It's not just the TV industry that's having fits trying to find the best way to measure its disparate audience. With the resurgence of podcasts, audio content creators are turning up the volume on sound measurement, too.
"Even though podcast fever is rampant, there's no real discipline or consistency around how we measure success," Tom Hjelm, evp and chief digital officer at WNYC, told Adweek.
So, WNYC and other public radio broadcasters including NPR, WBEZ, Southern California Public Radio and KPBS have come up with a set of measurement guidelines that were a year in the making. In addition to defining the difference between "podcasts" and "on-demand audio," the guidelines attempt to address all the different ways bad technology—including bots, sampling and podcast apps—can artificially enhance the apparent number of listeners.
Outside of measuring ad impressions—which only helps podcasts that use dynamic ad insertion—the only quantifiable numbers podcasters can take to potential sponsors are downloads.
"It's different for other podcast companies that are baking in their ads," said Margaret Hunt, svp and chief revenue officer at WNYC. "They really do need to lean on those numbers of downloads. This download number kind of tells you, in the magnitude, how big are these podcasts. How big is Serial compared to Radiolab, really?"
The chief reason for unreliable measurement data is the flawed technology that measures downloads. And with the success of Serial in its first season leading to increased interest from advertisers, that measurement conundrum is holding the industry back.
When a smartphone loses service while downloading a podcast and then re-downloads, for instance, it's measured as two separate downloads.
"Those repeated calls are not signs of a human being engaged but a sign of faulty technology," said Hjelm. "It's an attempt to put a more human face on it."
Hunt is hopeful larger podcast companies such as Midroll or Panoply, Slate's podcast network, will adopt the guidelines.
"There's nothing that's only for public radio about this," she said, noting it could help clear up some confusion among brands deciding which podcasts to be part of.
"It's hard for [clients] to be able to calibrate how big are our podcasts compared to a Midroll or Panoply podcast, because the numbers they have been tracking are not the same," Hunt said.
For public radio companies like WNYC, however, the need for better measurement isn't solely about advertising. Individual memberships are a key source of revenue.
"Ultimately, we're in the engagement business," Hjelm said. "We have now a playbook and a standard measurement. It's a first step, but it's a very big step."