The podcast has become ubiquitous. Just as you can find a video about anything on YouTube, there exists a podcast for everyone and everything. 

And while the Oxford Dictionary named “podcast” its word of the year back in 2005, it has really been the past few years in which the medium has experienced explosive growth. In 2014, there were 7 billion podcast downloads. Four years later, in March 2018, Apple podcasts topped 50 billion all-time downloads. Today, Apple is home to more than 525,000 active shows, 18.5 million episodes, and content in more than 100 languages in 155 countries. And those download figures don’t even include other podcast providers, like Stitcher and Spotify. 

How can we explain the meteoric rise of the humble podcast? Perhaps Clayton Christensen and his “jobs to be done” theory can help. 

In Disruptive Strategy, Professor Christensen explains that consumers don’t actually buy products; rather, they “hire” them to solve a problem. In other words, the job to be done is the “why” that drives customers to make a purchase. And while products and technology evolves over time, the jobs or problems that customers need solved persist. 

For example, people typically purchase newspapers to stay informed about current events. If the newspaper was the only way to get information, it would be a very successful product. But there are several other ways in which consumers can stay informed. They can watch the news on television, they can visit news websites, or they can even scroll through Twitter to see what’s happening in real time. With all these alternatives, the competition to serve this particular job to be done of staying informed is fierce. Not surprisingly, newspapers have had well-documented financial struggles over the past decade. 

Disruptive Strategy With Clayton Christensen — Create winning strategies for your organization — Learn More!

Let’s return to the podcast. What job to be done might the podcast serve? Almost too many to list. Consider the following consumers and their needs: 

  • Commuters who need entertainment on their drives to work
  • Lifelong learners who want to explore a new topic
  • News junkies who want to stay informed about current events
  • Fans of a certain topic who want to dive deeper into the subject
  • Loyal customers of a certain brand who want to consume all content produced by that brand
  • Book lovers who don’t have time to read but enjoy the storytelling and seriality of podcasts
  • Admirers of a certain celebrity who seek another channel to enjoy his or her content

    The list goes on. 

    Podcasts provide consumers with the ability to listen to whatever audio they want, whenever and wherever they want it, making it an incredibly versatile product. As it turns out, podcasts have experienced such growth precisely because they fulfill so many different jobs to be done and are able to cater to nearly every type of consumer. 

    Using the perspective of the "jobs to be done" theory can help organizations formulate their strategy for the long term and protect against potential disruption by market newcomers. By focusing on how they solve the consumer’s problem, organizations can base their operations around maintaining and perfecting the ability to fulfill this need rather than remaining committed to a certain technology or product that may become outdated. 

    Here at Harvard Business School, we, too, are fans of the podcast. In fact, many of our HBX professors are featured in various HBS podcasts. To learn about their latest research, most interesting cases, and insights into the future of work, check out the links below and give them a listen! 

    Bharat Anand, Economics for Managers

    Digital Change: Lessons from the Newspaper Industry

    Ethan Bernstein, Developing Yourself as a Leader

    How to Monetize Happiness 

    Clayton Christensen, Disruptive Strategy

    The Forum for Growth & Innovation is an HBS research project guided by Professor Christensen. Tune into The Forum’s podcast series to learn about the latest research and discoveries in the areas of innovation and general management. 

    Mihir Desai, Leading with Finance:

    Behind Apple’s Tax Situation, an Unprecedented Financial Policy 

    Professor Desai also hosts the podcast “After Hours” with fellow HBS faculty. Tune in to learn about trade, the rise of voice assistants, the future of newspapers, and much, much more.

    Joseph Fuller, Becoming a Better Manager

    What Smart Employers are Doing to Prevent Degree Inflation 

    Rebecca Henderson, Sustainable Business Strategy

    Walmart: Changing the World for Better or Worse?

    Natalie Chladek

    About the Author

    Natalie is an Associate Product Manager at Harvard Business School Online working on Leading with Finance, Negotiation Mastery, and Sustainable Business Strategy. She received her B.A. and M.A. from Stanford University and M.B.A. from UCLA Anderson. In her free time, she enjoys running, cooking, and staying up too late rooting for her Bay Area sports teams.