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Is the Podcast Industry Finally Transitioning to Measurable Metrics?

Podcast listener metrics shown as waves

Over the last decade, podcasts and podcast audiences have grown substantially. Millions of people in the U.S. tune into multiple podcasts each week to hear their favorite podcasters, and smart advertisers are naturally attracted to those who have the largest followings. The problem, however, when it comes to these audience-podcaster-advertiser arrangements is measuring a specific audience. Over the course of time, different key podcast metrics to measure engagement have been used. In many cases, these podcast listener metrics have failed to offer real accuracy and instead inflate figures. It would seem that this may be about to change as podcast platform hosts look to be reshaping the rules.

a dude talking podcast listener metrics
Accurate podcast listener metrics have long beguiled advertisers.

(AI is helping the advertising business–read how in this Bold story.)

Quietly and without warning, Apple recently decided to change some of its policies including some that affect podcast listener metrics. Specifically, they are no longer going to be providing automatic downloads for infrequent podcaster listeners. Given that one of the key podcast metrics to measure popularity is downloads, this was big news. Without these automated downloads, naturally metrics would decline for most podcasts across the board. This is particularly true since Apple is the podcast platform leader. In examining these developments further, however, Apple’s decision appears quite reasonable. Perhaps, it’s about time podcasters were judged by more meaningful podcast listener metrics?

“We look forward to collaborating with advertisers to understand and adapt to these changes and we anticipate these adjustments will lead to improved campaign performance.” – Sounds Profitable, a podcast monetization trade group

Understanding Podcast Listener Metrics

There is no question podcasts have become popular. But when it comes to key podcast metrics to measure in the industry, there have been challenges. Basically, two metrics exist: podcast downloads and unique podcast listener metrics. The first measure is one that’s rather complicated. On the surface, it might seem that each download of a podcast episode would offer a nice metric of users and popularity. But the problem with download metrics involves two key issues. The first pertains to people who download a podcast and never actually listen to it. This is one way fluff is built into the measure. The second involves automated downloads where users routinely receive the podcast in their inbox. Here again, they may never listen to the episode. Yet, podcasters are still credited with a “win” regardless.

In contrast to download measures, unique podcast listener metrics actually target those who listen to an episode. In this instance, podcast hosting platforms can actually track who hits the play button on the program. They can also identify the percentage of the episode attended as well as whether they listened more than once. By monitoring podcast behaviors with IP addresses or other identifiers, this metric becomes possible. For many, especially podcast sponsors, this has become one of the key podcast metrics to measure real audience engagement. And it can be used to track customer loyalty over time. Compared to download metrics, the numbers are much less, however. For example, a listener may download a podcast dozens of times, but this metric will still only credit the podcast once. This is why many believe this is a much more telling statistic.

“Nearly every podcast that regularly publishes got an enormous haircut.” – Anonymous podcast industry insider

a dude talking into a mic for his podcast
Want to make podcasting more lucrative? Figure out who’s listening to what and why.

Apple’s Shift in Podcast Metrics

In September of this last year, Apple decided to make some changes in their key podcast metrics to measure. Instead of focusing on download metrics, it shifted instead to unique podcast listener metrics. This came without warning, and the impact was felt across the entire podcast industry. Why? Because the number of podcast downloads are substantially higher than unique listener data. In essence, Apple changed its policies on automatic downloads, reducing their volume a significant degree. In the process, Apple eliminated a great deal of inflated figures and moved toward a more accurate podcast metric. And since Apple hosts over 40% of podcasts, the change had notable effects.

Prior to Apple’s policy change, automatic podcast downloads played a significant role in podcast listener metrics. For example, podcast listeners who listened to a few episodes of a podcast within a subscription, indefinite future downloads occurred. Even if they never listened to a podcast after their initial interest, metrics suggested otherwise. In addition, those who listened to a podcast broadcast intermittently would also receive extra downloads. Episodes in intervals between their attendance would similarly be downloaded. Now, Apple will only continue these policies if listeners meet a certain listening frequency weekly. They must listen to at least five episodes of a podcast every two weeks to receive automatic downloads. This change in key podcast metrics to measure was estimated to reduce download figures by almost half.

Moving Toward Transparency and Accountability

key podcast metrics to measure live on the air
Key podcast metrics to measure include more than just downloads and listeners.

In 2019, it was reported that over 90 million Americans listened to podcasts at least monthly. Though based on unknown podcast listener metrics, it still highlights the popularity of such audio programs. It was also reported that 80% of these podcast listeners were loyal to their programming. On average, each listened to about seven episodes a week of their favorite podcasts. Based on this, it is evident that the podcast industry is significant, and as a result, advertisers and sponsors have interest. But in order to best know where to invest their resources, it’s important to focus on key podcast metrics to measure. And download data has not been one that has offered measurement accuracy or transparency.

(Customer experience metrics are vital–read why in this Bold story.)

These are the reasons that Apple’s decision to focus on unique podcast listener metrics is important. The downloads on Apple’s platform now will align better with actual podcast listeners. And at least for Apple’s analytics, they will continue to report to podcasters how often and how long listeners tuned in. These are the key podcast metrics to measure since they better align with listener engagement. And this is what advertisers and sponsors really wish to know to make good business decisions. In this regard, Apple’s shift is a breath of fresh air for the podcast industry as a whole. And hopefully other podcast platforms will choose similar strategies moving forward.


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