Audience Engagement Digital Publishing Top Stories
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Publishers: We need to talk about podcast listener numbers

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If there’s one topic which makes podcasters awkward, it’s listener numbers. We all assume everyone else probably has more listens than us, and jealously guard the actual number as if they were the nuclear codes.

I’m here to tell you most podcasts probably get fewer listens than you think. That’s not a bad thing. But unless we begin to be more open about what to expect when launching a show, we’ll start to see publishers come under pressure to inflate numbers in order to keep up with unrealistic BS figures.

Do you know what the average number of listens for a podcast is in the first week of release?


Twenty nine listens. Buzzsprout – one of the most well-known podcast hosting companies –  has a handy global stats page which provides benchmarking data across their 114,000+ podcasts. A fair chunk of these podcasts will, of course, be from people in their bedrooms putting a few episodes out with their mates and only getting a listen from their mum.

For publishers, the expectations are rightly higher. But how much higher? As the podcasting gold rush continues, are we in danger of skewing numbers to try and keep up?

Inflated expectations

The whole way we think about podcast listeners needs a reset. We’ve become so obsessed by big numbers in publishing, from video to website visits to social ‘engagement’. Some of the audience stats touted by publishers in recent years have been, frankly, utter bollocks. 

“Need numbers? Buy followers and email subscribers so you can boast about them in press releases,” The Rebooting’s Brian Morrissey wrote earlier this year. “Back in 2018, Vice claimed an audience of 288 million. Brit + Co still claims an audience of 175 million people. By the way, if you want high time on site, bots behave more reliably than humans. 

“As Max Read memorably wrote in 2018, much of  the internet is fake. Underpinning all of this is the fuel of digital media: the expectation to show hockey-stick growth. But publishing doesn’t work like that. Building sustainable brands, built on trust and habit, takes a long time.”

This ‘fake it until you make it’ attitude is starting to creep into podcasting. Just this week, Bloomberg revealed that podcast companies are buying short podcast plays within mobile game apps, causing ‘official’ downloads of shows to be registered. That’s 6 million BS listens right there.

“The audio industry has been marked by a frenzy of investments,” Bloomberg’s Ashley Carman said, explaining the incentives. “ To make back the money as fast as possible, companies will be relying, in part, on growing the reach of their podcasts in order to bring in more advertising revenue.”

I’m all for podcast growth, and exposing new listeners to podcasts. But if this industry doesn’t grow sustainably and ethically, we’ll be repeating so many of the mistakes of digital media that we should have learned from by now.

If advertisers start expecting massive numbers as standard, it will harm publishers and podcasters with genuine audiences. Inflated metrics may give your team a warm fuzzy glow in the short term. But it’s the real listeners who will buy actual stuff from advertisers, and deliver on ROI for them. 

That’s not to say paid promotion is bad. As part of a marketing strategy, it can be a good way to get a podcast in front of potential listeners. But forcing people to sit through a podcast extract and counting it as an episode download is fraud, pure and simple.

Small but mighty

Podcasts are high-engagement media. They aren’t like articles or posts on Instagram which can be skimmed by tens or hundreds of thousands of people. As hard as Spotify and Apple are working on making podcast discovery easier, not many listeners are sitting flicking through podcasts trying them out – which is partly why so many feature celebrities. More often than not, growth comes either by recommendations from friends, or having an existing relationship with a brand.

This can make it tough when talking to advertisers. Expectations (see above) are often over-inflated, and podcast listeners are severely under-valued. 

Let’s break it down with some back-of-the-envelope maths. You have 10,000 website visitors who spend an average of a minute each on the site. That’s 10,000 minutes spent with your brand. Not bad. Let’s say you then launch a half-hour podcast which ‘only’ gets 1,000 listens. Those 1,000 people are spending 30 minutes of their day each with your brand. That’s 30,000 minutes. Advertisers should be biting your hand off to get in that podcast.

For B2B publishers, this should ring even more true. Speaking on a panel about podcasts earlier this year, DC Thomson’s former Head of Podcasts Chris Phin divulged that their B2B brand Energy Voice Out Loud is expected to do six figures of revenue this financial year, with an average download of 260-something. This is mainly through branded content and making native series with brands like Natwest and EY, rather than ads.

“Traditionally podcasts… are monetised through dynamic ad insertion which is charged on a CPM basis – but the money’s pants,” Phin said. “Unless you’re at this half a million download number you’re never going to get good revenue out of that.”

This is the case for us at Media Voices as well. We have 5-6,000 listeners a month at the moment. But we can charge mid four figures for a sponsored Conversations episode because they’re the right people (I mean, we’re not the kind of podcast you’d listen to if you weren’t a hardcore media nerd…!)

There is a lot of education to be done, especially with sales teams and advertisers. Focusing on value and time spent rather than the top-level number can feel like making excuses. This is where we all need to be more open.

What is a ‘good’ listener number?

Okay okay, you’ve got this far and you still want to know what a ‘good’ number of listeners for a podcast is. This is definitely a ‘how long is a piece of string’ question, but here is some general guidance for publishers. 

Omny have just this week published some benchmarking data across all their podcasts which compares categories like news, comedy and sports, which may be helpful to some publishers.  

Similar to BuzzSprout, they reckon that if you get more than 87 listens in the first 30 days, you’re in the top 50% of their podcasts. Their top 1% are far higher at 50,000 listens but their Omny’s data measures the first 30 days, Buzzsprout the first 7 days.

Are you feeling better yet?

One way to initially benchmark your own podcast is as a proportion of website traffic, although this can also vary depending on how reliant you are on passing search traffic. 

As an example, a publisher has 50,000 visits a month to its website. Around 30-50% of them on average will be returning readers who are familiar with the brand.  10-15% are superfans – people who visit daily or a few times a week and will be subscribed to other products like newsletters. These people are the target audience for a podcast. This publisher could expect their listenership to be in the mid four figures after a good marketing campaign to make readers aware of the podcast.

This also helps differentiate between the different types of podcast. B2B sites tend to have smaller traffic numbers but a more targeted audience – a publication about heating and water systems will find plumbers and builders more valuable than a news website, which will have all sorts of people reading it. The New Statesman podcast in March was getting around 500,000 downloads a month, which editor Anoosh Chakelian said was “big for a political podcast”.

Benchmark podcast listener numbers alongside events

Perhaps in terms of your product mix, it’s more helpful to think of podcasts along the same lines as events. They’re an opportunity for your superfans to come together around a topic or passion. Both can be used as marketing tools for subscriptions or as general exposure to the brand, and are also useful for putting a face to the talented editors and writers behind the words. Events and podcasts are both powerful tools to deepen engagement and build a real relationship with audiences.

This helps also benchmark numbers: publishers like WIRED who use events to attracts tens of thousands of people to its brand should probably be looking at targeting similar numbers for their podcasts. However, a B2B publisher who would consider having 200 industry professionals at an event a great success should also set their listening expectations around that mark.

On that note, if you’re feeling a little discouraged by low listener numbers, imagine what a room full of those people would look like.

My top takeaway from all this? Let’s not let podcast listener numbers get to the same levels of BS that so much else in digital media has. Recognising the value of a few hundred or a few thousand listeners and the time they’re choosing to spend with us will set us all up for a more sustainable future.

Republished with kind permission of Media Voices, a weekly look at all the news and views from across the media world.