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The Podcast Consumer 2016, Contextualizing the Podtrac Ranker, Aussie Comedy Pods

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The Podcast Consumer. Last Thursday, Edison Research and Triton Digital released the Podcast Consumer 2016 report, an extension of the Infinite Dial 2016 study that was dropped back in March that specifically focuses on US consumer demographics and some aspects of user behavior — data points that will, no doubt, find their way into many, many investment and advertising decks in the coming months. (Charts! Charts! Charts!) The report touches on a nice range of aspects, and I think I’d be doing the depth of the report a disservice if I regurgitate and butcher them in whole here, but here are the three high-level points that most caught my eye:

(1) A Pop in Awareness.

Awareness of the term “podcasting” significantly jumped between 2015 and 2016. According to the study, an estimated 150 million Americans are now familiar with the term “podcasting.” Put it another way, that’s 55% of Americans, a 6 percentage point increase from 49% in 2015. That’s a noticeably huge bump, compared to the mere 1 percentage point increase between 2014 (48%) and 2015 (49%).

Tom Webster, the VP of Strategy at Edison Research who presented the report on a webinar last week, made a point to note the lag between any so-called “Serial effect” — recall that the podcast’s explosive first season dropped in late 2014 — and this rise in term-awareness. What accounts for this lag? Your guess is as good as mine, but I’m partial to viewing this jump as the result of Serial and the torrent of activity that took place around the same time and shortly after: the creation of new companies, the wave of new content driven by non-podcast native publishers that drives some awareness conversion among their built-in audiences, and, perhaps more significantly, increased media attention that further carried forward usage of the term “podcasts.”

But before we get ahead of ourselves here: it remains useful to contextualize the awareness level against actual listenership: an estimated 98 million Americans (or 36% of Americans)  have listened to a podcast at least once in their lives, and an estimated 57 million Americans (or 21% of Americans) can be counted as monthly active listeners.

(2) Immediacy in Consumption.

This one’s my favorite. 55% of respondents reported consuming podcasts within 24 hours of downloading the episode, following by 18% reporting consumption within 48 hours and 15% reporting consumption within a week. That 24-hour data point is considerably made more rich when combined with the additional finding that 59% of respondents report immediate consumption behavior — marked in the survey as “click and listen immediately” — as opposed to save-for-later options.

(3) An Insulated Audience.

The report made a point to sketch out the connection between podcast listeners and a general affinity towards on-demand video services. Webster observes that this reflects a highly technologically-oriented demographic who are increasingly insulated away from ads. They are, thus, highly valuable targets for advertisers — not only because their cable-cutting orientations signify a certain kind of high-value demographic, but also because they can’t otherwise be reached through conventional advertising channels like television, broadcast radio, and so on. (It would be extremely interesting if a future report inquires about ad-blocking use among this sample; that would be a dead giveaway.)

It’s important to note that this demographic’s advertising insulation should probably be viewed an expression of its will for control over their exposure to advertising more generally. Podcast advertising experiences, then, need to be maintained at a very, very high level to prevent an undermining of their trust not just in any given podcast, but in the medium as a whole. Yeah, yeah, I’m basically repeating myself on this idea at this point, but it’s a flag I’m going to keep waving for as long as there appears to be the threat of quality dilution in the podcast advertising experience, which, let’s face it, is going be there forever.

There are so, so, so many other findings in the report — including, but not limited to: on overall demographic shifts that suggest a strong break away from the podcast listenership’s once core wealthy male cluster, rough parity in device usage between iOS and Android, and some flashes of growing influence in the car — but I’ll leave that up for you to explore.

You can find the report here.

Additional reading: Nielsen, the global measurements company, put out a blog posthighlighting podcast consumer demographic data points of their own last Monday. It doesn’t surface anything particularly novel or surprising — and it’s stuck with an unfortunate “gee whiz!” tone — but there’s some fairly interesting data in there about the financial life of the podcast listenership, in case you’re looking for something like that.

Contextualizing the Podtrac Ranker. “I’ve asked Comscore and Nielsen over the years to do this, and they haven’t for various reasons… And here we are, Podtrac, with data on 7 billion unique downloads over ten years, and we’re not putting it out for the industry? We would be remiss if we continue to sit on the data, versus putting out there to add a certain amount of legitimacy to podcasting for the advertising community.”

Mark McCreary, CEO of Podtrac, speaks in a slow, deliberate manner. His speech is filled with pauses that indicate, perhaps, a strong internal filter, which in turn suggests a certain degree of thoughtfulness… and caution. And so when he becomes animated over the phone, you can tell that it ain’t bullshit. When he believes something, it shows. Which is to say, when the guy says he’s genuine trying to help, I’m inclined to believe it.

But that isn’t to say I believe in the ranker itself. At least, not at this point in time.

