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Podcast Numbers – Does Serial Tell Us Anything?

In a world where there are so many metrics available, there’s often a curious shortage of figures in some parts of the tech industry where you’d like there to be. Amazon won’t tell you how many Kindles its sold. Netflix won’t say how many episodes of House of Cards it has streamed. And so on.

So it’s interesting to read today that Apple has said that it has delivered over 5m downloads or streams of Serial so far. This is the fastest ever podcast to reach that number. But what does that really say?

Well so far there have been 8 episodes of Serial, so if everyone who used iTunes to listen to Serial, dutifully listened to each episode, that’d mean 625,000 downloads of each episode.

In reality, I suspect that the first episode has been delivered more than any other. Despite it being “the Breaking Bad of radio,” not everyone will get on with it and might drop out after a handful of episodes.

Here’s a possible breakdown of listening by episode based on nothing more than random guesswork taking that thesis into account:

One way or another, I expect the chart would look more like this than a fist line.

This does of course ignore the fact that once subscribed, you might not unsubscribe and just ignore podcasts piling up on your device. They still get credited as a download.

But unfortunately, in the scheme of things, we don’t really know what this all means. While Serial has been sitting at the top of the US and UK iTunes podcast chart for the last couple of months, that doesn’t really tell you anything.

iTunes tries to keep its podcast charts dynamic. If it didn’t, then the top performers would fill the slots repeatedly. So it’s never a question of just how many podcasts have been downloaded over a given time period, but they inject some secret sauce into their formula that almost certainly looks at the rate of growth of a particular podcast, and factor that in too.

And it’s important to note that not all podcasts are delivered via iTunes. You can stream many podcasts direct from the websites of those podcasts, and if you’re using a phone – particularly a non-iPhone – there are any number of podcast apps that you might use to download your listening. Stitcher is one popular one. I currently use Pocket Casts on Android for my own listening. But there are many others.

Depending on your own set-up, if you have your own podcast, you might be able to get your analytics software to determine where your audience is coming from. iTunes is almost certainly the biggest single delivery mechanism, but others are important too, even if cumulatively.

But how does your podcast compare with others out there? Well that’s where you run into difficulties. Certainly you can look at the iTunes podcast charts, but they’re flawed as I’ve mentioned.

Now however, you can look to see whether your last eight podcasts have delivered 5 million downloads or streams via iTunes. If they have then congratulations – your podcast is as big as Serial. Why haven’t I read about it in the weekend broadsheet press?

And if your last eight podcasts were delivered 50,000 times in total by iTunes, then congratulations – your podcasts is 1% the size Serial. We do at least have a comparator!

Payments and Data

When Tesco first introduced its Clubcard in 1995, it was to enable it to capture data on its customers. Most people who use loyalty cards realise this. In return for the retailer being able to tie specific sales to an individual, that individual earns some kind of loyalty points.

It seems to be a win/win. As long as I’m happy giving you my information, you give me discounts or money off. I’m likely to spend more of my money with you, you learn even more about me. And so the cycle continues.

Of course many people aren’t really aware of how their Clubcard data is uesd. Dunnhumby is a wholly owned subsidiary of Tesco (it started out helping them to launch the service), and they sell data based around purchasing to anyone interested – including retail manufacturers. I might be shipping hundreds of thousands of boxes of cornflakes to Tesco each week, but I don’t know who is actually buying them. I could do a survey, but Tesco has their names and addresses!

The curious thing about the introduction of loyalty cards like the Tesco Clubcard is that retailers didn’t already know this information. Given that the vast majority of purchases made in a supermarket are with either a debit or credit card, you would think that it would be easy to maintain a list of cards used, and even in the absence of other data, they’d know that the person with your card number bought a box of cornflakes once a fortnight.

Well it turns out that some of them do track your spending patterns by card number. From a Guardian article last year:

“Waitrose and Asda also admit analysing aggregated payment card data to monitor “customer shopping patterns” (for example, items purchased) over time. Both stress this is common practice in the retail industry and that card numbers are not connected to an individual or an address. Sainsbury’s and Tesco say they do not track or monitor their customers’ payment cards.”

It’s true that they don’t know precisely who you are unless you’ve somehow furnished them with that detail – hence they still love to sign you up for a loyalty card. But there is information in your purchasing patterns, and the power of promotions etc. Even your absence from stores can be noted.

Which all takes us to what’s happening in the US and why it’s interesting at the moment. Because Apple Pay is launching over there, and it’s not being universally accepted by retailers.

There are a few things happening, and they’re related to card merchant charges and information capture.

First off, the US system of payments really needs upgrading. They don’t widely use Chip and Pin or NFC contactless payment methods. It’s mostly swiping a magnetic strip and then paying next to no attention to the signature. Cards are routinely taken away by restaurants to swipe, whereas in Europe we’re told never to let our cards out of our sight.

New schemes like Apple Pay would seem to address some of these issues. But of course it’s not as simple as that. When retailers accept cards, they have to pay for the privilege. Exactly how much they pay depends on the agreements they’ve struck with a third-party who will carry out the transactions for them. A massive retailer with many branches will do a good deal and pay relatively little. A smaller independent retailer may have to pay more. That’s why they sometimes require a minimum spend for a card to be used. The fees differ between debit and credit cards, and it’s why American Express isn’t always accepted.

