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It’s true – big podcasting lies to us about podcast stats.

Actually, scrap that… podcasting overall lies to us about podcast stats!

In case you stumbled upon this by chance and have no knowledge of who I am or my experience in the podcasting industry – I go back a long time.

A picture of podcast marketing and podcast promotion expert Neal Veglio, founder of Podknows Podcasting

Since the very early 2000s before podcast hosting was a thing it used to be a very ‘manual’ business, this podcasting lark.

It was all about creating your own RSS feed, and keeping your fingers crossed while validating it yourself using third party tools, hoping you’d not got a line of code wrong. 

And given I’m not a coder and used to have to rely on much smarter people than myself to help me out via the power of nerdy blog posts….

My point is, things were much more basic back then. 

Podcast apps didn’t exist. Not even Apple Podcasts.

And iTunes didn’t start indexing podcasts until a couple of years later in 2005.

This meant the main places you could send your podcast to be heard were your own website and maybe the odd amateur podcasting directory here and there. And then, you had to rely on the listener being savvy enough to have figured out how to use the podcatcher software.

A podcaster downloading podcasts in 2005

I used to use iPodder, and then transfer content to my then very primitive mp3 player from eBay.

And my broadband wasn’t really up to the job, with top speeds of 512mb, even in my relatively affluent town of Finchley (which once ‘boasted’ Margaret Thatcher as its MP donchaknow).

It was slow, clunky and frustrating for even the most technically minded of people.

I remember once spending an hour putting together an instructions page on my then basic templated Moonfruit website (kinda like an even shittier Wix, for the benefit of younger readers) to tell people how they could download my episodes.

And there were far fewer podcasts to listen to. In the thousands not the hundreds of thousands that there are today. In fact, as recently as 2015, there were around 15% of the number of active podcasts that there are today.

And this is the interesting point we’ll be coming back to later in this article.

Let’s just say that the entire process was primitive in the early years. 

And so too were the analytics.

How podcast stats used to work

In 2004, we saw the emergence of third party hosting, This was great news because it meant that we could then skip the step of coding an RSS feed. This meant the barrier to entry for publishing was much reduced.

However, the barrier for listening was still high.

And therefore, the stats reflected that.

Apple were even more protective of their data than they are now.

There was little indication of listening numbers overall, let alone the geographic, retention and follower number data that we enjoy now.

This meant you had to take huge guesses over the source of your listeners, going by your Libsyn dashboard (the only hosting company that existed back then) and using the art of deduction.

Alan Turing would have made an excellent podcast consultant!

So, producing a weekly podcast was very much a guessing game, with little dopamine reward.

Because even if you knew who was listening, there weren’t many doing so, again due to the barrier of clunky content acquisition.

Even the biggest shows like Leo Laporte’s TWiT were getting hundreds of downloads per episode, not the hundreds of thousands he gets now.

Leo Laporte

This barrier to listening was only removed a year later when Steve Jobs decided to get fully behind this relatively new form of content that was being handed to him, for free on a plate.

And this is where the point of my article begins.

Sometimes, I kinda wish we were still there. 

With relatively non existent data, people were starting podcasts for very different reasons.

Because they had a purpose.

After all, that’s how everyone starts even now. But then the dopamine of the numbers starts to poke at them, and their inner Gollum begins to surface.

In 2006, with stats so basic, people were podcasting for fun, credibility and to hone communication skills.

In 2024, with stats so advanced (relatively) people are podcasting for profit, fake fame and delusions of grandeur.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with either of those sets of motivations. 

Indeed, my business is largely based around facilitating people being able to achieve profit with their podcasts. 

And pretty much all of them always have, because we’ve nailed down their offer and found them their ideal audience.

But with bigger and more attributable audience so too comes the corporate world. 

Much like its feline namesake with a piece of delicious fresh fish, the greedy ‘fat cat’ smells the cash from a million miles away.

And they understand that cash requires numbers.

Advertisers don’t buy into missions, purpose, effort and listening experience.

They buy into numbers, conversions and profit.

And when you’ve got companies with deep pockets who are ready to spend remaining marketing budget on newer, untested, ‘wild west’ inventory, you’re going to do your worst in trying to make that inventory more attractive to your customer.

And this is the problem.

With great power comes great corruption.

And so the opportunist podcast publishing agency was born.

The harsh reality of big podcasting's view of you

Quickly, it became aggressively acquisitive, snapping up every big podcaster there was, loading this previously entertaining content with ad after ad, all diluting the first two minutes of popular podcasts with irrelevant messaging and their own sonic logo. 

When the IAB (Interactive Advertising Bureau) was set up, it was (allegedly) an attempt to level the playing field for all stakeholders in the digital space, by having a centralised form of accurate reporting.

It set rules for what would constitute a saleable download, versus a mere ‘impression’.

This was mostly time and IP based, with a minimum threshold of 60 seconds set, and with a series of known ‘bot’ addressed added to blocklists.

In simple terms, unless they’d listened to you for at least one minute, and had ‘clicked in’ (not tuned in!) from a reputed source, it didn’t count. 

The system is largely outdated by today’s standards, given most people have become trained to just skip ads, but still, it’s the best thing we have right now.

So now you understand the history of the download stats and what the measurement model entails. 

So let’s get into why a large chunk of podcasting lies to us, and what their motivation for doing so, is.

