Podcasting Gets Played

I don’t know if it’s an expression that translates very well internationally, but here in the UK we are sometimes pushed to the point where we can only say: this boils my piss.

And yesterday, my piss was successfully boiled by this astonishing piece by Ashley Carman in Bloomberg (if you’re not a Bloomberg subscriber, you can also read the piece syndicated in Time). Carman’s reporting exposed the fact that podcast publishers have been gaming (literally) the stats by buying up auto-plays on mobile video games. We’re talking about those little ads that autoplay on free games and which you have to wait for a timer to tick down in order to skip through — those were generating, thanks to a specialist advertising agency called the Jun Group, an automated podcast download which would count towards listening totals.

This is a very strange form of marketing, where the purpose is not to generate new listeners (something that digital marketers are usually desperate to do) but simply to game the algorithms that govern podcast discoverability. If you can add a million plays to your podcast through this weird in-game mechanic, you are going to find yourself at the top of Apple and Spotify podcast charts. That’s a position that money can’t buy.

But there’s another thread to this. The biggest client of the Jun Group is said to IHeart which has, according to Carman, “shelled out more than $10 million and gained approximately 6 million unique listeners per month through these ads since 2018.” This looks fairly expensive, but according to James Cridland, editor of PodNews, this could simply be a way of printing money. He tweeted that: “Pay $5 CPM on these ads in games. Put a podcast in there, and sell two ads in the podcast for $25 CPM. Make $45 CPM profit, since the IABTechLab certified reports say you’ve delivered an entire download. *And* appear higher in the podcast rankers. Genius.”

If you’re getting dizzy, it’s worth reading this piece by Sounds Profitable’s Bryan Barletta to appreciate how gameable streamed podcasting is. The autoplay function in the game lasts for 20-seconds, but in that time far more than 60-seconds of the podcast is being downloaded, ensuring a IAB-certified download. The IAB (the Interactive Advertising Bureau) is responsible for trying, as best as possible, to quantify the reality of podcast listening habits, for the sake of advertisers. Here, they’ve been played.

So, who should be angry about this? Part of me accepts the realpolitik of the situation. IHeart and other monied organisations have taken advantage of a creative loophole; the Jun Group have creatively created this loophole. These are just companies acting in their own self-interest, and that’s basically the purpose of a company. It’s capitalism, baby. If you don’t like it, Ayn Rand will show you the door.

But, unfortunately, I think there are an awful lot of losers in this situation.

  1. You, you chump. You sweated over your podcast, felt enormous gratification at reaching a hundred and then, maybe, a thousand listeners. And you never got near the Apple Top 100 or got your podcast to a monetisable position. You should be angry.
  2. Advertisers. If things are as simple as Cridland points out above (and the process is almost definitely not that streamlined) advertisers have essentially been paying podcast publishers for the privilege of having total crap bits of audio snuck onto people’s devices. If I was an advertiser spending a lot of money on podcast advertising, I would see this story and immediately cut that tap off.
  3. People who rely on advertising revenue. Podcast advertising CPMs are terrible, and part of the reason for that is a mistrust of the data. The pricing, particularly, of mid-roll and end-roll ads is predicated on a, hard to justify, belief that podcast listeners get a considerable distance through the product before calling it quits. This story makes a mockery of that assumption: it laughs even in the face of pre-roll advertising, which has been a necessary evil for some time if you want to make your show pay. This is the sort of story that rocks the confidence of the market in podcast advertising, which is often held up as exemplar for product engagement and audience loyalty. The fact that listener figures and download figures are probably bullshit is the sort of story that drives down prices even further.

This is one of those stories that, for everyone, would’ve been easier had it been kept under wraps. But in the long run, it’s better that it’s been aired. Now, we need a series internal and external audit of our practises. There are undoubtedly more stories like this that haven’t reached the mainstream; more nefarious ways that publishers are manipulating data. The temptation to privilege self-interest over long-term sustainability should be fought. IHeart’s share price is currently at $7.96, down from its YTD high of $21.45: short sighted decision-making will likely cost them further.

But this should also be a wake-up call that the industry, as a whole, needs to get its house in order. We cannot rely on the advertising industry to blindly follow us down the rabbit hole. The average podcast exec understands tech better than the average advertising exec, but even the most dim-witted luddite can understand that this story is a bad look for podcasting. Podcasting, from publishers to distributors, needs to get a grip of its analytics. If the advertising industry loses faith in the IAB certification of 60 seconds as one (1) download (as they should) then we need to do better. We are living in a very anti-regulation climate, but, in this case, regulation will improve things. It will create trust and clarity. At present good quality listeners are undervalued by advertisers and crappy little fake plays are overvalued by advertisers. Better regulation will be a net negative to the crappy little fakers, but a net positive to the good quality listeners.

Data being this easily gameable is only beneficial in a totally broken industry. And there, it only benefits the seller of the adverts and the purchaser of the adverts — cut off the second one and you’ve corrected the problem. This problem isn’t endemic, but it does need to be addressed because, put simply, we cannot afford for more faith to be lost in podcast advertising.

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Nick Hilton

Nick Hilton


Writer. Podcast entrepreneur. London. Interested in technology and the media. Co-founder podotpods.com Email: nick@podotpods.com.