The Download on Podcasts is a weekly feature sponsored by PodcastOne.
Here we go, into a new year. 2016 will be eventful for the entire online audio industry. Podcasting is positioned distinctly, finishing up what could be considered an all-star rookie season in 2015: breakthrough awareness, growing audience, program development from countless recognized media brands, and new money from institutional investors. (Podcasting is actually 10 years old, so calling 2015 a “rookie season” takes a lot of liberty with fact. Think of it as the rookie season of podcasting’s second phase.)
If 2016 is the sophomore year for podcasting, can it prove out its freshman potential?
The Big Need
In word: Analytics. Podcasting is broken in the measurement department for a couple of reasons.
First, there is no recognized third-party measurement authority with enough clout to gather buyers and sellers around a coherent message of advertising value. Individual podcast platforms can generate their own detailed metrics and present them effectively to marketers. All the major networks do this to advance their individual business development efforts. But the missing third-party piece prevents the podcast category as a whole from accelerating, as advertisers remain confused about standard metrics.
The analytics problem resonates with the larger issue of total audience measurement in the field which encompasses traditional radio and streaming. There, two major forces (Nielsen and Triton Digital, respectively) provide recognized ratings that can be somewhat tied together on buying platforms like STRATA and Mediaocean. Imagine that bifurcation multiplied by all the different podcast networks, each with its own measurement and storytelling methods. That is podcasting’s dilemma.
Old Delivery Model
The second measurement problem is that podcast delivery remains anchored in the past by listening apps which haven’t adapted to modern listening methods in online audio. Specifically, the old subscribe-and-download template is still presented to users, sometimes insistently. That is a holdover from podcasting’s now-ancient root as an extension of blogging, embedded in RSS feeds. Subscribing to the feed and downloading the embedded shows was the way that podcasts were consumed in the old days.
Now, consumers have been trained to standard streaming templates, where discovery is instantly fulfilled by click-to-stream. Why should podcasting be different? It shouldn’t. Yet Pocket Casts, arguably the leading Android mobile podcatcher, forces subscription from the Featured page before you can see a show’s list of episodes, or hear anything. Then, the app’s streaming function is so effectively hidden that most users probably download for lack of a visible streaming option. This is one example of antiquated delivery that is enforced to some degree in most listening apps.
All of that is heavy lifting for someone who just wants to audition a show for a minute.
Pandora and Serial have bitten into the problem of old-school mechanics by streaming Serial in the well-known Internet radio format. Pandora even (surprisingly and smartly) chops up the episodes into track-like segments. Regardless of that feature, the main breakthrough of the Pandora/Serial partnership is to wrench a hit program out of the musty subscribe-and-download model and into the on-demand-streaming model — which (news bulletin!) is what the entire online audio revolution is built on.
Deezer’s acquisition and integration of Stitcher is another forward-looking example of podcasts placed into modern audio delivery. Google Play is dabbling with podcasts also, but without much to report so far.
Key Metrics and Ratings
We might seem to be ranting about an off-topic issue of delivery mechanics, but it is related to the big problem of listening measurement. Today, the key success metric in podcasting is the download. That flag remains stuck in the ground even as listening starts moving over to cloud streaming — and, we hope, accelerates in that direction. A download means nothing by itself. It might imply listening, but is not actually a measure of it. Without doubt, the auto-download features in mobile apps stockpile plenty of content that doesn’t ever get played. Yet advertisers are forced to buy into that obfuscating metric.
Triton Digital, Edison Research, and AdsWizz are among the tech companies that have declared an interest in solving podcast metrics. No doubt there will be a competitive struggle for supremacy as the ratings provider.
A Missing Standard
It could be that a technical standard is needed, one which defines how podcdasts are presented to users, setting the stage for consistent measurement across platforms. The DAAST (Digital Audio Ad Serving Template), created by the IAB, is a related model — DAAST is a technical ecosystem in which advertisers, publishers, agencies, and consumer playback devices are aligned to coherently deliver and track streamed audio advertising.
Podcasting is pointedly needy of a delivery and measurement standard around which the industry can organize and accelerate buy-in from advertisers. There is a two-fold challenge, though. First, a standard isn’t a standard until it is widely adopted. Until then it is merely a proposed standard. Second, the podcasting gorilla — iTunes. iTunes (and Podcasts, its podcast-specific mobile discovery app) claims the largest portion of podcast consumption. If Apple doesn’t participate in standardized delivery and measurement, podcasting will remain fragmented. That is a big IF.
Meanwhile, it’s onward and upward for podcasting in 2016, even if the forward movement is somewhat lurching because of being silo’d into island networks. For the growing audience of listeners eagerly discovering a burgeoning online audio format, the range of immersive content gets more exhilarating every day.