Let’s back up a second. In case you missed it: Podtrac, a decade-old podcast measurement and advertising company, rolled out a consumer-facing chart that supposedly ranks the “top ten podcast publishers” in the industry last Tuesday. Utilizing a “unique monthly US audience” as the anchor metric charted against the number of active podcasts within that month — an unprecedented bundle of markers, to my knowledge, one whose nuances are somewhat underappreciated — the ranker placed NPR at the very top with 7.2 million monthly uniques in the US, followed by This American Life/Serial (5.6 million) and WNYC Studios (5.5 million).

As you could probably imagine, Podtrac’s chart caused no small amount of consternation among different parts of the podcast community, which grappled over the chart’s actual representation of the industry, what are legitimate metrics and what are not, and the politics involved in Podtrac’s assumption of this value-arbitrating role.

The issue at the heart of the whole hubbub is, of course, the chart’s claim towards an accurate representation of the industry as a whole. And, as I touched on a little in my original write-up last week, there are some very real questions about this. The report argues that it measures “90 percent of the top podcasts,” and the press release that was published with the ranker noted that “it plans to have close to 100 percent participation in the weeks ahead.” The significance and depth of the remaining 10 percent is absolutely crucial to understanding the strength of the chart, and over the past week, I was able to confirm that the following publishers are not part of Podtrac’s sample: Panoply, Gimlet, Earwolf, The Ringer, Maximum Fun, CNN, and Wondery.

(Not that all of these networks would make it into the top ten if they were part of the sample, of course. I’m just saying I’m confident some of these publishers — not all — are probably big enough to displace a few publishers in the top ten; the very possibility of that cuts into the ranker’s representative utility. Also, if you’re curious as to which podcasts in the iTunes charts’ Top 200 are using Podtrac for measurement, check out this invaluable spreadsheet assembled by friend-of-the-show Dan Misener.)

This makes it abundantly clear to me the ranker simply isn’t adequately representative of the podcast industry — at least not at this point in time. But I don’t think that automatically invalidates its value as a marker of the space — whatever your misgivings about its representativeness, it still provides utility for the space by conveying the relative shape of a certain slice of the industry at the publisher level (more on that in a second), which in turn serves as a starting point for a broader, possibly multi-sourced picture to be drawn out. That’s something we never had before, and that’s something we really need now.

Podtrac’s fundamental problem comes purely down to communication, and this plays out — quite unfortunately — in two ways.

The first is the manner in which the ranker outwardly portrays itself in somewhat grandiose terms that glides over the nuances of its rollout sample. This runs the risk of being misinterpreted by other media sources that may automatically assume complete representativeness of the ranker; and in fact, one such example can be found in a recent Adweek article on NPR’s expectations that it will double its revenue this year. (Congrats!) It’s up to you to decide whether this comes as the result of a language oversight, or something else entirely.

The second is the company’s communication level with actual publishers. As I noted last week, I was informed that publishers needed to opt into Podtrac’s sample in order to be considered for the ranker. What was revealed to me later on was that inclusion is automatically assumed when a publisher adopts Podtrac as a measurement tool — which struck me as not only a rather questionable practice, but also puts certain participating publishers at risk of having its data shared without its prior knowledge. (Appearance in the ranker came as a surprise to at least one publisher. I asked McCreary whether Podtrac-using publishers can opt out of inclusion in the ranker. He said it is, indeed, possible.) Furthermore, there were also situations in which the company did not adequately reach out to publishers that believe they could’ve been ranked.

When I spoke with McCreary — along with Podtrac’s VP of Product Velvet Beard and VP of Business Development Julia Price — last week, they assured me that the initial rollout was made with the assumption that it would trigger conversations with publishers that could eventually lead to the filling out of that last 10%. That’s an understandable argument to make, but it remains troubling that the company has not been better at adequately communicating what it’s trying to do, and what it has actually done… to the detriment of some publishers.

You have every right to question Podtrac’s intent, or the substance of its decade-long experience, or its supposed objectivity — as I noted last week, Podtrac also has an ad sales arm that it recently spun out into a different division of the company, a fact that may or may not assuage the discomfort of other publishers — or whatever. But in my mind, whether Podtrac will ultimately become representative of the industry or be successful in its handling of the space’s larger politics is a relatively secondary question. For me, it is unambiguous that its ranker, however messy the rollout, is nothing but productive in the way it’s pushing the medium — every single quirky corner of it —  out of the comforts of its previous opacity. It’s drawing attention, generating conversation, and will ultimately provoke the kind of counter-initiatives that will move the industry towards a greater accountability.

As McCreary told me, “All the people who put effort into podcasts every single day, they deserve to have a media that the advertising industry thinks is legitimate. And you need an objective advertising company to provide that, and so that’s what we built here. Also, publishers who choose not to participate are still going to benefit, because the industry now has a ranker.”

