Steve Goldstein: The Truth About Podcasting’s Measurement Makeover

Steve Goldstein’s Amplifi Media works with media companies and podcasters in developing audio content strategies. Goldstein writes frequently at the Amplifi blog. Steve can be reached directly at 203-221-1400 or sjgoldstein-at-amplifimedia-dot-com.

Metrics play a crucial role in the ever-evolving world of media, shaping perceptions and driving strategies. The recent update to Apple’s iOS 17, which altered automatic podcast downloads, is a prime example. This change, aimed at ensuring more accurate metrics, reflects the industry’s preference for credibility over inflated download numbers. It’s a well-known secret that downloads don’t equate to listens, just as email database size doesn’t guarantee readership.

Although Apple made the change on its own, the podcast industry supported the move to uphold the integrity of the metrics advertisers see. Sixty podcast companies supported Apple’s change, cognizant downloads would take a hit but chose long-term credibility over the vanity hype of downloads.

Indeed, there has been a drop. The Verge reported that measurement service Podtrac showed a decline of as much as 24% in download numbers year-over-year. Importantly, what didn’t change were actual listens to podcasts. Listens continue to rise, and yet articles in several publications forecast trouble in the land of podcasting. The clickbait headline in this piece in Semafor suggests the podcast business is shrinking. To set the record straight from lazy reporting, 89 million people listened to a podcast last week – that’s 31% of the US population (12+) and the number of podcasts consumed is on the rise.

Lest you think measurement is a podcast-only problem, I assure you, it’s not. The rest of the media industry, too, grapples with continued change and sometimes unique and outmoded measurement.

Email marketing: Open rates are tough

In email marketing, open rates vary significantly across industries, generally hovering between 15-25%. This statistic underlines a crucial gap: the disparity between the number of emails sent and the number read, underscoring the challenge of capturing and retaining reader attention in a crowded inbox. Google’s plan to phase out third-party cookies is expected to impact this business. Apple has already introduced Mail Privacy Protection which impacts the accuracy of open rate tracking, complicating the assessment of email campaign effectiveness.

Digital advertising click-throughs are notoriously low

Google started eliminating third-party cookies this month. That throws the giant digital ad business into a jump ball with everyone focused on what’s next. According to WordStream, today the average CTR across all industries is about 3.17% for Google Search Ads and a paltry 0.46% for display ads. There is great value in brand awareness which is not reflected in clicks, however the vast number of ads served versus the relatively small number that successfully engage users continues to be a challenge in this sector and more fluctuation is on the horizon.

Radio: 5 minutes of listening = 15 minutes

There is a rule in radio broadcast measurement that listening for 5 minutes results in credit for 15 minutes. This approach dates back to the 1940s and 1950s when radio programs were typically 15 minutes or longer, making it logical – back then – for ratings to be measured in 15-minute units, hence the birth of the quarter-hour metric. Just about every aspect of radio has changed since then, yet the quarter-hour remains the standard metric even though today’s Nielsen meters can parse minute-by-minute listening. Radio would likely lose a great deal of valuable TSL ( time spent listening) if the rule changed. I twice served as the chairman on the Arbitron Advisory council before the company was sold to Nielsen and while everyone knew that the 15 minute rule was anachronistic, there was no appetite to reset to real minutes of listening.

Print media has a weird pass-along metric

“Pass-along” rates for newspapers and magazines have historically been a key metric, often assumed to be around 2.5 readers per copy. However, this number can be misleading in today’s digital age, where household dynamics and reading habits have significantly evolved. Circulation has dropped dramatically and yet is still buoyed by this antiquated and steroidal metric.

Television: The challenge of accurate viewership data

Television measurement, primarily conducted by companies like Nielsen, faces challenges in accurately capturing viewership. Traditional methods rely on sample households to represent broader viewing habits. The rise of multiple screens, time-shifted viewing, and the fragmentation of the audience across numerous platforms and services makes the task of accurately measuring TV viewership a moving target. Local TV, for example has seen a precipitous drop in ratings. This is a formidable challenge for a $60 billion dollar industry. We recently wrote about NBC’s new multi-platform measurement effort which is smart and promising.

Media measurement is in transition

Media measurement is complicated and has become increasingly difficult in an always-on world.  In every corner of the media business, measurement is a challenge.

As for podcasting, it hasn’t been around for all that long and has innovated from purely announcing vanity codes and selling mattresses to a complicated tech stack that is rapidly evolving.

Podcast companies (Apple included) should be applauded for trying to deliver more accurate data and yes, there are growing pains happening in real time.

Steve Goldstein