The Corruption of Podcast Subscriber Data

If you’re a podcaster, advertiser, or curious listener, you may want to find out how many subscribers a podcast has. It sounds like such a simple question, right? Sadly, subscriber data is full of data-ignorance, white lies, deception, and even manipulation.

In the “big data” era, subscriber count should be easy to figure out, but you might be surprised to learn objective data is not available—it hasn’t been for years. This means we are all at the mercy of the podcaster’s honesty. (For now)

Let’s dig in!

Why can’t you tell how many subscribers a podcast has?

Most podcasters have access to some form of data like downloads and location. Three main problems corrupt this data though: a download might not be a listen, location data might not be accurate due to VPNs and ISPs, and the kicker, the downloads might be fake. It’s not an easy task to unpack how many subscribers a podcast has, or even if anyone listened at all. To provide a more clear picture, it helps to understand how podcasts make it to your device.

How are podcasts uploaded and sent to Apple, Google and Spotify, etc?

Like websites, podcasts are stored on a podcast host server like Libsyn, PodBean or Megaphone. The server generates an RSS feed, and podcasters submit that feed to platforms like Spotify, Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, iHeartRadio, Stitcher, Amazon Podcasts, and Pandora. When one of those platforms “requests” the file, the host server logs it as a listen. Some platforms do this automatically.

The act of “subscribing” is a user-side software feature that essentially tells your platform of choice, like Apple Podcasts, to download new episodes—this information isn’t available in the host data. While podcasters can view some information about their subscribers using various platform tools (more on that later) the data has problems.

How do podcasters know their subscriber number?

If the podcaster is honest, a podcaster knows their subscriber number by taking the average downloads per episode to represent their subscriber base. Because some listeners aren’t subscribed, this isn’t an accurate measure. Many people listen just for a single guest, but taking an average is the best way for podcasters to determine subscriber count. Podcast creators can also combine their numbers from various listening platforms’ back-end dashboards, but the truth is this: podcasters may be lying to you.

Many podcasters claim their subscriber number is the total number of downloads over the duration of the podcast. Using this metric, if a podcaster produces 30,000 episodes and only their mom listens, they will claim they have 30,000 “listeners.” Because I’ve helped numerous podcasters, I’ve witnessed how many “listeners” various podcasters claim to have. An alarming amount of them misrepresent their subscriber numbers.

Some podcasters go farther than fudging the numbers, choosing to manipulate the numbers directly. In these cases, even if an advertiser is given access to their data, it still may not be an accurate measure of how many subscribers a podcast has.

As a quick side note: If you want to know more about podcasting or SEO/PR tactics that get higher search ranking, you should sign up for my free newsletter. I’ll even throw in a free PDF guide on how to get more media coverage in just 10 days.


 

How to manipulate podcast listener numbers.

Manipulating and inflating podcasting numbers is surprisingly easy both from the server-side and through the actual listening platforms, like Apple and iHeart. From a server perspective, there are easy ways to download a track over and over again. It happened when I was building my own website.

Seeing a massive spike in listens, I first assumed a few guests had incredible networks or my podcast was mentioned in a large publication. Later I found out the real reason: As my dev team was testing my podcaster player API on my website, each “test” was logged as a listen. Consider how this can be abused.

A podcast creator can easily set a “minimum listen” number for every episode by entering a few lines of code on their website. It’s for this reason, analyzing how many subscribers a podcast has, even if an advertiser or partner has access to the data, might not be accurate.

At times exploiting simple page-load errors can also boost numbers. Using an embedded player function on iHeart Radio, I was able to boost a show’s listen count by 200 listens in one minute. No coding. No dev team. After hitting play on an embedded podcast player, accidentally refreshing the page at the same time, I watched the “play” button refresh rapidly. I checked the backend to see if this action resulted in listens and it did. (iHeart was made aware of this issue.)

Can You Buy Podcast Listens?

Podcast listener data can even be faked via the platforms themselves, like Apple Podcasts. Some brands hire foreign entities, many from Bangladesh, to inflate their numbers by mass-subscribing. It’s impossible (for now) to verify who uses this strategy, but my research indicates this absolutely works and happens.

In the same way “influencers” gain artificial engagement on Clubhouse, LinkedIn, Twitter, and Facebook, they manipulate podcast listens. Click-farms exist overseas for the sole purpose of inflating numbers. Pay one of these farms, and your numbers go through the roof.

I got a real look into this world when a person, who will go unnamed, contacted me on LinkedIn with an offer to “dramatically increase my listening numbers” offering to easily get my show in the Apple Podcast top 50 list. Obviously, no one can guarantee this, so I started asking questions, eventually recording a call with him where he claimed I could get 20,000 listeners for $300. And he had evidence.

He confirmed, with screenshots and other data, which podcasts he’s helped inflate in the past. As of writing this, some of his customers are sitting in the iTunes top 50. In the words of Buddy the Elf, they sit on a throne of lies!

This manipulation makes it difficult to know how many subscribers a podcast has, and is the reason I don’t share my own numbers. I want people listening or judging based on content, not count or comparison with other podcasts that may not even be truthful. (Plus, I don’t sell ads.)

Are podcast analytics tools accurate?

iTunes connect screen shot showing icons for: apps, artists, books, media, and podcasts connect.
iTunes Connect Portal

Platform providers like Apple and Google are making big strides to determine how many subscribers a podcast has, but they’re not ideal.

Apple specifically introduced a “Podcast Analytics” platform a while ago within its iTunes Connect platform, but it’s rough.

view of Apple's podcast analytics logo
Apple Podcast Analytics Are In Beta

In theory, the tool shows how many devices have listened, the duration, total time listened, and average time consumption per show.

Obviously, as stated above Apple is still struggling with fake overseas click-farms as well, so the data’s accuracy is in question.

Google’s new tool Google Podcast Manager seems to show signs of life as well. It doesn’t provide much more data than iTunes Connect, but it’s a good start. The platform provides plays, plays in the first 30 days, average time played, and a breakdown of device type like phone, tablet, smart speaker, etc. But it’s limited as well.

The Future of Podcast Rankings

Websites like Podtrac and Chartable claim to rank podcasts. Users can submit their data to Chartable, which is a good start, but they can’t determine what is a valid listen from a click-farm listen. If a user doesn’t submit their data to Chartable, they just scan the “top” sections, such as Apple’s top 50 and user-submitted data. As previously mentioned, these numbers are easy to manipulate as well. Hopefully, companies like Nielson will roll out products in the future.

The best advice for advertisers is to pay based on results and engagement, not based on audience size.

In the future, I hope podcasting data to be complete and unhackable, giving us a crystal clear view on how many subscribers a podcast has. But, that’s up to the platforms. As they look to monetize podcasts on their own platforms I have a hunch they aren’t going to be quick to provide this data. I hope I’m wrong.

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