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Why "How many downloads is good?" is the Wrong Question to Ask
and why going beyond the default is key to your success
Take a look at any online discussion around podcasting, whether that’s social media, blog comments, forums like Reddit, etc, and one question that tends to pop up pretty regularly is this:
How many downloads is a good number?
It’s usually accompanied by the poster sharing how many downloads they’ve had in their first week or month of launching, and it’s a question around how they compare to the industry average.
This tends to happen for a couple of reasons:
They’ve heard from some online “guru” that they need to get X amount of downloads so they can monetize right away, other why even bother podcasting
They see a report that shows how many downloads you need to be in the top percentage of podcasters
The problem with this is two-fold: usually the “guru” is someone that’s selling their course on how to podcast, so they push some soundbite about downloads, thousands, money, etc, without actually knowing anything about the podcaster’s niche. Or, the reports that are being shared are specific to podcast hosting companies, and the shows on their platform, as opposed to an overall industry report.
Either way, they’re usually not relevant to the podcaster, who only sees downloads as the metric that’s important to them and their show.
And it’s this thinking that stops your growth as a podcaster, because now you’re chasing some shiny object that you may never attain and you get disheartened, even though you’re actually doing really good.
My colleague, and co-founder of podcast platform Captivate, Mark Asquith sums this up perfectly in his latest Podvent Calendar video, where he’s sharing solid podcast growth tips through the month of December.
As Mark shares in his video, chasing downloads can have other side effects, including making up numbers to try attract sponsors, which can only hurt you in the long run.
So, if not downloads, what should you be looking at when it comes to the important numbers around your podcast? Well, there are a few things that you can start doing better right now.
Unique Listeners, and Listener Drop-off/Consumption Percentage
One of the main problems with looking at downloads only is they don’t tell the whole story. Since downloads can be automated, either via auto-download on podcast apps or by bots/scripts, 10,000 downloads doesn’t mean 10,000 people (or thereabouts) listened to your podcast/episode.
Additionally, podcast platforms like Apple Podcasts and Spotify offer reports on Plays and Starts respectively, which counts “any play duration over 0 seconds”. Do you want to count anything that could be less than a second long? After all, based on the Interactive Advertising Bureau (IAB) v2 Guidelines - the industry standard for measurement - downloads are only counted if a listener presses play on an app or web player and listens for at least 60 seconds, or enough data has been downloaded to a device to enable at least 60 seconds of playback afterwards.
This is why downloads, while a useful starting metric, are just a very small piece of the analytics pie, since too many reporting sources aren’t IAB Certified.
To get a better sense of how well your podcast is doing, you want to take a look at the listener and retention data around it, since this shows how engaged your audience is, which in turn tells you how likely they are to act on any call to action you offer them (a sponsor offer, an ad, a promo, etc).
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Much like advertisers on other mediums (TV, print, radio, etc) are looking for listener/viewer numbers, this is what more podcasters need to do. Or, more specifically, unique listeners, which is defined as “a listener from the same IP address and the same device within the presented timeframe.”
Simply put, this data point reflects actual listens, and can show how loyal a listener is to your podcast, since you can have multiple listens from one single download:
someone starts listening at home (IP number 1)
they pause, jump in the car to go to the gym, and resume listening (IP number 2)
they pause in the gym car park, get out, go to the gym, change, and resume listening (IP number 3)
they stop working out, get cleaned up, and jump back in the car to go to the grocery store (IP number 4)
In that example above, one download has resulted in four listens, which gives a much more accurate reflection of your show’s ability to engage an audience.
Listener drop-off and consumption percentage
One of the really useful data points to look at is the listener drop-off and consumption percentage mix. Basically, this is telling you how listeners are interacting with your episodes, and how their interest is being maintained (or not).
From this kind of data, you can see where listeners are tending to drop off from your episode, and where there might be replayed sections as well as the overall consumption of your episode.
