For years now, I’ve been disappointing Pacific Content clients.
The disappointment usually sets in after a client asks the simple question, “How many subscribers does our podcast have?”
This is a very reasonable question. It’s especially reasonable coming from brand marketers. If your brand has a YouTube channel, you know how many subscribers you have. If your brand has Twitter, TikTok, Instagram, LinkedIn, or other social accounts, you know how many followers you have. If your brand has an email newsletter, you know how many subscribers you have.
Every client who asks me for a subscriber count expects to hear a number — hopefully a big, brag-worthy number — in response.
But for years, my disappointing reply to clients wasn’t a big, brag-worthy number. Instead, it was some variation of, “I know you want one big subscriber number. But that’s not really a thing in podcasting. At least it’s not really a thing in the same way your YouTube subscribers or Twitter followers or newsletter subscribers are a thing.”
Sometimes this response would prompt more questions, and we’d go on to discuss the esoteric reasons why there’s no single unified podcast “subscriber” or “follower” count in podcasting. Sometimes I’d point them to this 2019 blog post where I lamented our industry’s lack of unified subscriber or follower counts.
(Sidebar: I’m not even going to wade into the semantic quagmire that is the word “subscribe” and how it used to mean one thing in Apple Podcasts but now it means something else, and how — depending on the app you’re using — “subscribe” and “follow” are usually synonyms… except for when they’re not.)
Usually, I steer clients away from “subscribers” and “followers” as a reach metric, and towards downloads and listeners. Why? Because downloads and listeners have broadly accepted technical definitions, whereas subscribers and followers don’t.
I can’t think of a single conversation about podcast subscribers or followers in recent memory where everyone felt like they got a clear, simple answer to a clear, simple question. And that’s no fun.
But now, out of this cloud of confusion and frustration, a glimmer of hope…
Apple Podcasts follower counts (finally)
From the Analytics tab, creators will be able to view followers per show and easily measure followers across shows. Once selecting a show, they can quickly view the number of New Followers netted over the last week, month, 60 days, and all time.
This. This was the missing piece.
When Apple starts offering podcast creators a follower count next month, they’ll join the ranks of Spotify, Google Podcasts, Castbox, Podcast Addict, and Overcast in offering this type of metric.
That means, for the very first time, every podcast listening app that accounts for more than 1% of downloads and offers a follow/subscribe feature will offer some type of total follower of subscriber count.
Borrowing Buzzsprout’s list of podcast apps by share of downloads in February 2022, we have:
- Apple Podcasts (35.7%) — follower count available through Apple Podcasts Connect
- Spotify (27.9%) — follower count available through Spotify for Podcasters
- Web Browser (2.8%) — N/A, no follow/subscribe feature
- Google Podcasts (2.5%) — subscriber count available through Google Podcasts Manager
- Buzzsprout Embed Player (1.7%) — N/A, no follow/subscribe feature
- CastBox (1.7%) — subscriber count available through the public website (example)
- Podcast Addict (1.4%) — subscriber count available through the public website (example)
- Overcast (1.2%) — subscriber count reported to creators via HTTP User-Agent string (details)
Several smaller apps offer publicly-available subscriber or follower counts, too. Podbean (0.6%), Player FM (0.2%), The Podcast App (0.1%), Podcast Republic (0.1%), and TuneIn (0.1%) all offer this, and Rephonic’s handy subscribers and followers tool can display these public numbers in a single interface.
It’s not 100% coverage, but with Apple Podcasts in play, it finally feels possible to use these disparate sources of data to cobble together a reasonable estimate of the number of people (or users, or accounts) that have opted in to your show.
Apple + Spotify + Google + everyone else
I’m very excited that Apple plans to offer follower counts, and I’m looking forward to seeing how we can use this new metric to help measure the success of our clients’ shows.
Of course, simply adding up all your subscriber and follower counts together isn’t without challenges. For example, there’s the issue of audience duplication, and accounting for people who follow the same show on multiple podcast apps. Simple arithmetic won’t get us unduplicated reach.
Plus, it’s frustrating to have to check several different dashboards and public websites to tally up your show’s follower and subscriber counts. Tools like Rephonic’s subscribers and followers in every app can help, but it can only pull publicly-available counts, not publisher-only metrics that exist in Apple Podcasts Connect, Spotify for Podcasters, or Google Podcasts Manager.
When it comes to subscriber and follower counts, I wish more podcast apps acted like Marco Arment’s Overcast, which lists a subscriber count in the User-Agent string of its centralized crawler:
Overcast/1.0 Podcast Sync (123 subscribers; feed-id=456789; +http://overcast.fm/
Apple, Spotify, Google, and many other podcast apps use centralized crawlers and report subscriber or follower counts to creators in their own siloed dashboard. I’m not holding my breath, but I’d be delighted to see more podcast apps do the same as Overcast. That way, podcast hosting companies could start including meaningful platform-supplied subscriber numbers in their own dashboards.
Jerod Santo wished for the same thing back in 2018, and a small handful of podcast apps rose to the challenge. But neither of the double-digit market share podcast apps are on the list.
A boy can dream.
Follower ≠ listener
Finally, it’s worth taking a moment to think about what we mean when we use the word “follower” or “subscriber.” According to Spotify for Podcasters, a follower count:
Measures the number of Spotify users who clicked follow on a podcast in your catalog.
I can’t find platform-supplied definitions of “follower” or “subscriber” from Apple or Google, but I presume their metrics are roughly equivalent to Spotify’s: the total number of unique users who chose to hit the “follow” or “subscribe” button.
Words matter. It’s important to avoid the trap of conflating “follower” and “listener.”
I can subscribe to your YouTube channel, never watch one of your videos, yet still count as a “subscriber.” Similarly, I can follow you on Twitter, never see any of your tweets, and still count as a follower. Or I can subscribe to your email newsletter, never open a single message from you, and still count as a subscriber.
Followers and subscribers are a useful way to gauge the overall number of people who have opted in to hear from you and your podcast. But they’re not the same as download numbers, listeners numbers, or average time spent listening. As always, use the right yardstick.
- Follower metrics are coming to Apple Podcasts Connect in April 2022.
- Follower and subscriber metrics are a useful way to gauge the overall number of people who have opted in to your podcast but aren’t the same as downloads or listeners
- Aggregating subscriber and follower counts is possible but comes with duplication challenges
- Aggregated subscriber and follower counts may help put podcasting measurement more in line with online video and social measurement