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News Analysis 21 Sep 2021 - 3 min read

Gaming, auto-downloads and notable absences: Agencies flag concerns on new podcast download numbers, publishers remain split on sales strategies, some holding out

By Josh McDonnell - Senior Writer

Media buyers say the numbers are a step in the right direction, but some will withhold investment without a clearer picture.

Commercial Radio Australia has answered calls for greater transparency on podcast numbers, but the industry remains divided on what it has offered up. Agencies say download numbers do not equate to listeners, while some of the larger independent publishers are absent altogether. If the podcast ad industry is to scale, there could be challenges ahead.

What you need to know:

  • Commercial Radio Australia has released more detailed download data for podcasts.
  • Media buyers welcomed some progress, but question the whether the metrics are investment grade.
  • They want CRA's data integrated into agency planning tools if they are to be monetised effectively and raised concerns about publishers gaming the numbers by cutting up long shows into segments, and auto-downloads skewing metrics.
  • CRA says it is working to provide clearer measurement as it moves toward its new hybrid ratings system.
  • Publishers remain split on direct versus programmatic approaches. Some larger indies are absent from the rankings altogether.

But [downloads are] the main metric in this market for comparing like-for-like and it does potentially affect how much investment is made into the channel. Without full transparency and truly independent data, it’s likely that some agencies and brands will continue to be hesitant to invest.

Amelia Ward, Head of Digital, PHD Sydney

Imperfect pitch

Australian advertisers now have a better idea of what they are buying when it comes to podcasts after Commercial Radio Australia (CRA) last week updated its ranker to give download numbers and listeners. But they question whether the numbers provide a true picture. They think there could be some inconsistencies – which has implications for investment.

Podcasting has been surging in Australia. By June it had notched 53 per cent year on year audience growth to  reach 43m downloads a month. The problem for producers is that investment ad has yet to catch up.

A key blocker has been fact nobody had access to a complete picture of audience numbers for individual podcasts – which is what many buy against.

CRA had produced a ranker, listing the most popular podcasts, but it did not publish any numbers. As of last week, advertisers can now access download numbers and listeners – which buyers have labeled a step in the right direction.

But with the numbers now published, agencies are questioning the methodology, with some sizeable independent podcast publishers absent altogether.

PHD Sydney Head of Digital Amelia Ward told Mi3 features such as the auto-download capability on popular platforms such as Apple’s Podcast app could be skewing the figures, similar to the autoplay debate in the early days of programmatic video ads.

“Whether download figures are true user behaviour, or inflated due to auto-downloads on Apple’s platform is debatable. Unfortunately, there is no way of knowing whether [CRA's numbers relate to] an automatic download or a user-initiated download,” Ward said.

“This is the main metric in this market for comparing like-for-like and it does potentially affect how much investment is made into the channel," added Ward.

“Without full transparency and truly independent data, it’s likely that some agencies and brands will continue to be hesitant to invest.”

The podcast ranker isn’t going to be the silver bullet for the podcast industry but it is a much-welcomed step in evolving the measurement of this channel.

Craig Cooper, Chief Investment Officer, Carat

Download debate

Carat Chief Investment Officer Craig Cooper said CRA's initial numbers reporting made it difficult to understand immediately if there is a lag between consumers downloading content before consuming.

Cooper feared the metric may be masking frequency duplication, but said some detail was better than none, and urged CRA to work to incorporate the download data into agency planning tools so they can run the rule over the numbers independently. 

“The podcast ranker isn’t going to be the silver bullet for the podcast industry but it is a much-welcomed step in evolving the measurement of this channel,” Cooper said.

Sophie Langton, National Group Planning Director at Spark Foundry, was more explicit. She likened the download metric to tsundoku, a Japanese phrase that refers to the art of buying books and never reading them.

She said download volumes as a metric will soon become irrelevant, with planners more likely to focus on actual listeners to scale campaigns.

“Fragmentation will always be an issue for advertisers, so it is up to planners to manage the balance of engagement and reach,” Langton said.

“The key is to diversify the number of podcasts and publishers on the plan to build unique reach. Likewise, it is important to build frequency of exposure.”

There’s a lot of content out there that is just a rehash of a radio shows, cut into smaller segments – it’s certainly contributing to the number of downloads and listeners. Is it going to skew ad investment and CPMs? Not on those podcasts. But it could give off an unfair view of how strong listenership is on lower-ranking content by comparison.”

Agency exec

Content slicing

One media executive told Mi3 said the numbers could also be gamed by larger publishers by "slicing and dicing".