Muscling in to that market to generate revenues from transactions is good for a company like Apple – and bad for incumbents. There is the small matter than iPhone 6 users are only a small subset of the market, but then we live in a world where Visa and Mastercard seem to co-exist.

Apple is cutting out the card merchant companies, and we must assume that since they regularly sell 79p/99c tracks in iTunes, they’ve done a good deal to make those transactions of value. And because you’ll be tying a single card to your phone (initially anyway), all the card suppliers want to make sure it’s their card your phone defaults to – ideally a credit card because there are fees to be made on that. Apple says that it doesn’t keep your data. But that’s not the case for others…

In the meantime, a bunch of retailers in the US are “clubbing” together to launch CurrentC, and they definitely do want to keep and share the data. In the first instance, those stores won’t accept Apple Pay. They want you to tie your NFC device – probably your phone – to your bank account, a bit like PayPal prefers you do. Then everytime you spend, the money is withdrawn directly, rather than through some kind of Visa or Mastercard network. That cuts out the card charges the merchants charge. And CurrentC definitely want to see what you’re buying. Their coalition will be able to share data with one another and provide a “Clubcard” style environment. You’d imagine they’ll incentivize consumers to use CurrentC once they launch.

You’d imagine that there will be other companies waiting in the wings with their preferred systems.

Personally, I’m not wholly sold on using my phone to pay for things. Contactless cards seem better – “card clash” notwithstanding. And I certainly won’t be participating in any scheme that collects my data like that (nope, I don’t have a Clubcard, a Nectar card or a Waitrose card). Mind you, according to this piece from Rory Cellan Jones at the BBC, even using cash, you can be tracked nowadays…

When Are Casio, Timex or Rolex Making a Smartwatch?

Not a smartwatch

Another day, another over-excited consumer goods release. Most others use trade shows. Apple does its own thing. It works for them. Fine.

I can’t comment on the phone updates as I’ve not really seen anything that interesting or novel in any phone I’ve seen announced recently. Certainly nothing to make me think that my Nexus 5 is dated (it’s only a year old, so it shouldn’t be).

But watches are an interesting area, and so far, nobody seems to have done it right.

First of all, it needs to be acknowledged that most watches are worn as jewellery of some description. Otherwise everyone would be owning cheap and functional Casios. And jewellery is very much in the eye of the beholder.

Do I prefer digital numbers of analogue hands? The Swiss or Japanese movement of a well engineered piece of marvellousness? What kind of watch looks good on my wrist? For some, it’s a chunky diver’s watch; for others the slim minimalism of small ladies’ watch.

And all of these devices do one thing really well.

They tell the time.

We need to know the time because we live our lives by it. We start work, school or college at set times; have appointments to meet at set times; films to see at set times; matches to watch or play in at set times; TV shows to catch at set times (OK – we have PVRs and OTT too).

A personal timepiece isn’t just useful – it’s essential.

Now it’s true, I’m amazed at the dominance of the “slab” in phones. We used to have a phone market where some preferred the dinky minimalism of Motorola Razr, while others preferred the functionality of keyboard-touting Blackberry. Now most phones look the same – between 4 and 5 inches of flatness – and getting bigger. The last set of gloves I bought were size Large, so I can handle one of them. But a 5 inch screen can’t be right for everyone can it? We just have to “personalise” them by choosing different cases. All smartphones are basically the same.

In the world of watches though – a single device, or even two, isn’t enough.

Have you seen how many models Casio, Timex, Rolex, Omega et al offer? Hundreds! We’re not back in the Ford Model-T era when you could have any colour as long as it was black.

So there is no right answer as to which watch looks right to any individual. And it’d take a massive cultural shift to get us to all adopt a watch from just a small number of devices. It may have happened with phones, but I can’t see it with watches.

If I was Google or Apple, I’d be working with watch manufacturers – both high-end and mass-market – and getting them to embed the appropriate technology into their devices. Why on earth should a computer manufacturer be remotely good at producing jewelry? I don’t want an Apple or LG watch any more than I want Apple or LG trainers, or shirts, or jeans.

So here is what I want from a smartwatch:

– It has to be able to tell the time. At all times. Without me having to do anything to see the time.
– The date would be nice too.
– The battery needs to last at least a week, not “nearly a day”. My current Casio battery lasts about three years. That’s 26,000 hours – not just short of 24. The charging mechanism needs to be painless.
– If it has health applications like step counters and heart rate monitors, then they need to work when I’m actually exercising.
– Accelerometers and barometers are lovely.
– It must have decent battery life.
– Most of the watches I’ve seen so far seem to be doing the connectivity, and notifications, so that’s fine.
– It needs to be available in a wide range of styles. I mean really wide. Not just size A or B, with a choice of straps, but hundreds of models to suit me, my lifestyle and my personal choices.
– Did I mention the battery? That’s really important.

