By Jessica Clark and Sarah Lutman
Podcasting is burgeoning, as we document in a new report we wrote for the Knight Foundation, From Airwaves to Earbuds: Lessons from Knight Investments in Digital Audio and Podcasting. Digital distribution options are allowing media makers to bypass traditional radio broadcasters to reach listeners directly through a growing number of apps and non-broadcast networks. However, tracking the impact of these efforts is still a tough prospect—one that mirrors the challenges faced by many makers who create content for emerging platforms.

While there are multiple efforts among nonprofit and public-interest journalists and audio storytellers to find ways to show their reach to sponsors and grantmakers, existing technology and distribution methods hamper these efforts. For now, makers can work on measuring consumption and impact on a number of fronts, from easy to difficult, and from accurate to speculative.

The ‘relatively easy to track’ category

This category encompasses the number of downloads of each podcast, the number of subscribers to a podcast’s new episodes, the percentage of downloads of the current (newest) episode as compared to the back catalogue, the relative placement of the program in Apple’s or others’ rankings, and the success of the podcast with crowdfunding, if this is pursued.

However, downloads are an inaccurate measure of reach, because “downloads” do not equal “listens.” Because a user has downloaded a program onto their mobile phone or computer does not mean she has listened to it, or ever will listen to it. (Also, there is a lot of discussion—more than you would think—on what actually constitutes a download. This report reflects 14 public radio organizations’ years-long discussion and agreement on a definition of what a download is.) A working group called aims to refine open standards for RSS metrics.

Part of the download measurement challenge can be attributed to Apple’s unwillingness to share detailed user data. (Apple is by far the single largest distributor of podcast programming; producers we interviewed reported that the majority of listening comes through the iPhone’s native podcasting app.) When logging into their individual iTunes dashboards, producers can see the number of downloads and subscribers, and subscribers’ geography, age, and the device they used. That’s about it.

Podcasters’ frustration with Apple’s data sharing policies resulted in a May 2016 New York Times’ story titled, “Podcasts Surge but Producers Fear Apple Isn’t Listening.” (The article was published only a few weeks after the New York Times announced the formation of an audio division to develop new podcasts for Times customers. Perhaps they share the podcast community’s frustration.)

The ‘harder to track’ category

Producers and networks are working around the Apple data deficit by resorting to other methods to learn about their listeners. Networks such as WNYC Studios, NPR and Gimlet Media are surveying podcast listeners to learn more about who they are. When you listen to podcasts, you’ll often hear hosts ask you to go online and answer a few survey questions (and maybe win a prize for doing so). These surveys are delivering important insights about ways listeners are discovering podcasts and using them in their daily lives. Podcasters also develop e-newsletters and hosts ask listeners to sign up. Subscribers can receive surveys and other information directly from producers.

Podcasts with enough traction to attract sponsors often have sponsor messages with calls to action that can be measured. For example, if a product discount or special offer is included in a sponsor’s spot, the sponsor can count the number of replies and compare that to similar calls to action in other media.

“If you want to know whether sponsors are satisfied, just look at their renewal rates,” one sales representative told us. “Renewal rates are extraordinary, they’re sky high.” Podcasters themselves can insert calls to listeners to visit their own websites, and these also can be tracked. Producers report that a surprisingly large number of users remember to log into a URL and reply to questions and surveys mentioned within a podcast. Of course, it is impossible to know what percentage of users are doing this or how representative they are. This is the sort of groping that producers have to rely on at this stage in podcast listening measurement.

Some producers get to know their listeners in person. Well-resourced podcast producers can conduct focus groups to understand their audiences, and networks and producers are successfully producing live events. Live events bring promotional value to podcasters and help them understand who is in the fan base. Ticket-buying customers identify themselves in the purchase process and can then be targeted for direct marketing, research and engagement.

Apple’s policies have opened space for app developers who want to deliver a branded experience that doesn’t rely on the Apple interface. Public interest producers want apps that offer a better user experience than Apple’s, one that is aligned with public-interest causes, encourages interaction and engagement, and provides better data. For example, user data being delivered by the NPR One app now offers significant insights for producers, and, of course, helpful data for sponsors, and has capabilities for donations and other engagement.

For-profit producers who deliver proprietary content on their own apps (as opposed to Apple’s) have a significant data advantage. In public interviews, the chief of Amazon-owned Audible, Eric Nuzum, said that the Audible app allows the company to know exactly who listened, for how long, where, when, whether they pause and restart, skip, bail, whether they were holding still or in motion, what other Audible products and services they’ve used, and scads of other personal data. This is a decisive factor in evaluating which program experiments and innovations to fuel and which to cut.

Public media producers want similar insights in order to make comparable resource decisions. These factors are the driving force behind efforts to create new apps, such as PRX’s RadioPublic, WNYC’s Discover, and 60db from Tiny Garage Studios. Undoubtedly, there are and will be more. Evaluating these emerging app and platform opportunities may prove difficult for individual grantmakers. Collaboration among public interest producers on podcast delivery and measurement seems not only sensible but also necessary if they want to grow their reach and impact.

The ‘almost impossible’ category

In this category of data is measurement of social sharing, particularly across podcast producers comparatively, moments of conversion, the mix of listening across platforms, user engagement beyond consumption, and outcomes assessment specific to journalistic or public service goals and other social impacts. These measures could help podcasters develop their philanthropic case, and justify public funding for digital content.

Multiple organizations, for-profit and nonprofit, are working on social sharing capabilities for audio that would help spread quality programming and increase makers’ ability to observe impact and gather feedback. This American Life launched a social sharing feature that allows users to share clips from current and archived shows. Others are also working on this critical gap in capability.

And coming down the pike? Neural metrics for storytelling. Storytelling formats such as The Moth seem to light up people’s brains in ways that are both fresh and as old as the campfire circle.
This range of indicators—from the relatively easy to the near-sci fi—is typical for an emerging media market. What begins with tinkerers and earlier adopters matures into a standardized field of activity shaped by the dictates of distribution fees and advertising. Outlets leverage more qualitative and tailored methods to better understand and engage audience members, and to hone their edge against competitors. The development of social impact indicators, lacking a defined market function, tends to lag. For this reason, these forms of impact analysis may be the most important for funders to subsidize.

As for podcasting—the medium’s growing reach and its capacity to engage younger adults makes this a field to watch in the coming months and years. Media Impact Funders will be tracking audio trends in our continuing effort to link grantmakers with the most important developments in media creation and distribution among public interest producers and their audiences.

Sarah Lutman of Lutman + Associates worked with Jessica Clark of Dot Connector Studio to research and write the Knight Foundation’s “From Airwaves to Earbuds” report. Clark is also MIF’s director of research and strategy, and Lutman writes occasionally for the MIF website.