I upped the ante, relying on podcasts to surrogate the round-the-clock social gratification I was missing. In talking to my friends and coworkers, I learned many of them did the same (confirmation bias, thank you).

In “these unprecedented times,” basking in the comfort of human voices is a lifeline for many. The authentic, genuine conversations, stories, thoughts, and opinions that we hear in many podcasts help us feel connected to those speaking and offer the familiar feeling of companionship despite being physically alone (in media studies, this is called a parasocial relationship).

The reason I was (and still am) in Scotland was to complete my master’s in Media and Communication at the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow. The topic of my dissertation was the relationship between “authentic talk” in podcasts and the level of engagement of their listeners. It was an important topic to me before the pandemic as my parasocial relationships with podcast hosts helped me battle depression, but a month into lockdown, I knew this was something bigger.

To do the study, I reviewed 41 of Apple’s Top 100 podcasts at the time (I was hoping to review all 100, but time was limited) and created an algorithm to determine the level of authenticity in each podcast. Authenticity was operationalized through an “authenticity score,” a product of 17 factors grouped into three dominant clusters: speech authenticity, personal authenticity, and interactive authenticity.

Speech authenticity included filler words, hesitations, false starts, etc. — things that indicated the talk was spontaneous vs. scripted. Personal authenticity included expressions of feeling and emotions, personal anecdotes, confessions — things that indicated genuine self-disclosure and vulnerability. And in the case of two or more speakers, interactive authenticity was marked through interruptions, interjections, impromptu jokes, etc. — things that indicated free-flowing conversations vs. structured interviews/narration.

Each of these factors was selected based on a deep literature review of research in discourse analysis, conversation analysis, broadcast studies, linguistics, and social sciences.

Then, I measured each podcast’s authenticity score against its community size (number of followers/fans on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Patreon), community engagement (average number of interactions per post), and affinity (Apple Podcasts rating and number of reviews). This was all to investigate whether authentic talk in podcasts really does impact the size and engagement of their audiences.

I’ll spare you all the nitty-gritty details and mathematical junk, but here were the three significant findings and takeaways:

People like to give a thumbs up to podcasts in which the speakers appear to be unscripted and personal. This was hypothesized, so it was satisfying to have the data to back it up. People like authenticity, regardless of genre, speaker, or topic.

This one surprised me at first, then made so much sense. Podcasts with “authentic talk” cater to niche audiences. News shows like The Daily, of course, have hundreds of thousands of followers because they’re impersonal and, therefore, broad (The Daily had a low authenticity score). But shows like Reply All (high authenticity score) have niche, in this case, tech-focused audiences, that tend to be smaller but more invested. We can extrapolate that being free from the regulations and rigidity needed to appeal to a wide audience fosters an environment where authenticity can flourish. (There are a bunch of studies on this phenomenon that I will address at a later time.)

Podcasts that were more “authentic” had more interactions from followers on their social media posts. Their communities were more active and engaged — despite being smaller communities on average.

So what can we take away from this? Well, first, I have to add in a short note about research limitations and restrictions. This was a tiny sample and only looked at the most popular shows — it’s definitely not representative of the 1.5 million podcasts active today. And though it was based on theory, my calculation of the authenticity scores was still wrought with my own bias of what constitutes authenticity. And where were my control group and cross-comparison with other forms of media? Those are just a few of the limitations.

But if we look at these findings superficially, they reveal that podcasts demonstrate the public desire for more authentic conversations in popular media.

As podcast producers, it’s important to know that removing the traditional stigma of formal host-audience relationships and embracing unfiltered speech, vulnerability and self-disclosure not only drives up affinity within your audience but catalyzes their increased interaction on social media, too.

At a time when we’re all still seeking comfort, being able to create or be a part of a community built around authenticity and authentic dialogue is the remedy we’re all looking for.

Content strategist, writer, designer, singer and wunderluster who is obsessed with podcasts.