State of The Data: Between the Wild West and Future Standardization of the Podcast Marketing Landscape

Like the proverbial rabbit hole, the deeper you go into podcast data the more confusing and obscure it can get. If you’re a marketer, for example, you should be ignoring the Apple Podcast charts. However, many performance marketers are not. The Apple podcast charts can be easily manipulated (see here and here). What’s more, they’re a reflection of what’s trending now, not a reflection of the scale and marketing potential of a given podcast. It’s one of the many easy mistakes to make when choosing programs to purchase.

It gets worse. Downloads are not equal to listens, and downloads are measured in different ways by different companies that host the podcasts. The audio files themselves are typically downloaded in little packets. In some cases, each little packet has been counted as a “download.” The aspiring sheriff in this Wild West, the IAB, has established a set of guidelines for the industry (“IAB 2.0”) and—while not a panacea—this has certainly helped push the market in the right direction. Marketers should be sure to know which of their partners are IAB 2.0 compliant. It’s easy to compare apples to oranges in this market.

Part of the industry maturation is evident in the attribution solutions galloping towards the saloon. (Just how far can we stretch the Wild West narrative?! We don’t even know yet!). In the second half of last year, networks began pushing attribution solutions based on IP-matching. This works by comparing the IP address of the device downloading the podcast with the IP addresses of the customers who took subsequent action on a website. If the addresses match, it’s assumed the podcast drove the activity and–presto!–Podcast takes a giant leap towards accountability.

There remain limitations for marketers. You might partner with a network like Wondery for example, for access to their solution through their relationship with Qualia (now IDify). It may be a great solution, but if only 10% of your investment is on that network, you don’t have a very comprehensive solution. Or, you could work with Megaphone—their solution is built on their dynamic ad insertion platform which can limit your ability to attribute live reads or “baked in” ads.

Emerging market leaders are digital natives rather than radio natives, and this is what gives them a head start in the attribution game. For example, IP-matching is not an exact science, and IP addresses change frequently. Therefore, a more comprehensive solution than most are offering is required. Podcast aside, sophisticated digital solutions involve device graphs. These are still nascent in their podcast application, but are finally coming to market. Also, really robust attribution solutions require more than a simple exposed-action tracking system. Wouldn’t some of these people have taken action anyway? Robust measurement requires the use of a control group.

Leading vendors are building this into their approach. As these sophisticated and digitally-native solutions permeate the industry, the brands will come calling. The attribution solutions and the IAB standards add legitimacy, media currency, and accountability to the previously lawless land. This makes brands and their big agencies feel safe, and they’ll then be helplessly drawn to the authenticity and depth of connection available to audiences on podcast. Nonetheless, this may bring fresh challenges. Big brands seem deeply attractive to podcasters and networks because of their ability to lose podcast-sized budgets down the back of the sofa. Still, it’s not all roses because big brands need a lot of control. They’re anxious and cautious about letting hosts shape their message, improvise off the script, or–heaven forbid–freestyle the whole darn thing.

Yet, this is often what works most effectively and has been precisely the magic of podcast for the early marketers. When these hosts give a deeply personal read, they are able to drive fantastic response from their audience. The brands’ fear here will hurt them. They will then  insist on pre-recorded, pre-approved ad units that may rarely even use the hosts’ voice, and in so doing will ironically turn podcast into a much more traditional, radio-like medium with more dull and impersonal ads. Because these ads will be dynamically inserted, there will be much more scope for a high-ad load, which may threaten the very foundations of the podcast platform–the intimacy, the authenticity, and the personal touch.  

While the new sheriffs in town may be bringing some law and order to this wild landscape, let’s hope they don’t end up sanitizing the place altogether.

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