“There’s a lot of content out there that is just a rehash of a radio shows, cut into smaller segments – it’s certainly contributing to the number of downloads and listeners by comparison,” per the exec.

“Is it going to skew ad investment and CPMs? Not on those podcasts. But it could give off an unfair view of how strong listenership is on lower ranking content.”

Other buyers questioned why larger podcast publishers – such as Mamamia – are absent from the ranker. 

As one daily podcast producer told Mi3, "So many big podcasts are not even on the ranker, so it's all a bit void. I'm still trying to understand the thinking behind it." 

Mamamia declined to comment. But it is likely such publishers are making good money from direct deals and sharing internal metrics with buyers and are therefore less convinced of the need to sign up for a ranker. Some medium-sized independent podcast publishers also told Mi3 they are not yet sure that the metrics are sound.

Because the market is not yet fully commoditised, and the deep niches and interests served by podcasts, that approach may prevail for some time yet.

However, buyers shared concerns over how the omission of some of Australia's biggest podcasts could be misrepresenting the size of podcast audiences.

“We know there is still work to be done on the measurement piece, but if we can get full publisher inclusion in the list, it allows us all to use at least one standardised metric,” said PHD Sydney's Ward.

Podcasts can be measured in multiple ways. Some shows are built around frequent short form content, others provide fewer episodes but a deep dive. Some aim for the widest audience reach, others want to target a highly-engaged niche market, which can be very valuable for advertiser.

Joan Warner, CEO, Commercial Radio Australia

I don't think you can charge those higher CPMs if you don't play at the big end of town and have those proven audiences – that’s what the ranker with the numbers do now.

Brian Gallagher, Chief Sales Officer, SCA

Size matters

SCA holds the number one position on the ranker with the Hamish and Andy podcast.

Given the duo's popularity, Chief Sales Officer Brian Gallagher said the numbers are no surprise. He suggested podcast publishers must deliver scale to make the effort worth the while.

While some niche publishers are turning a profit through direct deals, areas such as dynamic ads and programmatic buys, which is how agencies prefer to buy most digital media, still rely on a larger audience base.

“I don't think you can charge those higher CPMs if you don't play at the big end of town and have those proven audiences – that’s what the ranker with the numbers do now,” Gallagher said.

“It’s going to put more confidence into the buy and hopefully give us the opportunity to work on selling the long-tail of this content, from which we think we can gain an extra 20-25 per cent of revenue.”

Gallagher suggested there has been a noticeable reticence from certain advertisers to engage with podcasts, mainly due to a lack of clear metrics.

He said now that there was more transparency around its measurement, SCA will start to bundle podcast ad sales with broader digital audio buys.

“Podcasts were kept separate, especially given that digital audio as a whole was considered fringe revenue up until 18 months ago,” Gallagher said.

“But now it can be more than just an extension of a sponsorship or broadcast radio buy. Some clients are only buying digital audio and having the podcast numbers as part of this is only going to strengthen the [bundled] buy.”

We have a unique and defined audience that our advertising is tailored for. If we were to start selling through open exchanges then we couldn’t guarantee the right tone our listeners expect.

Rebecca Costello, CEO, Schwartz Media

Me, I'm counting

Schwartz Media has a spot in the podcast top five. But despite starting to achieve some scale, CEO Rebecca Costello said there is “no chance” the business would engage with programmatic or ad network-led sales strategies.

“We have a unique and defined audience that our advertising is tailored for, if we were to start selling through open exchanges then we couldn’t guarantee the right tone our listeners expect,” Costello said.

“It’s why we don’t budge on our CPMs either and now the metrics in the ranker are a proof point to what we’ve known all along – we’ve also got completion rates of 97-98 per cent,” she claimed.

Costello said the fees charged by aggregation services are also off-putting.

“If you’re only selling a $30 CPM anyway and they take a third of the cut, you’re really not left with much, so it makes sense for independents to stick with direct sales strategies,” Costello said.

CRA response

In response to agency concerns, CRA CEO Joan told Mi3 further changes will be made to podcast measurement following the implementation of the recently announced hybrid ratings system, with the opportunity to integrate podcast figures into the currency.

“Podcasts can be measured in multiple ways. Some shows are built around frequent short form content, others provide fewer episodes but a deep dive. Some aim for the widest audience reach, others want to target a highly-engaged niche market, which can be very valuable for advertiser,” Warner said.

“By providing listener, download and episode numbers, the ranker now provides much greater transparency to assist with that kind of decision making.”

Warner said the CRA also remains open to further conversations with hold out publishers.

Whether they engage remains to be seen.

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Josh McDonnell

Senior Writer

Market Voice

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