The 'standard' for entry into 'podcast monetisation'

There is no IAB measurement standard for advertising agencies in terms of minimum investment. That’s at the discretion of the agencies running the inventory. However, the accepted norm seems to be anywhere between $15 and $40 depending on method of delivery; programmatic (dynamically inserted prerecorded ads) or host read (the podcaster reads the messaging themself).

Host read tend to be more costly since the advertiser’s buying into the ‘trust’ the host has built with his, her, or their audience. 

And the minimum level of audience a podcast needs to have to qualify for big podcasting spend is 5000 IAB measured downloads per episode. 

Within 30 days.

Now I don’t need to tell you if you’re a DIY podcaster reading this, that’s outside the reach of more than 90% of podcasters. 

Literally, going by IAB’s own measurement stats. 

Which, as of now, are only publicly available through the one company that shares them – Libsyn. 

Which, up until around one month ago, even I didn’t realise were the same sets of stats.

Here’s how they outline the playing field:

Here’s a list of number of required downloads per episode, within the first 30 days, and the corresponding global performance percent ranking that yield will earn you:

145 = 50%

500 = 30%

1200 = 20%

3200 = 10%

7500 = 5%

17000 = 2%

28000 = 1%

So as you can see, in order to qualify for most agencies’ minimum spend, you’re aiming to get inside the top 10% of most listened to podcasts around the world, by a convincing margin.

It’s little wonder so many people opt for blackhat methods to build their audiences. Except, what they don’t realise is that this creates a headache down the line when the agencies’ client makes a complaint about lack of results and their podcast is then audited for legitimacy.

That’s a world of criminal fraudulent pain you do NOT want getting in the way of your production process. It’s hard enough producing a podcast as it is, damnabbit!

Assuming you’re sensible, and you’re not ‘stat-hacking’ your way to that glorious 5000 DL per episode minimum, I have some good news.

And now the good news!

If you’ve skim read this article so far, time to slow down and park your eyeballs because I’m about to give you some good news that will change your entire thinking.

Firstly, an inconvenient truth that the likes of Acast and Libsyn Ads won’t like me sharing with you.

It’s in ‘big podcasting’s interest to give us these somewhat largely unobtainable numbers, because then, they have the pick of the cash.

If you think it’s impossible to compete, you won’t try.

And therefore, most of their competition – you – will resolve yourself to treating your podcast as pretty much a fun hobby or just a nice legacy piece. In truth, a pipe dream that is created almost with an air of ‘you never know’, rather than ‘I absolutely will’.

You’re not a threat, since they’re not trying to knock down the doors of the advertisers that they themselves have seemingly locked behind them, from the inside, and thrown away the keys.

They’re lying to you.

Not about the accepted numbers you need to be invited to play in ‘big podcasting’s game.

Those are true.

You will need 5000 minimum. 

Per episode. 

Within 30 days.

However, they’re lying to you about that being your only option for monetisation.

And, to the bigger point, about the power you hold with your audience.

The truth

I’m still at the early stages of number crunching the data, but since I became aware that official IAB global ranking stats, and Libsyn’s own global stats are the same thing, a lot of my understanding and perspective on this has shifted.

Also, it’s helped that since my former allegiance to Libsyn has waned in the wake of their new management’s leadership, I’ve removed my blinkers, become more curious, and uncovered a lot of truth around the data.

Previously, Libsyn was the biggest podcast hosting company with more than ten times the customer base of even the nearest competitor.

But in recent months, that gap has totally evaporated, and they’ve quickly become a midfield company at best.

But don’t take my word for it.

According to data from the podcast feed validator Livewire (independent stats verification platform) Libsyn’s customer base accounts for less than 5% of all podcast host data.

Unsurprisingly, Spotify’s own hosting platform leads with (as of writing) more than 27% share. I say unsurprisingly, since ‘Spotify for Podcasters’ is the new name for the Anchor free hosting platform.

Buzzsprout and Spreaker are practically neck and neck battling it out for that 2nd place spot.

Here are some interesting things this brings up.

Spotify for Podcasters is responsible for millions of dead shows that the IAB data (as shared by Libsyn) is still conveniently including (as per my point earlier in this article) and so we have to factor in yet another source of data, the Podcast Index.

For those that don’t know, this index is a curation of ALL feeds that have ever been submitted via RSS.

That number currently stands at 4.1 million. 

Of mostly long dead shows.

That the IAB still factors in.

In the same way that Listen Notes does when telling you how you’re a ‘top 1% podcast’ if you’ve put out more than a handful of episodes in the past 3 years.

The headline takeaway

Now the wider math is very complicated and pulls in from various different sources, and that’s why I’ve invested in some nerds to independently collate and verify the data for me.

I’m hoping to be able to more officially release this data in the next few months.

But the headline takeaway is this.

Your podcast does not need to be getting 28,000 downloads per episode in a 30 day period in order to be considered a top 1% podcast.

It certainly doesn’t need to be getting 17,000 downloads to be a top 2% podcast.

And if you’re hoping to be a top 10% podcast, I can get you there relatively easily.

Without having to put yourself in major debt with marketing costs.

And you can take this data to an advertiser (without the help of an agency) and start a dialogue around advertising opportunities,

Which big podcasting reallllllly doesn’t want you to do.

So, from my perspective, you absolutely should.

Because you deserve to be encouraged and incentivised for all the hard work you’re putting into sharing your knowledge, passion, and insights.

Much more than those people who are just stamping dollar signs on the arse of everything that has audio with more than 5000 ‘people’ clicking play on it.

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