The download, podcasting’s metric king, gets dethroned

“Measuring podcast success and setting advertising rates on a faulty CPM formula built on an inflated unit of measure could lead to serious consequences — maybe even an analytics bubble.”

My two boys and I regularly play chess at our kitchen island while I make breakfast on weekends. We’re not the best, but we always have fun. And I occasionally pull life lessons out of the metaphors embedded in the game.

One day this summer, during one of Lantigua Williams & Co.’s monthly Podcasting, Seriously webinars, I heard myself improvise this thought: “It’s like this: In podcasting, the download is the King on the chessboard — a useless figurehead and status symbol that must be protected at all costs, because he can only move one square at a time. Useless in battle. The Queen, on the other hand, is the most powerful piece on the board, has complete dominion over the field, and becomes more strategic the closer she gets to the other edge of the board.”

I paused, looked up to the left like I was doing math in my head, and then back at the webcam on my laptop: “That’s the whole problem with podcast metrics — the entire ecosystem is built on a false premise,” I declared, with a hint of doubt hanging from that sentence. The podcasters looking back at me on Zoom were either smiling and nodding, looking back at me with pensive eyes, or typing furiously into the group chat.

As I continued, the explanation went something like this:

A download is equivalent to one minute of listening per IAB — usually the first 60 seconds if there are no dynamically inserted ads in the preroll. The CPM for standard integrated or “baked-in” ads is based on the average number of downloads per episode over a four-week period. And most advertisers and publishers consider the midroll (the middle of the episode) prime audio real estate.

So how does it make sense to base CPM on the first 60-seconds — especially considering that, on average, individual episodes lose 30 percent of listeners in the first five minutes?

It seems that measuring podcast success and setting advertising rates on a faulty CPM formula built on an inflated unit of measure could lead to serious consequences — maybe even an analytics bubble, to borrow a term from economics. It seems the King, like the infamous emperor, has no clothes.

On the other hand, the listen-through rate is a true and mighty figurehead whose worth can be strengthened, measured, and influenced over time by creators and business owners. And it is the Queen to whom I pledge my fealty and courage.

Edison Research tells us that 58 percent of podcast consumers listen to between 76 and 100 percent of podcasts they download, so let’s just round up to a 60 percent listen-through rate for the sake of this exercise. Strong performers can presumably reach into the 80s, with some shows even breaking into the top 10 percent. (Shout out to my fellow credits-listening peeps.)

So I’m thinking we may want to adopt a CPM formula that truly reflects how much people actually listen, and that also allows creators the chance to improve performance in the choices they make about content and style.

Here’s a thought: Let’s make the base for the CPM a 60 percent listen-through rate. Then add to the cost based on percentage points above or below that. So maybe we set the starting price at $20 for a 60 percent listen-through rate, for example. Next, we could add or deduct 10 percent ($2) per every 5 percent up or down from 60 percent. So a show with a 70 percent listen-through rate would have a minimum CPM of $24, while one with a 50 percent listen-through rate would start at $16. (The numbers in the formula only matter as much as their relationship to the stickiness reflected in the average listen-through rate.)

From there, other factors are added in, as they are currently, such as the show’s frequency, the U.S. vs. international listenership, the age spread, household income, the percentage of subscribers, and a host of other characteristics we intuitively use to negotiate advertising terms.

I’ve been thinking about this for months and sharing the idea with others to ascertain its merit. In most cases, my fellow podcasters haven’t stopped working and hustling long enough to question the merits of allowing a false regent to rule. But they quickly, and happily, share their own robust listen-through rates as true indicators of their efforts to make shows that stick with audiences.

My two boys and I regularly play chess at our kitchen island while I make breakfast on weekends. We’re not the best, but we always have fun. And I occasionally pull life lessons out of the metaphors embedded in the game.

One day this summer, during one of Lantigua Williams & Co.’s monthly Podcasting, Seriously webinars, I heard myself improvise this thought: “It’s like this: In podcasting, the download is the King on the chessboard — a useless figurehead and status symbol that must be protected at all costs, because he can only move one square at a time. Useless in battle. The Queen, on the other hand, is the most powerful piece on the board, has complete dominion over the field, and becomes more strategic the closer she gets to the other edge of the board.”

I paused, looked up to the left like I was doing math in my head, and then back at the webcam on my laptop: “That’s the whole problem with podcast metrics — the entire ecosystem is built on a false premise,” I declared, with a hint of doubt hanging from that sentence. The podcasters looking back at me on Zoom were either smiling and nodding, looking back at me with pensive eyes, or typing furiously into the group chat.

As I continued, the explanation went something like this:

A download is equivalent to one minute of listening per IAB — usually the first 60 seconds if there are no dynamically inserted ads in the preroll. The CPM for standard integrated or “baked-in” ads is based on the average number of downloads per episode over a four-week period. And most advertisers and publishers consider the midroll (the middle of the episode) prime audio real estate.

So how does it make sense to base CPM on the first 60-seconds — especially considering that, on average, individual episodes lose 30 percent of listeners in the first five minutes?

It seems that measuring podcast success and setting advertising rates on a faulty CPM formula built on an inflated unit of measure could lead to serious consequences — maybe even an analytics bubble, to borrow a term from economics. It seems the King, like the infamous emperor, has no clothes.

On the other hand, the listen-through rate is a true and mighty figurehead whose worth can be strengthened, measured, and influenced over time by creators and business owners. And it is the Queen to whom I pledge my fealty and courage.

Edison Research tells us that 58 percent of podcast consumers listen to between 76 and 100 percent of podcasts they download, so let’s just round up to a 60 percent listen-through rate for the sake of this exercise. Strong performers can presumably reach into the 80s, with some shows even breaking into the top 10 percent. (Shout out to my fellow credits-listening peeps.)

So I’m thinking we may want to adopt a CPM formula that truly reflects how much people actually listen, and that also allows creators the chance to improve performance in the choices they make about content and style.

Here’s a thought: Let’s make the base for the CPM a 60 percent listen-through rate. Then add to the cost based on percentage points above or below that. So maybe we set the starting price at $20 for a 60 percent listen-through rate, for example. Next, we could add or deduct 10 percent ($2) per every 5 percent up or down from 60 percent. So a show with a 70 percent listen-through rate would have a minimum CPM of $24, while one with a 50 percent listen-through rate would start at $16. (The numbers in the formula only matter as much as their relationship to the stickiness reflected in the average listen-through rate.)

From there, other factors are added in, as they are currently, such as the show’s frequency, the U.S. vs. international listenership, the age spread, household income, the percentage of subscribers, and a host of other characteristics we intuitively use to negotiate advertising terms.

I’ve been thinking about this for months and sharing the idea with others to ascertain its merit. In most cases, my fellow podcasters haven’t stopped working and hustling long enough to question the merits of allowing a false regent to rule. But they quickly, and happily, share their own robust listen-through rates as true indicators of their efforts to make shows that stick with audiences.

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