In these abashed times, at least one thing is clear: Nearly everyone’s tracking you, always. But there is one area that has been abundantly off-limits to agenda data collectors for 20 years: podcast listening.

Traditionally, the podcast ecosystem has been tracking-resistant, in part because podcasters absolution their shows through RSS, free technology dating back to 1999. Podcast players, also known as , like Apple Podcasts and Castro then accumulated those episodes in easy-to-use apps. Adviser behavior is strewn across a deluge of apps, many of which don’t share data with anyone, including the podcast creators.

That’s all changing. Advertisers are projected to spend more than $800 actor on podcasts in 2020, and companies are devising ways to accommodate them with data that will actuate them to spend more. The most common approach accommodate using IP addresses to analyze users, adding tracking URLs to ads, and abandoning RSS in favor of proprietary platforms that already track their users.

The change has affronted ample debate, sometimes combative, within the podcasting industry.

In September 2019, Basecamp about dumped its podcast hosting service, Art19, after advertent that the aggregation was architecture the adequacy for alone ads. In December 2019, Libsyn, one of the major podcast hosting services, banned Podsights, one of the major podcast data companies, saying, “[W]e feel it is all-important to assure adviser privacy.” In February, podcasting giant PRX hosted a appointment on “emerging threats” to aloofness in order to animate more advantageous discussion. Then in August, one of the major podcast apps, Overcast, added a affection that lets users see which podcasts have enabled tracking.

“I see the storm clouds gathering,” said Michelle De Mooy, a aloofness adviser who spoke at PRX’s conference. “There’s a danger that this is a moment that can change away from privacy.”

Podcast alert habits, like browsing history, can potentially reveal a lot about someone’s interests. There are podcasts about mental illness, actuality abuse, sexuality, debt, and other acute topics. So what do your podcasts know about you?

Traditionally, podcasts couldn’t track much 

The main metric of success for most of podcasting history has been the one thing the RSS basement allows: how many times the file was downloaded. It’s like the early days of the web, when websites proudly displayed a “hit counter” that tracked the raw number of visits.

But the act of downloading a podcast still passes some data, and whoever hosts the file can log a download’s date and time, the podcatcher used, the IP abode (which also reveals rough location), and typically, the type of device.

Advertisers, meanwhile, have tended to target admirers based on a podcast’s accountable matter. If you’ve ever heard a host give out a promo code for admirers while account an ad, it’s because that’s basically how advertisers would track which podcasts were absolutely active customers. Ads were not alone because there was no data to personalize them with, and no way to match an ad to a specific user.

This could rapidly change if the podcasting industry were to ever shift away from RSS. And there are some signs of that happening.

Spotify has been signing absolute deals with megastars like Joe Rogan and Kim Kardashian West. Bloomberg appear that Apple is hiring an controlling to lead the charge on aboriginal and absolute podcasts, and Amazon has appear its first platform-exclusive podcast.

Needless to say, these exclusives will likely not be accessible via RSS.

“They are not podcasts. They’re audio shows,” said Andrew Kuklewicz, the chief technology administrator of PRX.

However, when the venture-capital-funded podcast arrangement Luminary appeared to be artful audio and rehosting it instead of using RSS, it triggered an exodus of podcasters. (Luminary antiseptic that it was not artful audio and was still using RSS, just rerouting cartage first.)

Meanwhile, as podcasts have grown and become more professional, the bartering industry around them has found ways to work around RSS’s limitations.

How are you being tracked now?

In 2014, the podcast “Serial” debuted, introducing the medium to boilerplate listeners. (As of September 2018, “Serial” had more than 340 actor downloads across its first two seasons.)

That same year, Acast, a podcasting aggregation based in Sweden, appear “dynamic ad insertion.” Previously, ads were “baked in” to a recording, but now podcasters could mark their files with ad breaks, enabling a hosting aggregation to switch in a altered ad based on the time or area the podcast was downloaded. It also paved the way for ads to be sold programmatically, based on a behest system that automatically matches buyers and sellers after the need for salespeople. Much of the announcement on the web, including Google Ads, is bought and sold this way. Programmatic buying requires customer data in order for advertisers to rapidly agreement with altered ways to target users and optimize ads for the best results.

“That’s apparently when I absolutely saw things start to change,” said Kuklewicz, the CTO of PRX. “Once you can absolutely dynamically inject ads, then that data that I’d be able to get from requests becomes actionable. And once that’s possible, then we start to look a lot like the rest of ad tech right now.”

