As noted in this column, podcast listening measurement is a notorious problem — depending on who you ask. Some podcast network owners disagree, and deny the need for a measurement standard which would bring consistency to podcast audience ratings. Those networks have their own analytics platforms, derive their own metrics, and tell their own audience engagement stories to advertisers.
Norm Pattiz, head of PodcastOne (sponsor of this column), described to the RAIN Summit West audience his system that uses both server metrics and regular listener surveys performed by Edison Research. Todd Cochrane, who runs the Blubrry hosting platform, likewise has told RAIN News that his audience measurement, developed over many years, propels the company’s advertising business.
The Advertiser Need
Advertisers sit on the other side of the discussion. At the RAIN Streaming Audio Advertising Summit in New York last month, Subha Modur, Director of North American Media at travel company KAYAK, said that the lack of standardized measurement is an issue that affects her company’s view of podcasting as a marketing opportunity. That stance echoes the larger audio buying scene, where advertisers and their agencies must become knowledgeable with multiple ratings systems applied to different delivery platforms — terrestrial radio and webcasting, principally.
The mandate for advertisers is to reach audience, not to reach certain platforms. In that light, a 3rd-party podcast ratings system could lift the category as a whole, even if individual networks don’t feel the need.
Download or Stream?
One wrinkle in any analytics system which purports to measure podcast listening is the difference between downloading a program, and streaming it. Or lack of difference. We spoke to Mark McCrery, Founder and CEO of Podtrac, which has been in the podcast metrics field since 2005, and recently released the first two editions of a public monthly Podcast Industry Audience Rankings product. McCrery told us that from the listener’s viewpoint a stream is defined as a click-and-listen experience. “One way of defining a stream from the user perspective and not from the server side, is when I click a button on the client side, can I start listening immediately.”
Not so simple, though, because of what’s happening behind the scenes. Podcast servers can receive a “range request,” which asks them to start downloading a portion of a program. that can happen while the user starts hearing it stream. This is sometimes called a “progressive download,” where the file is tucked away on the local device while it streams.
This ambiguity is why the Podtrac Rankings calls its key metric Unique Streams & Downloads. Mark McCrery stressed that his technology does not count the many components of a range request (little portions of the program file) as separate download or stream events, and that is one of many technical specifications that would go into a podcast measurement standard.
The release of Podtrac’s Rankings product is a flag in the ground for Podtrac as a standard-bearer in this field. At the same time, other organizations are proceeding with developing a full standardized specification for podcast listening metrics — notably the Interactive Advertising Bureau (IAB), whose podcast working group has been developing a standard. “Podtrac’s measurement system is fully in alignment,” McCrery told us. “These metrics have been around for years. It’s incumbent on new podcast publishers to understand metrics before they approach advertisers.”
So, if a standard already exists, or is nearly complete, what’s the problem? For those who believe there is a problem, a large part of it lies in the black hole of invisibility that cloaks a granular view of how users listen to shows — how many times they stop, whether they use the variable speed tools offered by some apps, the abandonment rate, and, crucially, which embedded ads are actually heard.
Source of the problem? Downloads through many distribution end points (e.g. listening apps) which might collect those detailed data, but have no obligation or method of delivering the data back to the program host. when a show is downloaded, the original publisher loses control of the analytics. The big gorilla, of course, is iTunes and its corresponding Podcasts app, through which 65% of podcast listening occurs, according to Podtrac. Zero feedback to podcast publishers about what happens after a listener downloads.
That lack of intelligence — the murky nether-world of downloaded listening — blunts the precision of podcasting metrics generally. Podtrac’s Unique Streams and Downloads is a proxy, Mark McCrery told us. Even so, the Rankings product has planted a stake in the ground, and McCrery told us that 500 more publishers have signed up for free Podtrac measurement service since the April Rankings came out. The company might expand the list from top-10 to top-20 in the future, and also told RAIN News that it plans to develop category rankings as well.