One of the things that has a tendency to throw people off when they start getting into podcasting for the first time is the comparative paucity of tracking data that’s available for measuring performance, particularly if they’re used to other digital channels. Compared to video or social platforms (or even standard websites), analytics for podcasts are just not especially good. There are a few reasons for this, but most of them stem from the fundamental technical underpinnings of podcasting.
Podcasting is one of the last remaining holdouts of the old hippie web. The classic definition of a podcast is of an XML-formatted document sitting on a server somewhere, listing episodes and pointing to where the audio files are stored. This isn’t all that different to how websites fundamentally work, so why do they get detailed analytics and podcasts don’t?
Firstly, if you want to read PodPod, you enter the same URL regardless of what device you’re accessing it from, whereas with podcasts, most people will access your show via different directories and apps with no standardised linking system between them; that makes it hard to market a single canonical URL where people can get your podcast.
Most importantly though, traditional podcast player apps don’t have any concept of who a listener is, and there’s no inherent way of tracking someone’s activity. Web browsers long ago adopted technologies such as cookies and tracking pixels to enable rich analytics, but no equivalent exists at a specification level for podcasting. This is starting to change, especially with the big play Spotify is making in podcasting and the growth of gated podcasts, but it’s still nowhere near as detailed as you’ll find in other mediums.
Which brings us to a caveat before we dive in: there are privacy implications to the kind of tracking you need to layer on top of traditional open podcast infrastructure in order to achieve this. Of course, established providers will work hard to ensure compliance with relevant laws, but some podcasters may make a conscious moral decision not to implement any of it.
With all this in mind, then, what metrics are available to podcasters, and which ones should you be tracking to effectively measure your podcasts’ success?
Where can I see my podcast download data?
Your first source of performance data is your podcast host. It should be able to tell you how many times your podcast was downloaded, where your listeners are, and what apps they’re using to listen.
The location is usually inferred from the IP address of the device that’s made the request; this should be fine for country-level stuff, but be a bit sceptical once you drill down to cities. There are various technical reasons why this is an inexact science, but you don’t really need to know about the details, and in any case the databases linking IP addresses to physical locations are a bit messy.
Determining what podcast app your listeners are using is generally a lot more robust, and can be useful for building audience profiles. However, at this juncture we should probably address the ambiguity of some of our terminology. ‘Downloads’ is a contentious word in podcasting. All it usually means is that some device or other has made a request to the host for the audio for that episode, which it has served; it doesn’t tell you how much of the episode was actually listened to, or if it was even listened to at all.
There’s also no real standardisation in terms of how this metric is referred to between different bodies - some will use ‘downloads’ and ‘listens’ interchangeably, some will count them as separate totals, and some will use different terminology altogether. In most cases, the best metric to look at will be whatever the default view shows - this will be the broadest overall category, and thus the largest and most representative dataset.
Luckily, directory platforms like Apple and Spotify give you richer analytics, if you have access to them. Be wary of hosts that submit your shows to these platforms for you, because then you can’t log into them directly. Use your own Apple ID and submit your show’s RSS to Apple Podcasts directly; likewise for Spotify, Google and any others.
Once these are set up, you can get richer analytics for that portion of your audience that comes via each platform. Before you extrapolate any findings from this data, however, check at your host’s level how much of your audience comes via each, and be wary of drawing any overarching conclusions if it’s a low percentage.
Though there’s a good chunk more data to drill down into in each platform, the big news is that Spotify will tell you the age and gender breakdown of your listeners (which it can do because you have to have a Spotify account in order to be able to listen via Spotify), and Apple will give you really nice per-episode listener retention graphs. In this way, you can see when your listeners are dropping off, or if they’re skipping baked-in ads or promo messages. (Spoiler: you’ll probably be pleasantly surprised – and colleagues in video will be green with envy – at these graphs.)
If you’re using a host with dynamic ad serving tech, then it will also have dedicated reporting for ad consumption and effectiveness.
How can I measure the effectiveness of my podcast marketing?
The other side of analytics isn’t about the effectiveness of your podcasts, but how effectively you’re marketing them. You should know which channels are working hardest for you in converting other parts of your brand footprint to podcast listeners, but you’ll need to put some work in, because there’s no way of tracking referrers for podcasts on a technical level.
If you just run one small show as a hobby, then doing the old manual trick of creating unique links via services like Bit.ly for each of the channels you market it on is fine, and you’ll be able to see clicks on each with a little work, but there are better ways of automating this. You could use UTM links to better manage tracking, or indeed opt to pay for a third-party platform such as Chartable (as a general analytics tool) or Podsights (for ad attribution).
These tell you not just about how listeners came to your show, but how they consumed it and where they went afterwards, using host-level integrations that add prefixes to your RSS feed which catch someone as they hit your episode. They can also use tracking pixels and dynamic audio insertion tech to be more precise about following someone down the funnel. As a bonus, they also give you a single destination URL which you can use to point listeners to your podcast regardless of what platform they’re listening on.
You shouldn’t ignore ‘soft’ analytics methods as well, such as social media engagement and reviews, or traditional options like surveys and tracking redemption codes for offers.
Which podcast performance metrics are most important?
And so there is a ton of data available, if you want it. When you come to extracting actionable insights from it, you have two tasks: synthesising the data from, potentially, lots of sources, and then sense-checking what it tells you about how you’re achieving your goals.
The first can be a fiddle. If the services you’re using have API hooks, and you have the time and skills to integrate them into a central data management or visualisation tool, you can make it a bit easier on yourself, but otherwise you’ll find you’re either flipping between multiple dashboards or doing a lot of manual copy-pasting.
However, it’s the second point that’s more important. Assuming you have clearly articulated your goals for the podcast before you launched it, careful use of analytics should only ever be in the service of those goals. If your goal was to acquire a younger audience to a heritage brand, check your demographics in Spotify. If it was to generate brand awareness for a sponsor, check your retention graphs in Apple Podcasts and see if people are skipping their ad. If it was to help build a habit for a hardcore audience by giving them a daily news briefing, you can just look at the growth in downloads. And so on.
Especially if your show is small, lack of granularity in your data might send you lurching off in different directions. Set a recurring appointment for yourself (or on behalf of other stakeholders) to do ongoing and then big-picture strategic reviews of your show’s analytics, and hold true to your original planning. While it’s helpful for you to know how to track analytics on your podcast beyond simply looking at how many downloads you get, it’s important not to obsess about your analytics.
It’s probably not a good idea to ignore them entirely unless you really are happy just to be making a passion project and getting it out there into the world, but podcast growth is often slow and organic, so you need to be able to take a long-term pragmatic view. Don’t react too quickly to what the numbers tell you; reflect on what your gut tells you too, and build a sustainable and rewarding show.