There are sizable, meaningful gaps in the knowledge collection and publication of podcast listening and engagement statistics. Coupled with still-developing advertising technology because of the distributed nature of the medium, this causes uncertainty in user consumption and ad exposure and impact. There is also a lot of misinformation and misconception about the challenges marketers face in these channels.
All of this compounds to delay ad revenue growth for creators, publishers and networks by inhibiting new and scaling advertising investment, resulting in lost opportunity among all parties invested in the channel. There’s a viable opportunity for a collective of industry professionals to collaborate on a solution for unified, free reporting, or a new business venture that collects and publishes more comprehensive data that ultimately promotes growth for podcast advertising.
Podcasts have always had challenges when it comes to the analytics behind distribution, consumption and conversion. For an industry projected to exceed $1 billion in ad spend in 2021, it’s impressive that it’s built on RSS: A stable, but decades-old technology that literally means really simple syndication. Native to the technology is a one-way data flow, which democratizes the medium from a publishing perspective and makes it easy for creators to share content, but difficult for advertisers trying to measure performance and figure out where to invest ad dollars. This is compounded by a fractured creator, server and distribution/endpoint environment unique to the medium.
Because podcasts lag other media channels in business intelligence, it’s still an underinvested channel relative to its ability to reach consumers and impact purchasing behavior.
For creators, podcasting has begun to normalize distribution analytics through a rising consolidation of hosts like Art19, Megaphone, Simplecast and influence from the IAB. For advertisers, though, consumption and conversion analytics still lag far behind. For the high-growth tech companies we work with, and as performance marketers ourselves, measuring the return on investment of our ad spend is paramount.
Because podcasts lag other media channels in business intelligence, it’s still an underinvested channel relative to its ability to reach consumers and impact purchasing behavior. This was evidenced when COVID-19 hit this year, as advertisers that were highly invested or highly interested in investing in podcast advertising asked a very basic question: “Is COVID-19, and its associated lifestyle shifts, affecting podcast listening? If so, how?”
The challenges of decentralized podcast ad data
We reached out to trusted partners to ask them for insights specific to their shows.
Nick Southwell-Keely, U.S. director of Sales & Brand Partnerships at Acast, said: “We’re seeing our highest listens ever even amid the pandemic. Across our portfolio, which includes more than 10,000 podcasts, our highest listening days in Acast history have occurred in [July].” Most partners provided similar anecdotes, but without centralized data, there was no one, singular firm to go to for an answer, nor one report to read that would cover 100% of the space. Almost more importantly, there is no third-party perspective to validate any of the anecdotal information shared with us.
Publishers, agencies and firms all scrambled to answer the question. Even still, months later, we don’t have a substantial and unifying update on exactly what, if anything, happened, or if it’s still happening, channel-wide. Rather, we’re still checking in across a wide swath of partners to identify and capitalize on microtrends. Contrast this to native digital channels like paid search and paid social, and connected, yet formerly “traditional” media (e.g., TV, CTV/OTT) that provide consolidated reports that marketers use to make decisions about their media investments.
The lasting murkiness surrounding podcast media behavior during COVID-19 is just one recent case study on the challenges of a decentralized (or nonexistent) universal research vendor/firm, and how it can affect advertisers’ bottom lines. A more common illustration of this would be an advertiser pulling out of ads, for fear of underdelivery on a flat rate unit, missing out on incremental growth because they were worried about not being able to get download reporting and getting what they paid for. It’s these kinds of basic shortcomings that the ad industry needs to account for before we can hit and exceed the ad revenue heights projected for podcasting.
Advertisers may pull out of campaigns for fear of under-delivery, missing out on incremental growth because they were worried about not getting what they paid for.
If there’s a silver lining to the uncertainty in podcast advertising metrics and intelligence, it’s that supersavvy growth marketers have embraced the nascent medium and allowed it to do what it does best: personalized endorsements that drive conversions. While increased data will increase demand and corresponding ad premiums, for now, podcast advertising “veterans” are enjoying the relatively low profile of the space.
