The Mystery (and Deception) of Podcast Subscriber Data

If you’re a podcaster, advertiser, or a curious listener, you may want to find out how many subscribers a podcast has. It sounds like such a simple question, but 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 great objective data has simply not been available for years. This means we are all at the mercy of the podcaster’s honesty. (For now)

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

Data available to podcasters shows only if an episode was downloaded, not listened to—that data can be manipulated easily. The data also includes the city of origin, but due to VPNs and ISPs, location data isn’t trustworthy either. To unpack how many subscribers a podcast has or even if someone listened at all, the industry needs better data from podcast platforms and hosts.

Podcast platforms and hosts

Like websites, podcasts are stored on a host server. That server generates a feed address for podcasters, who then submit it to platforms like Spotify, Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, iHeartRadio, Stitcher, Amazon Podcasts, and Pandora. When one of those platforms “requests” the file, the host logs it as a listen. That’s it. (See the problem yet?)

The act of “subscribing” is a user-side software feature that essentially tells your platform of choice, like Google Podcasts, to download new episodes automatically. Hosts like Libsyn, SoundCloud, and others have no idea if you have subscribed.

So, how does your host know this information? In short, they don’t.

How does my favorite podcast know their subscriber number?

I can hear your objection, “but Justin, my favorite podcast seems to know how many subscribers they have—where are they getting that number?” Good question.

If they’re being honest, they may be taking the average amount of downloads per episode, assuming the number represents their subscriber base. Because some listeners aren’t subscribed, and only listen because of the topic or guest, this isn’t an accurate measure of a podcaster’s subscriber base.

Podcasters also have a tendency to say their subscriber number is the total number of listeners over the duration of the podcast. Using this metric, if I upload 30,000 episodes and only my mother listens, I would claim I have 30,000 listeners. Whether intentionally misleading people or just plain ignorant, this is highly deceptive.

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Because I’ve helped numerous podcasters (many behind the scenes) I’ve seen their data and heard how many “listeners” they claim to have. An alarming amount of them misrepresent their subscriber numbers—it happens far more often than you think.

Some podcasters go farther than lying about their numbers and cheat the numbers entirely. If an advertiser is given a login to their data, it’s still not an accurate measure of how many subscribers a podcast has.

How to cheat podcast listener numbers.

Cheating the numbers is surprisingly easy both from the server-side and through the actual listening platforms, like iTunes and iHeart as well.

Because servers track downloads only, there are easy ways to download an episode 10 times and have it count as 10 listens. I learned this lesson completely by accident.

It happened when I was building my own website, but I didn’t figure it out until months later. Seeing a massive spike in listens, I first assumed a few guests had incredible networks or my podcast was mentioned in a large forum. Later I found out the real reason: As my dev team tested the API on my website, each “test” was logged as a listen.

Even today, the API on my podcast page can artificially spike my numbers. If I refresh a page 5 times, hit play 5 times, I get 5 listens. I don’t do this obviously, because I’d be fooling no one but myself, but consider how this could be abused.

Anyone could easily set a “minimum listen” number for every episode by hiring a developer team. Finding out how many subscribers a podcast has, even if an advertiser or partner has access to the data, might not be accurate.

I’m not going to call the platform or show out, but using an embedded player function on another major platform, 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. Curious if that affected play count, I got access to the platform, confirming my suspicion. I could add unlimited listens to any podcast on this platform. (The platform is aware of this issue but I can’t confirm if it has been fixed.)

Can You Buy Podcast Listens?

Podcast listener data can even be faked via the platforms themselves, like Apple Podcasts. I heard rumors of this obviously, but not until seeing the following thread initiated by Sam Parr, did I begin to look into it.

In his thread on how to start a podcast, some folks claimed brands hire foreign entities to inflate their numbers by mass-subscribing. I can’t verify who uses this strategy, but my research indicates this absolutely works and happens.

The same way folks get artificial engagement on LinkedIn, Twitter and Facebook, they get 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 in the iTunes 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.

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Why people don’t subscribe to podcasts »

He confirmed, with screenshots and other data which podcasts he’s helped inflate. As of writing this some of his “clients” are still in the iTunes top 50. It’s all fake.

This is why it’s difficult to know how many subscribers a podcast has, and a major reason I don’t publish my numbers. I want people listening or judging based on content, not count or comparison with other podcasts that may not even be truthful.

Podcast platforms’ analytics tools

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

Platform providers like Apple and Google are starting to make tools to determine how many subscribers a podcast has. I’m assuming this is tricky, due to privacy laws, but I hope it grows.

Apple specifically introduced a while ago a “Podcast Analytics” platform within its iTunes Connect platform. The analytics platform, although heading the right direction, has been in Beta for months and it’s rough.

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

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

Obviously, as stated above iTunes 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 break down of device type like phone, tablet, smart speaker, etc. But it’s limited as well.

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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