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Apple is going to let podcast creators — and advertisers — see what listeners actually like

Basic analytics are (finally) coming to Apple’s podcast app in an upcoming refresh. It’s a big deal.

Peter Kafka covers media and technology, and their intersection, at Vox. Many of his stories can be found in his Kafka on Media newsletter, and he also hosts the Recode Media podcast.

Big changes coming to podcasting: Apple is going to let the people who make podcasts learn what podcast listeners actually like — and what they ignore.

A new version of Apple’s podcast app will provide basic analytics to podcast creators, giving them the ability to see when podcast listeners play individual episodes, and — crucially — what part of individual episodes they listen to, which parts they skip over and when they bail out of an episode.

The reason all of that is important is that up until now, Apple has provided almost no data at all about podcast listening behavior — just the fact that someone has downloaded an individual episode.

And since Apple’s Podcast app accounts for the majority of podcast consumption, that means podcast creators — and podcast advertisers — have almost no idea how people are interacting with podcasts. They’ve been creating — and paying for — this stuff in the dark with almost no feedback.

So this is a subtle but very big change. Here’s Matthew Lieber, president of Gimlet Media, the podcast studio behind hit shows like Startup and Crimetown:

Podcast creators like Lieber (and myself) have been asking Apple for this kind of information for a long time, but prior to yesterday’s podcasting session at Apple’s developer conference, there was zero indication Apple was interested in providing it.

Apple didn’t make much noise about it yesterday, either. James Boggs, an Apple business manager who works on its podcast team, mentioned the new features briefly at the end of the session, and said the company would have more info later this year. Here are some screenshots from a video of that session:

Other than laying out the basic idea behind the episode analytics, the only other detail Boggs provided was that Apple will provide aggregated, anonymized performance data, not pegged to individual users.

That means a podcaster — or podcast advertiser — will be able to see general listening behavior, but won’t be able to create content — or ads — targeted for individuals, or even groups of listeners.

That kind of precision targeting and analytics is the kind of thing most digital content creators — and advertisers — expect from platforms like YouTube and Facebook. But Apple’s pro-privacy stance — and general disinterest in the advertising business — makes it unlikely the company will ever provide that kind of detail.

But just the rudimentary data Apple says it is going to provide will be a huge change for the podcast world. Now podcast creators will be able to see if people are listening all the way through the stuff they make, or bailing out after the first 10 minutes. And while advertisers won’t be able to see who is listening to their ads, they’ll at least be able to see what percentage of listeners are skipping past them.

That second premise has obvious downsides for the podcasting business, at least in the near-term: If podcast advertisers learn that they’ve been paying for stuff no one hears, they’re likely to stop paying for that stuff.

And as a podcast maker, it’s been a refreshing novelty to make stuff without the instant — and often disheartening — feedback you get when you work on other digital media: I worked on that thing for that long and no one cared?

In the long run, of course, more data is better: You’d rather make — and pay for — stuff people want to consume. And knowing how they consume it gives you the ability to make more of it.

Update: An addendum for the podcast analytics = ad apocalypse folks, originally delivered via tweetstorm.

A few thoughts:

  • The podcast ad business is barely there. It is going to change no matter what.
  • Many podcast advertisers have crude but effective measurement already. @mackweldon knows #recodemedia listeners buy their socks.
  • Analytics will almost certainly show that some ad formats/placements don’t work.
  • That should be a long-term positive. “Trust me it’s great” won’t bring ad dollars forever.

I understand concerns that analytics will shift content, like we’ve seen with Facebook or Google-centric publishing companies. But I don’t think that will be a real problem. You can’t trick someone into listening to a podcast. People like it or they don’t.

I, too, have enjoyed the lo-fi era of podcast creation. It’s kinda fun to experiment in the dark. But we eventually need some light to see what we’re doing.

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