By the way, in case all this seems unduly negative, it shouldn’t be. I really do want a smartwatch. I think the functionality is very exciting. A watch is a convenient form factor to glance at for information. I’m not so convinced I need to interact greatly via a watch, but to read a text, get an email subject header or similar seems fine. And for monitoring health, fitness tracking and the like, a watch is essential.

But engineering the watch isn’t the hard part. Well, aside from battery life anyway.

It’s the design. And to be honest, I’d leave that to the professionals. I want to be able to walk up to a Swatch counter (no doubt in an airport), choose a watch and be offered either the iOS or Android Wear version. That should be that.

[An aside: I note that nobody expects Google or Apple to actually build consumer cars for their in-car entertainment systems Android Auto and CarPlay. You’re going to get them offered in Fords or Toyotas – ideally as an option like choosing alloy wheels or metallic paint. Even Google’s self-driving cars are retrofitted cars made by actual car manufacturers. Just because watches seem easy compared with cars, they’re not.]

Podcasting – What Next?

Tomorrow evening, there’s a Radio Academy event taking place in London looking at podcasting. As I’ve written previously, you always feel that podcasting is the perennial bridesmaid and never the bride in the digital media, and digital audio world.

I suppose I’ve been thinking a little more about it recently because one of my favourite podcasts has stopped production. The Guardian recently ceased its regular weekly Media Talk podcast, for reasons never quite specified. One can imagine that it was financial though, with the podcast taking some time, and perhaps more importantly some production money to make each week. And in return, they were probably seeing little direct financial benefit. Sadly it does sometimes feel that the only people who truly believe in podcast advertising over time have been Audbible, and latterly Squarespace. And those deals are almost certainly all direct response.

As my past piece said, there are some fundamental issues with making money from podcasting, and I can only think that these are partially the reason why the Guardian made its decision.

Media podcasts interlude

As for Media Talk? Well it’s reappeared in an entirely unrelated guise as The Media Podcast. But there’s a difference – Matt Hill who produces it, and previously produced the Guardian’s podcast, has decided that crowdfunding is the way forward. He’s duly launched a Kickstarter to make a year’s supply of programmes. That’s actually a pretty modest £9,000 that he’s trying to raise. Nobody is getting rich off the back of this, but it costs money to host audio and find studio space.

Anyway, at time of writing they’re at about a third of the money needed, with just sixteen days to go. So get over there and give it some love. While we all enjoy The Media Show on Radio 4, they’re much drier, and sometimes spend just a bit too much time on certain subjects (Yes – I’m talking about a replacement for the PCC. Honestly, thinking of news media as just the press is so outdated. Never mind what happens if The Sun prints something untrue, what about if Buzzfeed gets it wrong?). And obviously, the programme was certainly “inspired” by hearing the Guardian’s podcast.

Anyway, let’s have some choice. (And yes, I know there’s the Media Focus podcast too!)

What next?

Given the need for advertisers to have some kind of proof of delivery – regardless of whether or not those digital ads they are buying are actually delivered – and The Ad Contrarian is well worth a read on this – it does seem leave the idea of ad-supported podcasting in something of a flux, with its lack of proof-of-delivery. Indeed it’s sometimes a worry that a new release of iTunes might actually push podcasting down in their hieracrchy. For an example of this look how iTunes Radio has become “Radio”, while actual broadcast radio services became “Internet Radio”.

Assuming that it costs me to make a podcast, and ideally I’d like to at least cover my costs, employ talent and production people to make it properly, and invest in kit to deliver a decent audio quality, and pay for my hosting, even a modest means of making money would be great.

So what’s to be done?

Well I suspect that podcasting will never be completely mainstream, but it can be super-niche. And that doesn’t mean that those super-niche audiences shouldn’t be considered very valuable. They can be very valuable indeed. A year or two ago, I was producing a session for the Radio Festival and that session’s speaker was Google’s Matt Britten, VP for Northern and Central Europe. It turned out that he listened to Media Talk – a valuable listener indeed.

And it was interesting to hear Emily Bell in the final edition of the Guardian’s podcast suggest that there’s been something of a resurgence in the form in the US. Incidently, the much suggested Slate Money podcast with Felix Salmon is an excellent addition to my listening. Slate is obviously ad-funded, but they also have a listener subscription scheme to remove the ads and for some of their podcasts, add additional segments.

Slate’s subscriptions are voluntary, but another option is that taken by Velocast, a cycling podcast I’ve listened to in the past. They offer a selection of cycling podcasts based on a monthly fee. It seems to be a successful plan, although I must admit that I currently only hear the free daily news edition they put out.

Rumour has it that Apple is trying to help boost its podcast section of iTunes. They could provide some generic information about how much people actually listen to the podcasts, and other metrics that they almost certainly have from their iOS device usage stats. While that would only be part of the overall podcast audience – ignoring usage on other operating systems such as Android, and usage in apps outside of iTunes (e.g. Stitcher) – it would still be very indicative, and might help podcasters monetise their productions.

So is the future for podcasting bright or not?

I don’t know.

Looking beyond the regular ad-supported model does feel to be the way to go right now. And perhaps in a world where every part of the internet is trying to support itself with advertising, that’s right.

Overall, I’m modestly upbeat.