As Ariana Martin, senior manager, Offline Growth Marketing at Babbel notes, “On the other hand, podcast marketing, through host read ads, has something personal to it, which might change over time and across different podcasts. Because of this personal element, I am not sure if podcast marketing can ever be transformed into a pure data game. Once you get past the understanding that there is limited data in podcasting, it is actually very freeing as long as you’re seeing a certain baseline of good results, [such as] sales attributed to podcast [advertising] via [survey based methodology], for example.”
So how do we grow from the industry feeling like a secret game-changing channel for a select few brands, to widespread adoption across categories and industries?
Below, we’ve laid out the challenges of nonuniversal data within the podcast space, and how that hurts advertisers, publishers, third-party research/tracking organizations, and broadly speaking, the podcast ecosystem. We’ve also outlined the steps we’re taking to make incremental solutions, and our vision for the industry moving forward.
Lingering misconceptions about podcast measurement
1. Download standardization
In search of a rationale to how such a buzzworthy growth channel lags behind more established media types’ advertising revenue, many articles will point to “listener” or “download” numbers not being normalized. As far as we can tell at Right Side Up, where we power most of the scaled programs run by direct advertisers, making us a top three DR buying force in the industry, the majority of publishers have adopted the IAB Podcast Measurement Technical Guidelines Version 2.0.
This widespread adoption solved the “apples to apples” problem as it pertained to different networks/shows valuing a variable, nonstandard “download” as an underlying component to their CPM calculations. Previous to this widespread adoption, it simply wasn’t known whether a “download” from publisher X was equal to a “download” from publisher Y, making it difficult to aim for a particular CPM as a forecasting tool for performance marketing success.
However, the IAB 2.0 guidelines don’t completely solve the unique-user identification problem, as Dave Zohrob, CEO of Chartable points out. “Having some sort of anonymized user identifier to better calculate audience size would be fantastic — the IAB guidelines offer a good approximation given the data we have but [it] would be great to actually know how many listeners are behind each IP/user-agent combo.”
2. Proof of ad delivery
A second area of business intelligence gaps that many articles point to as a cause of inhibited growth is a lack of “proof of delivery.” Ad impressions are unverifiable, and the channel doesn’t have post logs, so for podcast advertisers the analogous evidence of spots running is access to “airchecks,” or audio clippings of the podcast ads themselves.
Legacy podcast advertisers remember when a full-time team of entry-level staffers would hassle networks via phone or email for airchecks, sometimes not receiving verification that the spot had run until a week or more after the fact. This delay in the ability to accurately report spend hampered fast-moving performance marketers and gave the illusion of podcasts being a slow, stiff, immovable media type.
Systematic aircheck collection has been a huge advent and allowed for an increase in confidence in the space — not only for spend verification, but also for creative compliance and optimization. Interestingly, this feature has come up almost as a byproduct of other development, as the companies who offer these services actually have different core business focuses: Magellan AI, our preferred partner, is primarily a competitive intelligence platform, but pivoted to also offer airchecking services after realizing what a pain point it was for advertisers; Veritone, an AI company that’s tied this service to its ad agency, Veritone One; and Podsights, a pixel-based attribution modeling solution.
3. Competitive intelligence
Last, competitive intelligence and media research continue to be a challenge. Magellan AI and Podsights offer a variety of fee and free tiers and methods of reporting to show a subset of the industry’s activity. You can search a show, advertiser or category, and get a less-than-whole, but still directionally useful, picture of relevant podcast advertising activity. While not perfect, there are sufficient resources to at least see the tip of the industry iceberg as a consideration point to your business decision to enter podcasts or not.
As Sean Creeley, founder of Podsights, aptly points out: “We give all Podsights research data, analysis, posts, etc. away for free because we want to help grow the space. If [a brand], as a DIY advertiser, desired to enter podcasting, it’s a downright daunting task. Research at least lets them understand what similar companies in their space are doing.”
