Podcasts are much more measurable than their broadcast ancestors, radio and TV. Finally, we can actually count users rather than rely on extrapolated survey-based measurement. We can find out a lot more about the habits of those users and even get feedback from them.
Being able to get an abundant amount of usage data can be a double-edged sword. While more data and rapidly emerging metrics should be a good thing, it can overwhelm marketers. This makes it tempting for some marketers to keep throwing their ad dollars at the $100 billion radio and TV marketplace. While the metrics for radio and TV might be awful, they're simple and well understood, having been around for decades.
It's time to take a deep look at the metrics for podcasts, and to fully understand all that are available.
I could write an entire article on data that can be gathered about a podcast by an ad network or publisher, such as number of user requests, frequency and reach, but that is data that advertisers already have a framework for dealing with. I'd like to discuss how to interpret five publicly available metrics on podcasts that are often misunderstood or ignored by marketers.
The iTunes top 100 lists
iTunes publishes a top 100 list for all of the podcasts in its directory and separate top 100 lists for each podcast category. This is a ranking that was meant by Apple to be interesting primarily for iTunes users, not to be useful for advertisers. However, it can be quite informative if you know how to read it.
Much to the ire of podcasts with well established audiences, the iTunes top 100 lists are based primarily on new subscriptions initiated in the iTunes podcast directory during the past week, with the more recent subscriptions weighted more heavily. In other words, iTunes is essentially ranking the podcasts with the highest velocity of new users.
Use iTunes to identify the up-and-comers and growing podcasts, but don't rely on it as the be-all and end-all of podcast rankings. Hypothetically, though unlikely, an established podcast with a million subscribers and 100 new iTunes subscribers would be placed behind a brand new podcast with 200 fresh subscribers. It also doesn't count the portion of the audience that doesn't use iTunes. Nevertheless, iTunes provides the best publicly-available ranking of podcasts since it has the largest user base from which to collect information. Ignore it at your own peril.
Both iTunes and Yahoo Podcasts offer user reviews of podcasts. From our experience in running the metrics across hundreds of podcasts, we've seen that the number of reviews often doesn't correlate with the number of users a podcast has. It's very possible that a podcast with 20 iTunes reviews might have more users than a podcast with 200. However, having a lot of positive reviews certainly speaks volumes about how engaged an audience is. The reviews on iTunes are, by and large, surprisingly well written and comprehensive.
Many podcast websites offer users the chance to comment on specific episodes. This, again, offers a great insight into the engagement level of an audience. Not only are users viewing or listening to a show, often on a mobile device, but they're returning to the podcaster's website to respond to it! The level of detail in the comments is indicative of how engaged the users are while experiencing the podcast.
Wisdom from the rest of the web
Podcasts don't just leave their mark on podcast-specific channels. Many podcasts set off discussion on blogs and in other social media. You can easily track what users are saying about podcasts on blogs using Technorati, Google Blog Search or Sphere. This shows not only how influential a podcast is, but also how influential the podcast's audience is.
Spy on the audience
What if you could somehow get users to download software that makes what they do on their computer viewable to the public? Last.fm has done just that to the delight of 15 million unique active users per month. Last.fm users download a plugin to their computer that reports what they listen to back to their Last.fm profile page. The users are rewarded for giving up some privacy as Last.fm introduces them to new artists who match their tastes and to other users who share their taste. While the site is meant for music, it also tracks podcast usage. You can actually see which Last.fm users are in the audience for a particular podcast. It lets you see which episodes are most popular within that podcast series, and even what other podcasts the same audience is interested in.
If anything, there's too much data available on podcasting. Not understanding how that data is generated can lead to bad decisions or inertia. But simply by knowing what data is available and how to interpret it, marketers can make a strong business case for podcast advertising and can hold the medium accountable.
Gregory Galant is the CEO of RadioTail. .