Podcast stats: what we (don't) know

Is the lack of listener data hampering podcasting's growth across the world?

By James Cridland
Posted 19 July 2016, 5.46am bst
James Cridland

The recent Podcast Movement conference in Chicago has clearly highlighted that podcasting is big business. It's exciting to have so many people thrilled about pre-packaged radio, and great that people are thinking about audio in a more interesting way other than "ten great songs in a row".

The advertising money is coming to podcasting - somehow. But monetization is harder for podcasting, because of a lack of statistics. Tens of millions of dollars are being thrown at a product that has data which is patchy, to say the least.

Edison Research have some great overall data on podcasting. Edison also report that podcasting accounts for just 2% of typical American audio listening. That old-fashioned thing "the radio" accounts for 54%. However, "podcast listeners" - people who've heard one in the last 24 hours - listen to more podcasting than radio, as you'd expect.

But here's something interesting, in terms of data, from Edison: surprisingly few people (15%) mainly listen to podcasts by subscribing and automatically downloading. You know - the way we all tell people to get the podcast ("subscribe on iTunes", etc). Most people are mainly listening on-demand (59%). This blows my mind a bit, because it's not how I listen, but I can totally understand that many people would do it that way. And, as Tom Webster from Edison says, this has good implications for statistics: because we know how to get stats from on-demand audio really well.

In the UK, the radio research company RAJAR released their latest MIDAS research which agrees with Edison, saying that podcasting accounts for just 2% of typical British audio listening. They don't go into the same detail (at least publicly) as Edison have with regard to the method of listening. Certainly, the BBC and some commercial radio stations have had "play" and "download" buttons as well as "subscribe" for quite some time - as this science show demonstrates.

That said: it would be good to get all the stats for playback of podcasts via downloads, too. That's the real black box. RAJAR report that only 65% of downloads are actually listened-to, for a start - so we're in the dark in terms of how people consume podcasts. We don't know when they stop listening, when they skip. We don't know who they are or where they come from. And given (I would guess) the most prolific podcast listeners will be doing so using an app like Apple's Podcasts, or PocketCasts, I suspect we're losing a bunch of data here.

Marco Arment, developer of Overcast - a podcast app on iPhones - is sniffy about data:

They can’t know exactly who you are, whether you searched for a new refrigerator yesterday, whether you listened to the ads in their podcasts, or even whether you listened to it at all after downloading it. Big publishers think this is barbaric. I think it’s beautiful. Big publishers think this is holding back the medium. I think it protects the medium.

I'd argue to Arment (and have) that if we want to develop the medium - protect its revenue, and enable great content - producers need the ability to get that data. However: I'd prefer that data to go to the content-maker, not via a third-party data aggregator; and for the content-maker to make the decision about whether they want to collect data in the first place.

So it's why this proposal for podcast publishers is interesting. It uses already existing technology - pingbacks - to request to podcast players to return data. The content-maker would know when they hit play and stop, and possibly more information, if they want it. If they don't, that's cool too. And it could be done with informed consent.

Whatever: podcasting, on-demand radio, needs data to get bigger and better: and produce even better content for audiences. I hope that the data starts flowing: because there's still a lot that we don't know.

James Cridland — James runs, and is a radio futurologist: a consultant, writer and public speaker who concentrates on the effect that new platforms and technology are having on the radio business. He also publishes a free daily newsletter about podcasting, Podnews, and a weekly radio trends newsletter.

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