Apple Podcast's "Bug" - friend or foe to the industry?
By Sammy Major
If you work in podcasting, I’m sure you would agree that June and July 2021 was an interesting period. I’m not talking about Himalaya’s podcasting start-up, iStudio Hype House and the $100 million reported raise turning out to be entirely made-up (though if you’re in the mood for a good read, check out The Verge’s expose on that here).
I’m talking about podcast downloads dropping off quite substantially, seemingly overnight.
It was a global, industry-wide conundrum. Had people stopped consuming as many podcasts because the world was starting to open up again? Well, that definitely wasn’t the case for us in Australia where Sydney had just entered its fourth lockdown with Melbourne and pretty much every State in Australia to soon follow with the Delta-variant sweeping the Nation.
It turns out, there was an auto-download bug in the iOS 14.6 operating system. Notoriously quiet, Apple actually released a statement about it;
“Listeners on iOS 14.6 may experience an issue that prevents automatic downloads for new episodes from completing in the background. Although listening is unaffected, this issue can reduce downloads reported by third-party hosting providers and will be resolved with a software update, which also includes enhancements to Library, in the coming weeks.”
Good on them for being open about it. Fantastic that the user experience was also unaffected. But if you’re commercially-minded (like yours truly), you’ll understand that for every episode that isn’t downloaded, an impression won’t be counted, which means… a big headache - potential under-delivery of campaigns and a marked loss to the bottom line, to be specific.
Given that Apple accounts for ~40% of all podcast downloads, you can start to understand why and how this was so impactful to the podcast industry globally.
James Cridland of Podnews estimated that the impact of this particular bug was a loss of about 11% of total downloads across the industry during that period. Individual publishers would have (and did) recorded much higher than this. We did.
Under-deliveries and loss in advertising revenue aside, this ‘conundrum’ actually exposes a significant flaw in the way podcast advertising is measured.
I get asked this question all the time - “how is an impression measured in podcasting?” It might seem simple, but it’s not. It all depends on how the listener consumes their podcasts. For the purpose of this opinion piece and because we’re in Australia, I’ll focus on our two biggest aggregators here, Apple and Spotify.
When a user goes to Spotify and presses play, the download request happens in real-time and the impression is counted. Perfect, this is measurement showing user intent.
When a user goes to Apple Podcasts and they press play on an episode, the impression is counted. Great, this is sounding familiar. But hold the front door! If a user goes to Apple podcasts and downloads the episode, the impression is counted. Wait… did they press play on that episode? Was my advertisement heard? We actually have no idea.
*Cue the ruffled brows and perplexed expressions.
How do auto-downloads play into this?
I can feel your brain working overtime so let me help, Rainman!
Apple auto-downloads are triggered when a listener follows a podcast in the app so they automatically download to a person’s phone when a new episode is available. A user can stop this by going into their settings to stop the default behaviour - ain’t nobody got time for that. Unless they do, Apple continues to download every episode from that podcast until;
The user hasn’t played an episode from the show in more than 15 days
The user hasn’t played one of the last five downloaded episodes
If a listener presses play on an auto-downloaded episode, neither the publisher nor the host has any idea that action happened because the download event showed up from the time the episode was released.
It becomes clear now, that the reported 11% drop from the Apple Podcast bug means that at least 11% of all downloads are automated that are not listened to.
Apple fixed the bug with the release of iOS 14.7 much to the delight of publishers, including ourselves here at Ranieri & Co. But, should they have?
Bryan Barletta of “Sounds Profitable” believes absolutely not, stating it is “damaging to the industry”.
Bryan explains, “If Apple chose to remove auto-downloads, they would single-handedly increase the legitimacy and accuracy of the only centrally agreed-upon metric in podcasting. It would be so monumental, that it wouldn’t be out of line at all to change the oft-abused and confusing term download to something less stigmatizing like Listener Initiated Play.”
Ooooft… despite my commercial-minded tendencies, I have to agree with him. From my perspective, integrity is key in any form of relationship and I want to know that what I’m selling and what is being paid for by our clients is what they are getting.
Bryan asks, “can we, as an industry, agree that auto-downloads should not be the default in any podcast app?”
From us here at Ranieri & Co, we resolutely agree.
Over to you, Apple.