This is super useful if you want to see where interest is waning, so you can decide whether to change up the format (how long the episode runs for, where calls to action are placed, what kind of intro and outro you have, etc), or to place more focus on how you maintain listeners until the end (Easter eggs for loyal listeners, sneak peeks at coming soon, etc).
It’s changes like these that can help your podcast achieve that all-important stickiness factor which, again, is super attractive to sponsors and ad partners.
Highlighting the External Success of Your Podcast
It’s not just internal analytics that can show you how your podcast is growing - there are other metrics to consider, depending on what your marketing plan is for growth and measuring success. This is particularly important if one of your goals is to work with sponsors and ad partners, and use your podcast as a revenue generator.
If that’s the case, look at how your podcast is driving growth of these platforms, and vice versa - after all, you’re not stuck on using your podcast as your sole success stat, it can also be used as the success driver for these external sources too, with everything tying back to what success looks like for you and your podcast.
Tracking effective promotional channels
A lot of podcasters fail to track their podcast’s success effectively, because they’re only looking at their downloads as opposed to all the data that’s creating these downloads (and, by association, listens). This is most noticeable when it comes to tracking how the marketing around your podcast and its episodes is doing.
And I get it - we’ve all done it, where we create an episode, share once on social media, maybe a newsletter, and that’s as much as we do, after which we go back to the studio and record the next episode to carry on the publishing process. But that’s missing a huge opportunity to track, measure, optimize, and succeed.
Once more, here’s my colleague Mark with the very reason why you need to be tracking what’s working and what’s not.
And it’s super easy to do, whether you use Captivate’s Attribution Links feature, like Mark and I do (since we both work there, it’s a given we’d host there and use these features), a third-party option like bit.ly or Pretty Links, or even campaign tracking links from Google. By creating trackable links, you can begin to measure the success of your different goals:
Sponsor links for measurement
Short links to specific episodes
Memorable links to lead magnets, newsletters or donation links
Quick recall affiliate links
Now you can see how many clicks each link gets, and the action taken once clicked, which gives you invaluable data around your audience and their behaviour. Speaking of which…
The attraction of your audience
Probably one of the biggest myths proferred by many of the “gurus” referenced at the start of this piece is that you can only monetize when you have thousands upon thousands of downloads per episode. While this is true if you’re still only looking to make money through ads based on the amount of impressions you get (also known as CPM), this is an old-school way of thinking, and severely limits any podcaster who’s not reaching that “magical” figure of 5-6 figure downloads per episodes.
Instead, look at the attractiveness of your podcast and your audience when it comes to monetizing, and how successful it looks for potential sponsors and partners.
As an example, I use this newsletter as a complementary piece to the Pod Chat podcast (although it can act as a standalone, too). Building on the topics discussed by my guests on the show, I can then follow up with an article, or video overview, of a piece of tech, or trend, or conversation point that was made in an episode. This then expands the episode in question, while also acting as a referral point for these people and companies/platforms.
Now, because I use Captivate’s attribution links, I can tie that back to the analytics that Substack provides and gather an overall picture of how successful the combination of newsletter and episode is at driving interest in something I, or my guest, is talking about. This is great information for me to offer potential sponsors and partners
how many clicks did my call to action get on my podcast versus how many listeners there were
how many clicks did the text version get in my article/newsletter versus how many opens there were
how does that compare to the industry average
what does that mean for anyone partnering with me, either on my podcast or this newsletter
Combine that with the demographic data of your audience, and you can see that you’ve built a complete dataset around your listeners and what works, what doesn’t, where they see value in you, and what you need to do to make your podcast more attractive for them, which increases the stickiness of your show, which increases its attraction for partners, which increases its growth and success.
These are just some ideas for you to start messing with - from there, you can get into deeper dives around platforms, operating systems, web traffic into podcast traffic, and much more. But hopefully they give you an idea of what kind of data you want to be looking at, beyond the “get 10,000 downloads or your suck!” mindset that’s trying to be fostered onto you.
Until next time, happy podcasting!