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Numerical Turbulence

There's been a jarring shift in the Podtrac ranker download counts. Here's what it means, and what it doesn't.

If you’re a publisher that uses the podcast measurement company Podtrac, or if you’re one of those people who closely monitors its publisher rankers, then you might have noticed some jarring, perhaps alarming shifts in the numbers. Specifically, when you compare the ranker’s April download counts compared to its March counts.

One or two folks have already posted side-by-side comparisons between the two months on Twitter, but to recreate it…

Here’s March:

Here’s April:

(In case it’s not 100% clear, these are screenshots of Podtrac’s industry ranking list.)

As you can see, the jarring changes can be found in the “Global Unique Streams and Downloads” column, with virtually all listed publishers experiencing marginal-to-considerable drops in download counts between the two months. But here’s the twist: the other metric, “US Unique Monthly Audience,” largely experienced the inverse, with almost all publishers experiencing marginal increases.

First of all, let’s be clear on what this doesn’t mean: it doesn’t mean that podcast listenership has gone down systematically and across the board. And it’s also doesn’t necessarily mean that the overall size of podcast listening is lower than what was originally thought; that’s the whole point with Podtrac’s distinction between the Streams/Downloads and Unique Audience metrics. However, it does mean that if you’re a publisher selling ads based on downloads, and if you’ve been using Podtrac as the primary measurement tool, then you should maybe sweat a little bit.

So, here’s what happened. The count changes were the result of Podtrac altering its measurement algorithm to better comply with the Interactive Advertising Bureau (IAB)’s compliance and certification process, which are based on the 2.0 version of the IAB’s Podcast Measurement Technical Guideline that’s been out now for a while.

In case you need a refresher: the guidelines are a set of standards, developed by the IAB acting as a quality advocate of sorts, that’s meant to help foster a podcast analytics environment where the definition of a download is functionally consistent across the industry. Meaning, if you’re an advertiser looking to buy some impressions, you would be able to buy in an industry environment where a download by publisher X would mean the same thing as a download by publisher Y, and so on. (Not necessarily a given, since the spread of hosting platforms still being on varying levels of 2.0 compliance and certification.)

Now, Podtrac published a blog post on Wednesday discussing the algorithm tweak from their perspective at quite some length, which is both meant to inform (and/or assuage the concerns of) their publishers and also, quite possibly, to rebut some critiques that were volleyed at them following the tweak. (The primary thread of critique being: how could they have not adhered to the 2.0 guidelines sooner? Isn’t it irresponsible, maybe even reprehensible that they would lie and inflate the download counts? And so on.)

For what it’s worth, I’d counsel a more measured interpretation of this situation. For one thing, I don’t buy a ton of stock in the characterization of Podtrac as intentionally inflating download counts, because that would impugn a certain unethical disposition that I don’t think is present here. If anything, this Podtrac development feels more or less in keeping with how the rest of the industry has been paced. Historically speaking, after the IAB 2.0 Guidelines came out, there’s been a general tendency among various publishers and  ecosystem actors — particularly the ones that have been around for a while — to take it slow when it comes to embracing the 2.0 guidelines. That’s because, since the embrace would almost certainly drive down the raw download numbers, the operative task at hand, for publishers as much as Podtrac, would be to execute a Indiana Jones Boulder-esque challenge of undergoing that shift without fatally wounding their core businesses. In other words, it’s a practical choice for gradual reconstruction, as opposed to a sudden detonation followed by a risky rebuild.

Is that cutting advertisers a raw deal? Sometimes, not always, depending on the education effort. Should Podtrac have been more upfront, or out in front, or transparent in transitioning over to the 2.0 specs? Absolutely. After all, an industry-wide shift towards adherence of the 2.0 guidelines is all but inevitable, as more and more publishers transition over to certification as part of the collective industry effort to present the broader universe of advertisers with a united and reliable front. This could have been done better, and this could have been done with more coordination with publishers and the podcast ecosystem. A hundred percent.

But shit’s tough, and it’s always best to start with measured interpretations when it comes to these kinds of things.

Anyway, this isn’t to say that I’m entirely supportive of Podtrac’s various adventures in public industry-wide representation. Long-time readers would know that I generally haven’t been a fan of Podtrac ranker’s emergent position the first-touch reference point of the podcast industry’s makeup as a whole — for reasons I’ve long re-iterated and re-linked over and over again: see here and here — but there’s a time and place for everything.

In any case, I reckon the whole point with Podtrac’s measurement paradigm to lobby more for a focus on “US Unique Monthly Audience” as opposed to downloads per se — which is somewhat more consistent with the industry’s broader dreams of shifting from a download-based paradigm to… well, something more specific.