What’s the difference between podcast listens and podcast downloads?

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Marketing and content teams have a problem: We use different terms for the same thing. An editor can be somebody who works on the written word OR somebody who moves video clips around to create a movie. A budget could be about financials or a rundown that includes today’s stories to be published. Podcast downloads or listens easily fit here as well.

People ask:

”How many downloads does that podcast have?”

The literal guy I am, I’m tempted to say: “Well, I don’t know.” None of the podcast platforms I currently use even list podcast downloads. They all just list number of listeners.

”Well, we need to know downloads.”

But do they really mean listeners?  How many listeners are there? At the end of the day, I believe that is often the intent, even when people insist they want downloads. Maybe the boss is demanding downloads because they also don’t know the difference. And maybe there is no difference? Well, technically speaking, there’s slight difference, but it’s hardly worth writing 1,000 words about. 🙂

On an episode of the Business Storytelling Podcast, Podcast Advertising Expert Heather Osgood used the terms and I asked her:

”What’s the difference between a podcast listen and a download.”

”Nothing,” she replied and we moved onto the next topic. In that episode, we talked about when you should consider running ads on your podcasts, how those ads should appear and other related chit chat.

At the end of the day, she expects that podcasts have 5,000 downloads or listens per episode before advertisers consider them. Of course, that’s why numbers matter. If we can’t even explain the difference to our potential business partners, try to get them to spend money with you. Good luck!

Even if you aren’t selling ads and your podcast is a lead generation tool, it’s hard to explain the numbers when the boss is stuck on one term over another.

What is technically a podcast download?

Technically speaking a podcast download happens when the app you use for your podcasts – Apple, Spotify, Breaker, Google, etc. – saves (aka downloads) the podcast episode to your device. In Apple Podcast that seems to happen automatically when I open the app and new episodes appear.

Technically speaking, just because my app automatically downloaded a podcast for me, doesn’t mean I listened to it OR even saw it. In Apple Podcasts, episodes that have not yet been downloaded have that download symbol on the right.

Podcast that has not been downloaded

Once they start downloading it looks like this:

Downloading podcast episode

[Tweet “You can have 10,000 episode downloads and 100 listeners.”]

A download number technically is not that useful.

What is a podcast listen then?

A podcast listen or a listener so to speak gets counted when they click on the episode and it actually starts playing. It doesn’t have to play very long to count, but the download doesn’t even get registered in my Anchor dashboard. Once somebody plays the show, it registers as a listen listed by specific platform.

What counts as a podcast listen?

I shared excitedly that my podcast, which is available on a bunch of channels, has had more than 100 podcast listens! Yay! And it keeps going up! Now there’ve been over 2,000 and the numbers keep climbing. I share those metrics, because I know how frustrating it can be for content marketers when numbers climb slowly.

Seeing the increasing podcast listens and numbers in general rocks, but what actually counts as podcast listens? How long do they actually have to stay with the show? Let’s find out.

I of course subscribe to my own show on Apple Podcasts – formerly known iTunes – and listen to many podcasts on a daily basis. I love how I can skim, listen and move on or stick with a show based on how much I like it.

[Tweet “Some podcasts have too much chit chat and should just get to the point, says @ctrappe”]

Anyway, when my own podcast shows up in my queue, I clicked on it. Some of that was by mistake, I already know what’s being said! 🙂 I also wanted to hear how it sounded.

I use Anchor to record, add music and upload my show!


This is a podcast listen…

The moment I started playing the show, it counted as a podcast listen. I tested that. I clicked and left and the Anchor app ticked the number of listens up.

So 5 accidental 1-second listens are still 5 podcast listens. I wouldn’t say those are very engaged or interested listeners, but they count.

On websites, I would often use that metric as a sign to investigate further whether or not those views were bots. 1,000 views at 0:00 seconds are more than likely bots. One-second podcast listens may not be bots but also won’t help us grow an engaged audience.

[Tweet “1-second podcast listeners didn’t hear much of what I said. Ugh, says @ctrappe”]

But any way, that’s how this is measured. Now we know!

One might argue that it’s more important to get people to your podcast than to keep them there if it’s just about the numbers.

How to grow podcast listens from repeat listeners

That’s technically true if you are just after quick win, but it won’t help us stay top of mind and it doesn’t necessarily get us subscribers. One way is to make subscribing super easy:

1 – Throw up a popup or prominent signup box

Yes, popup works. Make it easy for people to be notified of the next show. You might also try the strategy of putting a signup box right on top of the podcast player, like I did here to tremendously grow my email list. At the end of the day, though, most people will listen to the show on podcast channels and not your website. This certainly works only on the website embed.

2 – Allow subscriptions on all channels

At the end of the day, who cares where people listen, as long as they listen. Plus, we are likely not going to dictate user behavior anyway. With that, I love what interiors + sources did on their podcasts:

drive podcast listens through subscriptions

3 – Get to the point and be fun and engaging

If people really drop after 1 second you probably don’t have much of a chance, but if they stay around for 10-20, why waste that time with long music or unrelated chit chat? Do something to draw them in and keep them drawn in.

4 – Give a quick summary

I heard this on this grammar podcast. She right away gives a quick overview so you know what’s coming. Easy to decide if you care – even before house keeping and sponsor messages.

5 – Repurpose content

[Tweet “Throw your content a parade on many channels.”]

I use my podcast content on a number of other channels:

  • For blog post quotes and added articles
  • On social media as quotes and tidbits
  • For book chapters
  • I learn a lot from my guests and end up quoting them in other shows and speeches
  • Etc.

This article is an example of that model. I used pieces of the podcast from Heather here, added some additional content I already had and added some new thoughts. Then this article – with podcast embeds included gets shared as well on my social media channels and my newsletter.

6 – Text to subscribe

On air mention a text-to-subscribe option. You can now text new subscribers that a new episode is live.

Related: Using texting in your marketing strategy, including for podcast subscriptions

[Tweet “A podcast download does not guarantee a podcast listen.”]

The metrics dilemma

There you have it: Short podcast listens count as listens for now. At some point it will likely evolve, like most things do in digital content and analysis.

Get people to click play, and your numbers are going up. Get them to subscribe and you have a chance to maintain it.

Heather mentioned that on the podcast episode too: Metrics have a ways to go. For now, we can’t even tell if a mid-roll ad was played and how many times. Sure, we can send out surveys, but are people reporting their response correctly?

One problem is that there are so many different podcast platforms. My highest performing episode had listeners on at least 8 channels:

Podcast listens for one episode

People listened on:

  • Anchor
  • Apple
  • Other
  • Spotify
  • Stitcher
  • Google Podcasts
  • iTunes (Desktop)
  • Overcast

To get comprehensive stats all those networks would have to pass them along to one aggregator. Sounds difficult.

Podcast listens: At the end of the day…

Using different terminology for the same thing happens and it seems to occur more and more. Somebody ought to publish a marketing dictionary. For now, the easiest way might be to ask for clarification when somebody demands the number of podcast downloads.

”Are you trying to learn how many people listen?”


Then go from there. Or send them the link to this article to explain the difference and complexities of podcast reporting for now.

Also consider this: When people argue over minutiae it might not be about the number anyway. They may not even want to pursue the project and are using the debate as a obstructionist strategy to slow things to a halt.

Keep in mind that it will take some effort, work and probably promotional budget to get a podcast’s numbers up. Podcast downloads matter, but really we want people to listen and find the content useful.



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