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Pandemic Watch: April 14, 2020

So, here’s my sense of where we are at the moment: it’s April 14, 2020, which means that, as of this week, we’re about a full month into widespread implementation of social distancing measures in most places across the United States. In other words, we’re now firmly in the “new normal,” I think.

Now that we’re here, my inclination is to view whatever audience trends we see from here out as less about the effects of a disruptive transition and more about the new shape of podcast consumption behavior under these conditions. Then again, there’s the possibility that some parts of the country might opt to pull back on social distancing measures as part of an effort to open the economy back up, perhaps sooner rather than later, so there’s a chance we’ll end up seeing more bursts of disruptive transition in the weeks to come. In which case, we’ll probably see further weirdness in the audience trends. Whatever the case, we’ll continue doing these updates to the best of our ability.

On that note, this week I checked in with Ad Results Media, the advertising agency that’s widely believed to facilitate one of the larger shares of ad money in the podcast business. (Whether it’s the largest is the subject of some subject.) Whatever the actual percentage, they cut across a fairly deep cross-section of the industry, and their perspective tends to hold some value.

Their big takeaway, at least at this stage? “Overall download trends are flat from pre-quarantine time windows, with variances in different genres,” the team wrote back. “Given the overall disruption in the universe, the relatively unaffected consumption of podcasts is encouraging. For such a nascent medium, it can be difficult to keep your audience during times of large change. Seeing downloads remaining flat is actually promising at this time.”

They add, “Considering all of this change, we think the podcast industry is in a unique position to weather this storm, and say flat is the new up.”

Some things to consider about the methodology. Ad Results says that their analysis is built on information collected through direct data requests that they’ve been making over the past two weeks to their partner base, which includes an array of publishers, hosting providers, ad tech vendors, and even other ad sales networks. Though the company qualifies that their approach isn’t an official survey method — “so take it as such,” they noted — the team nevertheless claims that their requests produced a wider set of inputs than has been reported elsewhere so far, theoretically making their analysis more representative of the broader podcast space.

With all in mind, here’s a chart they sent over containing trend lines on average weekly downloads from twelve “Top Networks,” anonymized:

One thing that might jump out is the difference in the way Ad Results frames their findings — i.e. “overall trend is flat” — compared to the other analyses we’ve highlighted in previous weeks, namely Podtrac and Stitcher’s, which emphasizes the dip in audience trends since the pandemic started warping everyday life.

I’m not sure there’s a fundamental differences in these analyses, really. Ad Results’ chart is broadly similar to what’s found in Podtrac and Stitcher’s data, specifically following the March 9 point, where a dip can be clearly detected. (Recall that, in Stitcher’s analysis, March 9 marks the start of “Initial Social Distancing Measures.”)

The point Ad Results is trying to make is for folks to look at the bigger picture. They emphasize that the dip is ultimately relative to a high watermark that podcasting had achieved immediately before strong social distancing measures. To them, that average downloads turned out to largely be flat relative to the start of the year — despite the massive disruptions of COVID-19 — shakes out to something of a hopeful win.

Sure, you can regard this as mere positive spin, but given that an alternative outcome could’ve been a larger collapse in consumption as life under stay-at-home orders have resulted in the near-disappearance of the daily commute, I see where they’re coming from.

Note, however, that the chart is focused on twelve “top networks,” indicating that this reading of the larger podcast story may index more heavily on the bigger publishing operations. This ties into another finding in the notes Ad Results sent back to me, one that stood out for the it supported a potential outcome I flagged in my initial survey of COVID-19 impacts on the podcast business: unequal impacts between large and small operations.

“The larger shows seem to be growing downloads at a faster rate than smaller shows,” they wrote. “Our hypothesis is that the smaller shows are suffering, and the larger shows are seeing massive gains. For example, The Joe Rogan Podcast, generally regarded as the largest podcast, is seeing double-digit US download gains since 3/9/20, which is our general benchmark date for the start of the C19 US pandemic. Dax Shepard’s Armchair Expert, another large show, is seeing the same double-digit growth.”

A concerning trend, even if it’s somewhat expected. Two other findings to note:

  • No major surprises in the genre breakdowns. News and news-related content, including political talk, is up, along with “lifestyle-based” podcasts, which includes fitness, health, and kids podcasts. Sports programming is down. Business podcasts are also down, marking a slight difference with Podtrac’s findings, which found it to have had a slight bump.
  • Again, the loss of the daily commute is a major factor driving consumption behavior change. But the nature of the change is interesting. “The download time windows have shifted, according to one of our ad tech vendors and their data,” the team wrote. ”Previously the majority of the downloads occurred early day downloads, 7am-9am local time, while recent data shows downloads over a longer window with a high concentration later in the afternoon, 4pm-6pm local time.”

To round things out, Podtrac posted the latest weekly coronavirus update on their numbers last night, which runs through April 12. Two top-lines to note:

  • They report seeing a continuing downward trend through the week of April 6-12, but that overall weekly download and audiences are still positive year-to-date. In other words, they continue to see the dip, though the year’s collective audience gains still haven’t been wiped out yet.
  • Here’s where it gets interesting: this week, Podtrac broke out audience trends for the top ten and twenty publishers they measured, and found that average US downloads for the top ten publishers were up 12% over February. Furthermore, they found that total downloads for sixteen out of the top twenty publishers on the Podtrac rankers were flat or higher in March compared to February. Which is to say, this is broadly in sync with Ad Results’ findings that audiences have been flat… and that bigger publishers have been comparatively less harmed than smaller publishers.

So that’s the latest on audience numbers. Keep in mind, though, that we haven’t started seeing numbers on the other side of the equation: ad dollars. I’ll keep an eye out, but do reach out if you have something.