Podcast advertising: Time to retire the download

Podcast advertising: Time to retire the download

Looking solely at downloads risks allowing shows that have suffered from listener drop-off to report deceptively high numbers. We need more accurate measurement and industry standardisation.

Late last year, one small aspect of a wider software update, virtually unnoticed by the public, sent shockwaves through the podcasting industry — the ripples of which are still being felt today.

In October 2023, Apple quietly announced that it was changing its “automatic download” policy. As of the iOS 17 update, only podcast series that a user has listened to one of the five latest episodes in the previous 15 days will be automatically downloaded.

Its aim, says Apple, is to “to preserve device storage”. This is all well and good from a user perspective but, for buyers, this will have a major effect on measurement — and, I would argue, an overwhelmingly positive one.

Shows that have suffered from listener drop-off or chronic “I’ll subscribe and get around to listening to it eventually” syndrome will no longer be able to report deceptively high numbers consistently. That such little data has been released from publishers more than half a year later tells a story about the scale of the drop-off in itself.

Accuracy is a good thing

However, it can also be good news for producers in the long run.

As Tom Webster from Sounds Profitable — the primary lobby group championing this update — points out: “It is important to recognise that podcasting’s listener base hasn’t declined — it continues to grow at a robust rate every year. The weekly podcast audience 12+, in fact, grew 19% this year over 2022 figures, according to Edison. From an audience perspective, the space has never been stronger.”

More accurate measurement will not affect the attractiveness of podcast advertising, but instead should provide publishers insights into how to improve their offering.

Indeed, Acast told The Media Leader in February that it expected a short-term decrease in listens following the update. Yet it recently posted double-digit growth in Q1.

So, everybody’s happy? Well, not quite…

Better metrics

While this is undoubtedly a good move for the industry (even if, to some, it may not appear that way right now), there is still a measurement-shaped elephant in the room that continues to hold back podcast advertising. While downloads have long been the primary metric used to gauge podcast listenership (both from a buyer and producer perspective), their prominence is fraught with difficulties.

Last year, I ran a survey of Adwanted UK buy-side clients about their experience with podcast advertising. When asked their biggest pain points, over 30% said measurement/reporting — making it the biggest gripe among respondents.

Moreover, it was clear that downloads played a part in this when looking at some of the follow-up responses. One participant said: “We focus on listen-through-rate as opposed to download. Anyone can download a podcast and have it sitting there on their mobile device. If it’s not listened to, we don’t want our client to pay for it.”

One common strand was the superiority of streaming metrics like listen-through-rate over downloads and how many barely take that into consideration. Others, while aware of the problem, make do as there is no alternative. As another respondent said: “We have to go with imperfect information. There is no standardised sell. Not that this matters yet, as podcasts are perceived as new and exciting, so no-one is questioning too much… just yet.”

The “yet” is doing an awful lot of heavy lifting there. Sticking our heads in the sand may be fine for the time being but, as podcasts become a more established staple of media plans, this issue has the potential to seriously undermine the medium’s reputation in the long term.

Tech hold-up

It was with these concerns in mind that we developed AudioLab — an impression solution that provides real-time campaign analysis across multiple podcast and audio streaming platforms. However, like all solutions, it requires industry buy-in.

If everyone is aware of the limitations of using downloads as a metric, then why do publishers not do more to push streaming with listeners and why don’t brands apply more pressure for this to happen?

The obvious answer is technology. Streaming requires reliable internet, which isn’t always available, especially for a medium that is most commonly consumed on smartphones. As a born and raised Londoner, I can tell you that the prospect of getting on the Tube without a repository of (downloaded) podcasts in hand is a gloomy one. That said, outside the realms of the “metropolitan elite”, it may not be as big an issue as you might think. Roughly 95% of the UK has regular 4G mobile coverage and, as more and more adopt 5G, streaming podcasts are more accessible than ever.

The real challenge, then, is consumer choice. No-one wants to risk blow-back from imposing limitations. But are we worrying too much?

Let’s look to another industry. When Microsoft announced its Xbox One console would be “always online” and require players to have a Wi-Fi connection at all times to access key features, it was roundly ridiculed for this invasion of player liberty. The company quickly retreated before launch. Now, over 10 years later, Microsoft is enjoying its most successful period, having swapped to a subscription model that requires constant connection with the Xbox Game Pass.

Listeners may grumble, but transitioning to a streaming-only environment may be less tumultuous than publishers think.

Need for standardisation

The real obstacle the industry must face is standardisation.

The difficulties in digital measurement for buyers are well-known (transparency, consistency, ad fraud — take your pick). For radio streaming, it is less of an issue — the market is still dominated by the same brands that are trusted in the linear sphere; but reporting on podcast platforms is, at best, disjointed and, at worst, opaque. The industry would be far more ready to shift away from its download dependence if the alternative is easier to trust.

The IAB has made great strides towards uniformity in recent years with its compliance programme, but there is still no consolidation of reporting among the compliant platforms and there will always be niggling suspicions surrounding those marking their own homework. Spotify deciding not to renew its IAB certification feels like a big step backwards, for example — although it is now working towards regaining certification.

But the industry always adapts. Even if it is a global phenomenon, it’s easy to forget that podcasting is still a medium in its relative infancy and has plenty of room to mature before it becomes as settled a part of the media landscape as its linear forebears. AudioLab is one step towards this and no doubt further solutions will become apparent.

The podcast explosion has happened. It is now up to everyone to sustain it and capitalise on it.

Oliver PlumeOliver Plume is client service and communications specialist at Adwanted UK, parent of The Media Leader

Adwanted rolls out cross-platform digital audio measurement tool

Adwanted UK are the audio experts operating at the centre of audio trading, distribution and analytic processing. Contact us for more information on J-ET, Audiotrack or our RAJAR data engine. To access our audio industry directory, visit audioscape.info and to find your new job in audio visit The Media Leader Jobs, a dedicated marketplace for media, advertising and adtech roles.

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