This article is not going to win me any friends, but I hope that even my detractors will take the few minutes necessary to read this before expressing their dismay. Because we really need to stop talking about downloads in podcasting. Completely. Because downloads are a worthless podcasting metric for all parties. And we deserve better.
Tracking Podcast Downloads Is Worthless to Advertisers
Yes, I’m aware that most podcast advertising inventory today is priced and purchased based on the number of downloads an episode is projected to receive. And it is with that full awareness that I assure you no advertiser wants to buy podcast advertising inventory that way. And they certainly don’t want to pay out that way.
Instead, advertisers want to pay when their ads are listened to by the right audience in the right geography at the right time.
Downloads, by themselves, illuminate none of that. Downloads are nothing more than an internal count of computers talking to computers. They provide no actionable insight into human listening behavior.
Of course, the counter-argument here is based on the fact that all that actionable insight happens at the podcast listening app-level, and apps aren’t reporting that data back to advertisers or publishers.
Spotify is changing that narrative, working with select advertisers to optimize campaign performance around true listening activity. And they’re not alone. I encourage you to read the great dialog between Amplifi Media and Sounds Profitable, where Steven Goldstein and Bryan Barletta walk through the sweeping changes we’re already seeing in podcast advertising.
Then there’s the fact that downloads of podcast media files can be faked in a way that podcast media hosting companies following IAB 2.0 guidelines (which leave too much to interpretation anyway) cannot detect. Anthony Gourraud details exactly how he faked downloads that were tracked and measured by IAB compliant hosts and tracking services. He did it without malice to point out a vulnerability. But it doesn’t take much imagination to see how a deliberate and distributed effort done at scale could artificially inflate download counts significantly.
You might argue that advertising on Spotify might change, but not the myriad other publishers and podcasts that monetize with advertising. In the short term, I’d agree with you. But as advertisers gain a better picture of the disparity between actual listener behavior provided by Spotify and file download activity provided by their media host, the inferiority of downloads will become more obvious, eroding the trust placed in that metric.
We’ve seen how that plays out before. Enough data will be correlated to provide a statistically relevant “discount factor” used to ratchet down the value of low-trust download numbers. High-trust data (measuring listens) will be sold at a premium. Low-trust data (measuring downloads) will be sold on the cheap, forcing publishers to apply pressure directly on other apps to provide similar data to reclaim the value of their mutli-platform ad inventory. And if (when?) apps refuse to do so, publishers will become more receptive to exclusive arrangements and co-branding engagements with those apps who protect that value.
Tracking Podcast Downloads Is Worthless For Track Show Popularity
Tom Webster of Edison Research published an article that illustrates what I'm calling “The Serial Problem”. That popular podcast from 2014 hasn’t had a new episode of the show since late 2018, yet it constantly shows at the top of “podcast trackers” that rely on download tracking. Yes, Serial is certainly a popular show and I’m sure new people discover or decide to listen every day. But people new to Serial aren’t driving it up the charts. It’s the automatic download of not-Serial content by podcast apps still subscribed to the Serial RSS feed doing that.
Popularity rankers aren’t smart enough (though they could be) to separate automatic downloads from promotional content by legacy subscribers from actual consumer behavior of the actual podcast episodes. The problem isn’t on the shoulder of the publishers making smart use of the network effect. It’s on the reliance of downloads to populate these charts, even though downloads often have nothing to do with the human activity they are attempting to track.
The obvious improvement here is to track the actual popularity among consumers against the totality of episodes of the show itself. Counting how the unique requests to the RSS feed would be one data point, especially if it were combined with unique accesses of all the files that make up a particular podcast, but aggregated to individuals/households. And yes, we can do all of this today, getting rid of these out-of-date rankings that are deeply, deeply flawed.
Tracking Podcast Downloads Is Worthless For Measuring Show Growth
Want to double the number of downloads your podcast gets in a month? Produce twice as many episodes. Well that was easy, wasn’t it? You may not have gained a single listener, but you’ll see ~100% growth.
Not helpful, is it?
Similarly, apps and the occasional individual often “go rogue”, downloading every single media file to be found in a show’s RSS feed. If you see spikes in your historical daily downloads, it’s probably due to something like this. And it’s almost impossible to filter out of the data, leaving you with a view askew of your show’s growth.
A much better way to measure show growth is by measuring the unique audience of a podcast over a period of time, noting how often each unique person accesses one or more episodes of a podcast. Google Analytics tracks this for websites. They call it Active Users, and it shows the number of people who actively engaged with your website at 7-, 14-, and 28-day intervals.
With the data available today, podcast hosting companies can - and should - provide this data to all podcasters. How many episodes were downloaded by those active users is immaterial to understanding show growth. Though it might be interesting to know when looking at engagement.
Tracking Podcast Downloads Is Worthless For Tracking Engagement
Social media is all about engagement metrics, but that’s never really been a thing for podcasting. Probably because engagement is a very human activity, and downloads, as previously defined, are a computer-to-computer metric masquerading as a poor proxy for human activity.
But once you have a good handle on active users over various time frames, you’re able to examine and segment on activity, isolating Binge Listeners (unique users who consumed 10 or more episodes in a 7 day period, for example) from Samplers (only one episode consumed in a month, perhaps). We might find interesting, data-driven learnings on Time To Listen by calculating the amount of time that elapsed from the file request (taking into consideration automatic download vs user-initiated requests) to actual listening. That would be a fascinating study, you know?
Tracking Podcast Downloads Is Worthless For Podcast Hosting Pricing
Podcast hosting companies have real costs they need to recoup from their paying clients. But “downloads” aren’t what causes costs to go up. At least not on their own.
Broadly speaking and ignoring the costs inherent with payroll, marketing, and other overhead necessary to run a business, the variable costs podcast hosting companies face are for bandwidth and file storage. That’s it. Yes, more downloads of media files increase their bandwidth cost, but not uniformly. My episodes are about 9 MB each. A 2-hour long episode of another show might be 120 MB. It’s the file size combined with downloads that are the factor.
I get that basing podcast media file hosting pricing tiers on the number of downloads is a convenient shorthand. Candidly, I’m not sure what better solution won’t confuse the heck out of podcasters. What I do know is that basing pricing on downloads is flawed from the start. And it continues to propagate the myth that downloads are an important metric in podcasting.
For all the reasons I’ve laid out and more, I assure you that tracking podcast downloads is worthless to everyone.
I remind you that ByMeACoffee.com/EvoTerra is where you can go show to your support, even if I made you mad with this particular episode. I'm sorry that my thoughts will impact your livelihood, but here we are.
And please tell a friend about Podcast Pontifications. It can be this episode if you agree with my assessment. If you think I missed the mark, then simply share the overall show with a friend who is also a podcaster, Word of mouth from one podcaster to another is the only way that this show grows.
I shall be back tomorrow with yet another Podcast Pontifications.
Podcast Pontifications is written and narrated by Evo Terra. He’s on a mission to make podcasting better. Allie Press proofed the copy, corrected the transcript, and edited the video. Podcast Pontifications is a production of Simpler Media.