There is also a nontech tool that publishers would find valuable. When we asked Shira Atkins, co-founder of Wonder Media Network, how she approaches research in the space, she had a not-at-all-surprising, but very refreshing response: “To be totally honest, the ‘research’ I do is texting and calling the 3-5 really smart sales people I know and love in the space. The folks who were doing radio sales when I was still in high school, and the podcast people who recognize the messiness of it all, but have been successful at scaling campaigns that work for both the publisher and the advertiser. I wish there was a true tracker of cross-industry inventory — how much is sold versus unsold. The way I track the space writ large is by listening to a sample set of shows from top publishers to get a sense for how they’re selling and what their ads are like.”
Even though podcast advertising is no longer limited by download standardization, spend verification and competitive research, there are still hurdles that the channel has not yet overcome.
The conclusion to this article, These 3 factors are holding back podcast monetization, is available exclusively to Extra Crunch subscribers.
The picture it paints is of companies that have abused their power to enrich themselves in ways previously known and unknown. But House Democrats and Republicans disagree on some of the proposed remedies.
Likely, that doesn’t surprise Jessica Alter, the cofounder of Tech for Campaigns, an organization that was once described as a Democratic Geek Squad owing to its mission to match volunteers from the tech world — engineers, data scientists, product managers, marketing pros — with Democratic campaigns in need of a winning digital strategy.
Alter, who says Tech for Campaigns’s volunteer network now numbers more than 14,000, talked with us late last week about just how different the political parties are fundamentally, likening the Republican National Committee to a “conglomerate,” and the Democrats’s approach as far more decentralized — often to the latter’s disadvantage. Our conversation (which you can hear here) has been edited lightly for length and clarity.
TC: You were previously a tech founder. For those who don’t know you, why start this organization?
JA: I was pretty uninvolved in politics. I was just a typical techie working at early-stage companies, and I’d started one as well. But in 2017, my cofounders and I got very frustrated. I think the crucible moment for me was the first Muslim ban. And given what our skill sets are and who we know, we decided, ‘Let’s just try to look at helping on the tech and digital front.’
We had a hunch that in the 2016 election, Trump sort of wiped the floor with [the Democrats] on tech and digital, and we were more right [about that hunch] than we wanted it to be. We realized pretty quickly that the Democrats are probably 8 to 10 years behind the Republicans. That’s hard for people to believe, and usually people say, ‘But what about Obama? [His campaign] was good at tech and digital.” But all of that was thrown out. I mean that in the most literal sense.
TC: What percentage of donor dollars go to digital advertising?
JA: TV and [snail] mail still really rules the roost. In 2018, as just one example, for all of the media attention that digital advertising gets, only three to five cents went to digital for every donor dollar that was given. Most of the rest went to TV and mail.
On the tech tools and data side, we’re also far behind. Part of the problem is that there really isn’t an organization whose main thrust is to focus on tech and digital. It’s a part of every organization but it’s siloed, and no one really focuses on it, and no one organization is permanently focused on it. That’s the hole that [we’re] filling, and the way that we do that is through our full time team of. about two dozen people and our now more than 14,000 tech and digital volunteers.
TC: Are all of these volunteers finding you? And when they do offer to help, do they have a campaign in mind or do you assign them to whomever needs the help most?
JA: It’s sort of a double-opt-in system that we’ve built, so you sign up, you tell us your hometown, in addition to where you live now and we will try to match on affinity. But we first match on skill set. So we talked to all the campaign and we develop projects with them, and we know if it’s an email project, it needs these skill sets. Then an email goes out to people with those skill sets.
TC: You’ve suggested that part of why Democrats have fallen so far behind is because of the way their campaigns are structured. Is it different on the Republican side? Do they have a more unified digital operation?
JA: It’s different on the Republican side — and not exclusively about tech and digital — for a couple of reasons. The Republicans in general are a much more centralized organization. When the RNC or [other] leaders say to do things, it trickles down, and people do it. I’m sure a lot of people have heard the saying that Republicans fall in line and Democrats fall in love. There’s nothing that I’ve heard and understood to be more true than that. The Democrats are just much more decentralized, so it’s hard for things to trickle down as much.