Suddenly, companies on the hosting and ad tech side started to try to clasp as much data as accessible out of the bound alternation they had with listeners, using a couple of altered methods: They could add an extra web abode in the metadata of an ad, banishment a tiny download that allows the advertiser to annals the listener’s IP address, the podcatcher they used, and usually the type of device. They could also use “prefixes” or redirects that take the user on a brief detour to addition webpage so a third party can annals them, agnate to the way a URL abridgement account like works.

At this point, we’re still just talking about basic data. But advertisers want more diminutive data: Did addition listen to my ad on a podcast, and then visit my website or buy something? And what else can I learn about podcast listeners, so I can decide whom to target with my ads?

Some companies, like Podsights, now aggregate basic data, such as IP abode and device type, and amalgamate it with advice from third-party data accumulating companies.

Podsights co-founder Andy Pellett said the aggregation uses this data only to authorize “attribution”—that the same person who listened to an ad also visited a brand’s website, for example—and does not share any data that could be used to analyze listeners.

“Our goal here is to make tools that will let this medium grow in accepted and bring more people into the space and create better content,” he said.

Other companies at least acquaint the adeptness to do more diminutive targeting, though it’s not clear how many podcasts absolutely use such services. Megaphone says that its Megaphone Targeted Marketplace, which allows automatic buying and affairs of ads, allows advertisers to target users by “demographic and acquirement intent.” Megaphone did not acknowledge to a appeal for comment.

Your podcast player could know more about you

Podcatchers themselves have access to far more authentic data about users, such as the full list of podcasts a adviser subscribes to and how far they listen in any given episode. Some of the abate podcatchers, however, have emerged as bulwarks adjoin annihilation potentially invasive. When Russell Ivanovic, head of artefact for the podcatcher Pocket Casts, heard that some analytics companies had ample out a way to place accolade on users’ accessories when they downloaded a podcast, he anon disabled the adequacy in Pocket Casts.

“They might be doing innocent things with it, but we felt like that was like a bridge too far,” Ivanovic said. “That’s not article users are expecting.”

Companies like Spotify, Apple, Amazon, and Google, which all offer apps and accessories that play podcasts, are in the best position to aggregate user data. These companies already have “first party” data, calm through their other services, that they can amalgamate with someone’s podcast alert habits, as well as added insights from the device you’ve installed them on. Spotify knows if your phone is in your hand or in your pocket, for example.

Another way to aggregate more data would be if altered layers of the ecosystem agreed to work together. National Public Radio attempted this with a action called Remote Audio Data, or RAD, about instructions for how podcasters and advertisers could assuredly admeasurement if addition who downloaded a podcast absolutely listened to it, and for how long.
NPR publishes lots of podcasts and also has its own podcast player, the NPR One app, giving it access to more data about how people listen. This data was used to assure advertisers that their ads were absolutely accepting heard, and also to tweak show formats. The creators of the show “Pop Culture Happy Hour,” for example, noticed that their admirers were bottomward off in the middle of an episode. “The team was able to pivot and absolution episodes more frequently, but much beneath and more focused,” said Stacey Goers, senior artefact administrator for podcasts at NPR. “And it really gives users what they wanted.”

The ad server NPR uses, AdsWizz, also allows ads and belief to be swapped in and out of episodes. This enables NPR to agreement with its fund-raising campaigns as well as the agreeable of the show. The first half of “Consider This,” for instance, is the same for everyone, but the second half comes from a base in the listener’s local area.

The catch with RAD is that podcatchers also have to participate, and so far, they haven’t taken it up. “RAD has not seen a large amount of adoption,” Goers said.

Part of that is because app developers would rather spend their bound assets on appearance that would allure new users, she said, and part of it is because of the lack of centralization.

“Podcasting still doesn’t necessarily have a big administering body that’s putting its foot down and asking for it,” she said.

The changes are arguable — and it’s not clear how boundless they are

“Ultimately if podcasts are going to grow as a media type, as they emerge, the advertisers are going to crave the more diminutive level of tracking,” said Eric Picard, a adviser and former vice admiral of announcement artefact administration at Pandora.

But not anybody agrees that podcasting’s health relies on acquisition more data.

“That’s bullshit,” said Rob Walch, vice admiral of podcaster relations at Libsyn, a major hosting account that also sells ads for podcasters. “The podcasters that make the most money are the ones that are doing host-read ads that don’t do any of this. Joe Rogan makes more money podcasting with announcement than any of these people.”

At least for now, podcasting is still a fairly clandestine activity, in that it doesn’t aftermath much data on its own.

“That’s one of the things, to be honest, that’s bantam podcast growth initially,” said Brad Smith, CEO of Simplecast, a hosting and analytics company. “Advertisers want to go where the deepest, richest data lives. And by default, you’re not going to get data out of podcasting.”

Nothing has fundamentally changed, he said. “We gather the exact same advice about a alert affair today that we did five years ago.”

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