Apple's New Transparency Is Huge for Podcasts Everywhere

In 2017, it seems like everyone has a podcast. Hillary Clinton. Your utility company. Hypothetical spokespeople for Darth Vader’s utility company. But they all have one thing in common: They have no idea who’s listening. Thanks to Apple’s commitment to user privacy, along with the ubiquity of its Podcasts app, there hasn’t been a way for producers—or advertisers—to track how most listeners interact with an episode.

That’s finally changing. On Friday, after years of requests from producers, Apple announced that starting with iOS 11, changes to the Apple Podcasts app will allow creators to track aggregated data about when users start, stop, and skip within an episode. Podcasters will also be able to choose how listeners encounter their shows: as episodic or serial seasons, and as full, trailer, or bonus episodes. “It’s an inflection point for the industry,” says Matthew Lieber, co-founder of Gimlet Media. “This is the first time that producers and publishers are going to be able to see how audiences are actually responding to their shows.”

This isn’t the first time that a platform has offered data about listeners, but since most people listen to podcasts through Apple, the company’s shift has lasting consequences. Apple has dominated podcast consumption since the beginning, even before mobile apps for podcasting; according to data tracking company RawVoice, in 2007, 96.5 percent of listeners played podcasts on Apple desktops. When podcasts exploded in 2014, it was thanks to a lucky coincidence: The record-shattering Serial premiered two weeks after the iOS 8 update automatically installed the Podcasts app on all Apple devices; suddenly Sarah and Adnan were only four clicks away for anyone with an iPhone. Today, 55.5 percent of listeners still play their podcasts on Apple Podcasts or iTunes. So while other platforms—Stitcher, Art19, Megaphone—already offer tracking analytics beyond simple number of downloads, a move from the behemoth will reshape the industry.

The most immediate shift will likely be economic: Producers will finally be able to tell potential advertisers how many people listen to an ad, rather than simply how many typically download a given podcast. Currently, tentative advertisers often opt for direct response ads—ones that allow you to, say, type in the name of the podcast for 15 percent off your Blue Apron order—because it gives them the ability to track a specific user code as a rough metric. Once Apple begins to surface information about how often users skip through ads, companies will be able to track sales from all ads, not just those that require a host to read out a URL. “Brand advertisers will be a lot more comfortable buying if we know exactly how many people are listening to a given spot,” says Lex Friedman, chief revenue officer at Midroll, which sells ads for 300 podcasts. “You can pay a price per listener, rather than a price per download.” Potential advertisers will know whether listeners skip over ads—and podcast producers will know when an irrelevant or irritating ad makes a listener pause an episode for good.

But the newly available data will impact podcast content beyond the ads. “It gives people room to start playing around with different formats,” says Max Linsky, co-founder of Longform and podcast production house Pineapple Street Media. “It’s an opportunity for what we’re seeing more of anyway: limited-run and series-based shows.” With the new analytics, the producers of S-Town would be able to see how many listeners actually binged the binge-friendly series; a show following This American Life‘s three-segment model could track how many listeners drop off after each third; even something as simple as determining the ideal podcast length is no longer a matter of guesswork. “It’s likely that some widely-held assumptions about how people listen, and whether they listen, are gonna be proven wrong,” says Linsky.

This all raises the specter of homogenization: If you don’t have listeners, advertisers won’t stick around, so podcasts may end up hewing to a limited range of subjects and structures. But hope remains for podcasts that have cultivated a small-but-mighty audience. “A lot of indie podcasts already speak to a highly targeted audience, so having this better data gives them more ways to pursue advertising,” says Gina Delvac, a freelance producer who makes Call Your Girlfriend, among other podcasts. “It’s for people who can’t yet afford the middleman.” Armed with evidence of an enthusiastic listenership, producers of small, specialized podcasts have a better shot at funding from relevant niche companies, liked a pen company for pen addicts, or a freight company for shipping industry enthusiasts.

By releasing analytics, Apple is finally investing in some lasting infrastructure in the podcast ecosystem. The data will affect changes throughout the industry: how advertisers choose where to spend, how producers structure episodes, and most of all, how users hear podcasts. “It’s a big win for listeners,” says Linsky. “The work is gonna get better, so the experience of listeners is gonna get better.” It’ll help producers better understand what lands with their listeners—and that’s a good thing, whether your audience numbers a million or one.