The Republicans also started focusing on digital maybe 10 years ago and they operate much more on their donor side like a conglomerate [whereas] the Democrats operate much more like a portfolio [and] there’s not as much cooperation; it’s just that’s it’s just not happening. So [major donors like the] Koch [brothers] and the Mercer [family] not only believed In digital, but there’s a shared infrastructure there. They have, for example, a data exchange that they’ve had for eight years. The Democrats are still building a first version of theirs, and there are two or three versions of a centralized data exchange, which is the opposite of the point of centralization.
TC: Where are you focusing most of your time and energy?
JA: At the state legislative level, which is where Republican fight, too. The elbows are a lot less sharp, so we’ve been able to make inroads there, helping almost 500 campaigns on almost 700 projects over the last three years. But also, the state level campaigns are these concentric circles that overlap between incredibly strategic, incredibly cheap, and incredibly ignored.
State legislatures control basically every major issue that anyone cares about. That includes health care, voting rights, the environment, education, [and] a woman’s right to choose. If Roe v. Wade gets overturned. It’s not that abortion [becomes] illegal; it’s that the states will decide. The state legislatures in most states also control federal redistricting. So if you own the state legislatures, you actually own all those issues.
State legislators are about one 100th of the cost of a federal race, too. It’s just a good ROI decision. People need to understand that Republicans run things like a business, and they make very good ROI-based decisions. I don’t find that to be true with Democrats nearly enough. You have very analytical people who, in their normal lives, are extremely focused on ROI, yet when it comes to politics, they’re just purely emotional. I understand it, but it doesn’t serve the end goal.
TC: This is because they’re decentralized?
JA: We were showing one of our tools to one of the state Democratic parties, and their comment was, ‘Oh, we try to build this every two years.’ When they build [something], they don’t if that’s happening in Maine. They don’t show it to Michigan. It’s not because they don’t like each other. They just don’t talk. And so every two years, your donors are paying to rebuild the same thing. And there isn’t any standard tech or digital training for candidates or their staffers.
When we go into states, we provide that, [and] not in the sense that we’re going to make them gurus of how to run digital ads or data, but so they understand why it’s different and what the power of digital to make them more demanding of whoever they’re working [including paid consultants] on the digital side.
TC: You’re saying it’s chaos out there. You’re giving these campaigns tools and information they didn’t have, but of course, campaigns disband. Is anyone holding on to the tools and information that you’re providing them?
JA: The whole mission of tech for campaigns is to be the permanent tech and digital arm for the Democrats. As you rightly said, campaigns disband every two years and break down completely. Within a week and a half, everyone scatters. So you can’t expect that to change completely. [But we hope to be] this lasting presence in tech and digital that subsists cycle over cycle and in between cycles — to be this permanent presence that can build a real competitive advantage. Because if you break everything down every two years, you’ll never win at tech and digital.
TC: How do you fund your work? Through donations? Grants? Is there a money-making component of this business?
JA: We’re a 527 nonprofit, so we are mostly sustained by donations from individuals and organization. Because of campaign finance, we do sell software that we build, but it’s not going to be a it’s not a big business.
TC: In ‘Silicon Valley,’ politics have become so charged. Are the people who volunteer fearful of revealing their political affiliations in a way that they perhaps weren’t before? Or is the opposite happening?
JA: I feel like there’s a lot more desire for people to be outspoken in the last few years, even more so than between 2016 and 2018. Because things have gotten so out of control, people really want a way to channel their frustration and anger and sadness. So we don’t we don’t find that people want to hide it, no.
TC: Some readers are Donald Trump supporters. Some are Biden supporters who might want to help. Is there anything specific you’d want them to know, heading into the election?
JA: First, I’d say, don’t despair. We are we are solving this. [But] it’s not a one-month or even a one-cycle solve, so get in touch with us about what you can do.