· 6 min read
Spotify has yet again taken a bite out of the podcast pie.
In February, Spotify bought two attribution and analytics companies—Podsights and Chartable—the latest in a series of acquisitions that have made it a dominant player in podcasting.
First came the content: In recent years, Spotify has inked exclusive deals with Michelle Obama, Joe Rogan, and Call Her Daddy host Alex Cooper, as well as bought properties like The Ringer and Gimlet Media, giving it more premium content to sell ads into.
Then came the ad tech: Megaphone was absorbed by Spotify in November 2020, followed by Whooshkaa, giving it tools to sell more targeted ads at greater scale.
Spotify’s latest acquisitions will help the company further demonstrate to advertisers that their campaigns are not only reaching listeners’ ears, but also driving them to take action.
“We’ve consistently heard from our advertisers that measurement is one of the top pain points to scaling their audio campaigns,” Khurrum Malik, Spotify’s global head of advertising business marketing, told Marketing Brew over email.
Podsights and Chartable are among the most prominent companies offering measurement solutions. Spotify could potentially do the same on its own, but “it’s kind of a heavy lift that takes time,” said Robert Freeland, founder and CTO of Podtrac, a podcast analytics company that’s been tackling measurement since 2005. So Spotify went the acquisition route.
As is the case with other aspects of podcast advertising, like its programmatic ecosystem, the tech that powers ad tracking and attribution works differently for podcasts than other digital mediums. Below, we break down how companies like Podsights and Chartable accomplish these tasks.
Really simple syndication gets complicated
To understand how podcast ads are measured, you have to first understand a bit about the inner workings of the RSS feed.
RSS, which stands for “really simple syndication,” is fundamental to podcasting. It essentially organizes the episodes of a podcast in a feed and updates it automatically, explained Grant Durando, a director at marketing firm Right Side Up.
“[RSS] is the thing that makes podcasting beautiful,” said Mike Kadin, founder and CEO of podcast hosting and monetization platform RedCircle. “It’s the thing that enables broad distribution. It's the thing that makes it possible for different podcasting companies to exist and compete with each other. It’s the thing that makes it so that no one app or directory completely controls the ecosystem like YouTube does,” because RSS feeds can be easily plugged into hosting platforms, allowing creators to publish wherever they choose.
But the RSS feed is also a fairly dated form of technology that distributes content in a one-way street to the listener, with no easy way to send information back to a podcast publisher or advertiser, Durando explained.
“We’re so used to, in the modern advertising infrastructure, two-way streets, where you’re constantly passing information back and forth,” he told Marketing Brew. “With podcasts, media goes out to people, and that’s it. You cannot go back. So how do we solve that problem?”
For a while, the answer was direct response campaigns tracked through promo codes and vanity URLs. That type of advertising was “the backbone of the podcast industry,” according to Durando. It’s still fairly common, but for some advertisers, it’s “too much guessing,” Kadin said.
That’s where Podtrac, followed by other analytics companies like Podsights and Chartable, comes into play.
Podsights leans more into advertising, while Chartable is more focused on listenership metrics for publishers.
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Chartable has historically offered ad measurement through its SmartAds product, but has come to be known as more of a purely analytics company than an ad attribution company. SmartAds will be deprecated over the course of the year, and clients will be given the opportunity to transition to Podsights, according to Malik.
Podtrac’s Freeland claims his company created “the first redirect measurement system” in podcasting—the same solution that Podsights, Chartable, and other companies went on to replicate, according to Freeland.
“The idea was that when someone goes to download or play a podcast episode, the request first comes to our server, and then we respond with an HTTP redirect,” Freeland said.
The redirect is accomplished using a prefix URL, the RSS feed’s answer to the pixel, which indicates that an episode has been downloaded by sending the download request through the analytics company’s server so it can log it.
That information is valuable for podcast publishers, as well as advertisers doing sponsored episodes or running campaigns baked directly into podcast episodes.
But prefixes aren’t so helpful when it comes to dynamically inserted ads, according to Bryan Barletta, founder of podcast-ad-tech publication Sounds Profitable, who previously worked at podcast ad companies including Megaphone and Barometric.
To track dynamically inserted ads, Podsights and Chartable rely on ad-delivery URLs as opposed to prefixes. These URLs are associated with individual ads as opposed to whole episodes, Barletta explained.
If an ad is inserted halfway through an episode, for instance, the hosting platform would fire the ad delivery URL to the analytics company at the halfway mark of the episode to indicate that this particular ad has been delivered to a device.
Companies like Podsights have also separately created attribution systems that enable advertisers to track actions across platforms, Freeland said. If someone goes to a website to make a purchase after hearing a podcast ad, for instance, the advertiser would know.
That capability was likely particularly attractive to Spotify as well, Freeland theorized.
Podsights co-founder and CEO Sean Creeley explained this in a Spotify Advertising blog post: Before a campaign starts, advertisers place the “Podsights pixel” on their website, he said. Then, Megaphone adds the “Podsights impression tag” to each ad served, allowing Podsights to attribute a website visit to a podcast ad exposure.
Podsights and Chartable aren’t the only companies that offer these services, but, according to Barletta, they are currently the only companies that offer publicly available prefixes, ad delivery URLs, and attribution systems for both publishers and advertisers.
Other ad analytics companies are working on building similar solutions internally. Claritas, for instance, can track dynamically inserted ads, and is “actively working on” an RSS prefix, VP of sales Omer Jilani told Marketing Brew via email.
Now that Spotify has both Podsights and Chartable under its umbrella, it can offer more enhanced ad measurement on sponsored episodes, baked-in ad reads, and dynamically inserted campaigns. But taking those capabilities in-house could mean that the third-party data provided by these two companies will now become Spotify’s first-party data—raising concerns in the industry.
Keep an eye on Marketing Brew for part two of this story.