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Will Podcasters Abandon Apple?

When Apple released iOS 6 in 2012, the tech world flipped out over Apple Maps, the company’s late-to-the-game GPS directions app. Much of the press about the release criticized the software, especially in comparison to Google Maps. But the coverage overshadowed the introduction of something that would go on to become an important part of the Apple empire: a dedicated podcasting app called Podcasts.

The early response to Podcasts was also rough, but Apple’s decision to separate it from the standard music functionality eventually had a huge impact. Listening to a podcast soon became its own activity, different from listening to a song. And Podcasts came equipped with its own features like genre filters, a “top charts” section, and curated lists.

As with any rapidly growing space, the podcasting arena has seen an energetic crowd of new players rush in ready to experiment and capitalize. Apple still provides for 65 percent of podcast listeners, as John Herrman detailed in a New York Times article from May, but there’s some tension mounting. Ad revenue increased by 48 percent last year, and some podcasters are beginning to pressure Apple to update its infrastructure and offer more robust metrics to gauge success. Others, meanwhile, worry that asking for too much data could ruin the beauty of a simple medium.

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“Apple built this village ten years ago,” Matt Lieber, a co-founder of Gimlet Media, told Herrman. “There’s really interesting things in the village, and interesting characters. But the village now has the population of a city, and when a village becomes a city, you need new infrastructure.”

As of today, new distributors like Spotify, Sticher, Google Play, Audible, and Overcast have stepped into the ring. New networks like Gimlet, Radiotopia, and Panopoly have their own diverse podcast portfolios.

In the Times article, titled “Podcasts Surge, but Producers Fear Apple Isn’t Listening,” Herrman details a list of growing gripes among industry leaders, chief among them primitive analytics. For its developers who build apps, Apple offers detailed analytics software, and until it abandoned the initiative this summer, iAd software to help with monetization. But Apple gives podcasters one simple number: total downloads.

“When a village becomes a city, you need new infrastructure.”

Downloads can be a crude metric that doesn’t necessarily provide accurate data on total listens—the metric that matters most to advertisers. Unlike apps that must be used live, podcasts can be pulled from the app and listened to offline as an MP3. There’s no way to tell if someone listened to a full episode.

“It’s like downloading a picture,” Gimlet Media’s chief of staff, Chris Giliberti, told me. “No one has any idea how many times you’ve viewed it. It’s proprietary. It lives locally on your phone.”

The gray area between downloads and listens makes it difficult to court bigger advertisers.

“Knowing how many and how long people listen for would be useful,” Max Linsky, co-founder of the Longform podcast, said. “That’s one kind of analytics. That’s just basically getting to what I think would be a sort of obvious standard. And I think Apple is going to supply that.”

Some podcasters want to push for more sophisticated data. “We want to understand where they’re listening. Who they are. What their demo is. What platform and device they’re using. What other shows they’re listening to,” said Jason Hoch, chief content officer at How Stuff Works. “I want that expected level of sophistication and detail around analytics like we’re getting on other platforms.”

How Stuff Works produces 12 podcasts, six of which generate more than a million monthly downloads each. It’s a prime example of a publisher that wants to access more data as it continues to thrive so it can make bigger deals with bigger sponsors. Listeners typically hear ads from niche brands because, as Newsonomics author Ken Doctor wrote on Nieman Lab, the biggest players have “only stuck a toe into podcast advertising.”

“Part of what’s holding them back from coming into this space is that in most cases, [ad buys] are coming out of digital budgets, and it’s a really tough sell if the advertisers are not getting in exchange a certain richness in the data that they’re used to,” Giliberti said. “If you want the sponsors that are going to … support really ambitious journalism that has the potential to create wide cultural and societal impact, and you believe that podcasting is a good medium for that, you have to be rooting for the data that allows you to build a business case.”

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Giliberti’s argument makes sense in theory, but it may not be as simple as more data leads to more money, which leads to better content.

There’s already a lot of great content out there. The risk, according to Overcast founder Marco Arment, is that the data economy will “destroy another medium.” Arment points out that more data from Apple could actually hurt independent podcasters and force everyone to operate inside its walls. Better data may also lead to a new philosophy that values quantity and virality over quality.

“I think it really just comes down to knowing … how happy your sponsors are when they hand you that check,” Aaron Mahnke, creator of the nonfiction horror history podcast Lore, said. “If they get enough leads or sign-ups, or people use enough coupon codes to justify that expense, they’ll come back and justify the expense again. I don’t think we need to provide incredibly in-depth demographics for sponsors, because the show itself is a demographic.”

If last month’s iOS 10 release is any indication of Apple’s vision, it seems to be sticking with an old-school approach. There was no update to the podcasting app. In fact, a new feature now allows you to delete the native app if you want.

Perhaps it comes down to economics. Apple doesn’t really generate revenue from podcasts. Apple might simply lack an incentive to throw more resources at a feature that still dominates the market and gives podcasters enough to get by. (Apple, to its credit, already operates 29 editorial teams that localize podcasting content for 155 countries.)

Apple still dominates the market by a huge margin, but its share of listeners did decrease by five percentage points last year. As competitors join the fray, there could be more dips in the future.

There are subtle signs the company may be thinking ahead. A patent filed by Apple in early 2014 details dynamic ad-insertion software that could help podcasters streamline their pre-, mid-, and post-roll ad, and even monetize their backlogs with constantly refreshing ads. Whether that patent will ever become product is still unclear. At the very least, nobody cares about Apple Maps anymore, right?

Image by Valentyn Volkov
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