Representation. Between this Podtrac Industry Ranker story and the recent debates spurred by that New York Times article from a few weeks ago, a key tension of the space has steadily shifted from being implicit to explicit. It’s a tension that’s been growing since the space found its moment for a second time, and it’s one that’s grounded in questions over the industry’s identity: What constitutes the podcast space? What defines the “Big Companies,” and what differentiates from everybody else? Who gets to speak for and represent the industry?

These questions, in turn, are built on several clear dichotomies: between independent podcasts and a class of professionalizing podcast companies, between an older generation of podcast companies that believe they remain relevant and an emerging generation that wants relevance, between those who view podcasts as an extension of blogs and the free web and those who view podcasts as the next phase for digital radio and audio content, and between companies that aspire to be big and companies that hope its scale-chasing brethren won’t screw everything up for the rest of them.

As I’m observing more and more these days, it’s a tale as old as content. But at the same time, I’m having less and less of an idea how this is all going to shake out.

Same Pigeon, New Paint. Great news, producers! The Third Coast International Audio Festival, the Chicago-based nonprofit focused on the development of storytelling audio and independent producers (and whose mascot is, inexplicably, a pigeon), rolled out a brand-spanking new design for its website last week. And while the news of the updated design is fantastic in and of itself, I want to highlight a specific element of that redesign: the greatly improved user experience for the site’s Producer Index, which can — and should — be utilized as an IMDB for Audio Producers of sorts. If you’re on the hunt for talent, be sure to give it a look-see.

The redesign comes months after a fundraising campaign that sees the non-profit looking to grow and expand its reach for the first time since it was founded in 2000. “We’ve been a small group for a long time — three full-timers, two part-timers — and we’ve been able to do what we do and really work hard at it,” Johanna Zorn, the organization’s executive director, told me when we spoke last December. “We want more people at our conference” — the organization’s flagship event — “but we need more than just me and one other person to make that happen.”

This November will mark the latest edition of the Third Coast Festival. The conference takes place in Chicago every two years.

“I don’t think there’s such a thing as too many podcasts,” Pineapple Street Media’s Jenna Weiss-Berman tells Marketplace’s Kai Ryssdal in a segment produced the day after the Gracies, an award ceremony honoring the work of women in media. (BuzzFeed’s Women of the Hour podcast, which Weiss-Berman produced, was among the winners.)

“In order for a podcast to be successful they don’t have to have massive listenerships,” she continues. “So there might be someone who wants to do a podcast about crocheting and they might be able to find sponsorship from a company that sells yarn, for example. And they might have 20,000 extremely devoted listeners who listen to the podcast and then go buy that yarn.”

Obviously, I cosign this opinion. Check out the whole segment.

Funny Down Under. The Australian Broadcasting Corporation is getting involved in the country’s emerging comedy podcast scene. The public service broadcaster has a new initiative called “Radio Comedy” — housed under the First Run banner, the corporation’s pod-oriented skunkworks which I’ve covered before — that will be commissioning a set of original comedy podcasts sourced from local talent.

“We’re attempting to use podcasting in the way that radio was once used as a test space for TV comedy series,” Tom Wright, a development producer on the initiative, explained to me over email. “This was the model at the BBC in the UK, which led to comedy hits like The Mighty Boosh and Little Britain.”

I’m fairly unfamiliar with the Australian podcast scene, so I asked Wright to describe the country’s culture of podcasts (and comedy podcasts more specifically). “Comedy is huge here — the Melbourne International Comedy Festival is the second biggest festival of its kind in the world. Podcasting less so… it’s less a part of the listening culture in Australia than in the USA and to a lesser extent the UK, but it is catching up fast,” Wright wrote. “Like NPR and the BBC, the ABC has been editing some of its most popular radio shows and publishing them as podcasts, and have dominated things a bit. But ABC’s First Run is really [an example of] the organization recognizing that podcasts are different in form from radio shows, and that we can contribute to an already established scene.”

The first Radio Comedy podcast, “Burn Your Passport,” launched last month. You can find it in all the usual places. Radio Comedy is also looking for pitches, so Australian Hot Pod readers — here’s your shot.

Bites:

  • Friend of the show Joel Leeman brought this to my attention over Twitter this weekend: An ad for Prince Street, a branded podcast promoting luxury grocery store Dean and Deluca, made an appearance on CBS during Sunday’s broadcast of the PGA tour. Prince Street is part of Panoply Custom’s portfolio.

  • Quick clarification for last week’s RadioPublic item: some biographies! The team currently consists of three people: Jake Shapiro, who serves as CEO; Matt MacDonald, who was a software engineer at PRX before moving into product management and now serves as RadioPublic’s Chief Product Officer; and Chris Rhoden, who serves as the company’s chief architect, where he will lead technical direction.

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