The Partially-Filled Glass of Apple’s New Podcast Statistics

By Derek Jensen (Tysto) — Own work, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=454125

On balance, the news that Apple is going to expose more detailed statistics to podcasters is good for the medium (Max Willens at Digiday provides a great summary here.) While podcast analytics are currently what I would describe as “pretty good,” the ability to get play-level data that provides a near-census of who listened, and how much (inluding advertisements) they listened to, is the last frontier to truly expose and legitimize podcasting to a wider circle of brand advertisers.

This is indeed good news.

Without a doubt, this enhanced reporting is going to cause what Steven Jay Gould would have called “punctuated equilibrium” — an external event that prompts rapid selection and evolution in an otherwise static species. For podcasters, the sudden reveal that they may not have as many listeners as they think, that those listeners aren’t necessarily sticking around to the end, and that many of them skip ads, will be the great Chicxulub Meteor of podcasting. The resultant “reset” of expectations and assumptions will be difficult for some.

But the Chicxulub meteor didn’t kill everything. It killed the dinosaurs. And so it will be with podcasting — those who stubbornly cling to the received wisdom of 10 years ago may perish, at least from an ad-supported perspective. But those who adapt and evolve will surely be standing on more solid ground than they did one year ago, and thus, so shall we all.

Several times a week I am contacted by journalists and reporters, many of whom ask me the same question — “What about the measurement challenges?” I truly cannot wait for the day when I can respond: “What in the hell are you talking about?”

That day is not quite here, but I hope it soon will be. And that is the glass half-full of the Apple news. Even the coming disruption and potential shakeout of podcasters who are unable to adapt to new measurement insights is a good thing — for the organism as a whole. That, too, is in the full part of the glass.

Here’s the empty part

I’ve been in media measurement and audience research for a quarter century now, and one thing I can tell you that you can take to the bank: any measurement/ratings system is a game, and the winners aren’t the best operators — they are the ones that best play that game, even to the detriment of the medium.

A little over a decade ago, the radio industry went through a dramatic shakeup when Nielsen (then Arbitron) began shifting its rating system from a top-0f-mind recall, diary system to an electronic passive measurement system called PPM. As PPM became the currency in the top US markets, programmers began to tweak their formats to “play the game” of passive measurement better. Those changes have had an irrevocable impact on radio. Those that played the PPM game the best, survive and even thrive. Those that don’t…don’t.

Sounds simple, but this was Radio’s “meteor moment.” Critics of PPM claim that it has killed entire formats, minority-owned stations, Spanish-language programming, and even the Queen of FM herself. I’m not going to comment on the veracity of those claims — I will only say that a successful radio station in 1997 sounded a lot different to a successful radio station in 2017. That’s just radio optimizing to play the game it has been handed, plain and simple.

Back to podcasting. With Apple currently distributing ~65% of podcasts, and with enhanced play metrics now being available to podcast producers, guess what? That’s the game podcasters have been handed, like it or not. In other words, if the advertising industry comes to accept Apple’s enhanced podcasting statistics as all the proof they need, what do you think podcasters are going to try to optimize for?

The iTunes chart, of course.

And who is measured by the iTunes chart?

Less than 15% of the smartphone market is iOS.

About 7% of the desktop market is MacOS

Any media researcher doing competent work can tell you this: iOS users and Android users are entirely different people, on average. iPhone users profile with markedly higher household incomes and have attained higher levels of education than non-iPhone owners (again, before you argue from a sample of one, of course there are exceptions. I know an iPhone user who doesn’t even have a middle-school education and makes under $1000 a year, not including the iPhone he got for his 12th birthday. You’re welcome, son.)

They have different content preferences, too.

The Optimization Trap

If podcasters optimize to play the Apple game, they are optimizing for a chart that represents almost 70% of podcast listening — but that chart excludes the over 80% of computer/smartphone-using humans that do not use Apple.

I’ve made this comparis0n before, but look at the top 100 podcasts. Now look at the top 100 TV shows. Now the podcasts again. Now back to TV. Now back to this article. Surely you can see the difference.

Todd Cochrane and Angelo Mondato at Blubrry have reported that Apple’s share of podcast distribution on their network has continuously declined since 2007. Currently they report about 56% of their podcasts are being distributed via Apple platforms (this is one of the lower network-level Apple share numbers I have seen, but of course totally plausible) and the article goes on to wonder if Apple’s share will continue to dip. I bet Apple has wondered that too.

Well, if the key to the hearts of advertisers and media buyers is to be able to present them with shiny new Apple stats, I have your answer — it will go back up, if producers reward certain behaviors, and their content is optimized to sound and feel like the content Apple users already know and love — and not for the 85% of the smartphone planet that doesn’t have an iPhone.

I call that “the optimization trap”: when we optimize to fit the universe we already have, we make a smaller and smaller universe happier and happier. This is why, although access to enhanced Apple statistics is generally good news for now, the industry cannot and must not stop innovating towards a non-platform-specific measure. I personally hold out great hope for NPR’s Remote Audio Data format, currently in development.

Ultimately, Apple’s announcement gives us a partially-filled glass, both half-full and half-empty. The key now is what we do with that glass. I hope we fill it — with expanded reach, new audience segments, universal metrics, and a big bright future for podcasting. That’s the game I want to play.

And that glass? Fill mine with a martini.

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