The Mystery (and Deception) 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)

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

Most podcasters do hava access to some form of data like downloads and location, but there are three things to keep in mind: 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. One problem lies in how podcast platforms and hosts work together.

What is the difference between podcast platforms and hosts?

Like websites, podcasts are stored on a podcast 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 server 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 Apple 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. It could be people downloading and not listening, and in many cases, fake listens.

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 honest, they may be taking the average downloads per episode to represent their subscriber base. Because some listeners aren’t subscribed, and only listen because of the topic or guest, this isn’t an accurate measure, but it’s the best option they have.

Other podcasters have a tendency to say their subscriber number is the total number of downloads over the duration of the podcast, but this isn’t accurate. Using this metric, if a podcaster produces 30,000 episodes and only their mother listens, that would be 30,000 “listeners.” Whether intentionally misleading or just ignorant, it’s highly deceptive.

Because I’ve helped numerous podcasters (many behind the scenes) I’ve witnessed how many “listeners” various podcasters claim to have. An alarming amount of them misrepresent their subscriber numbers—in fact, the minority are 100% honest.

Some podcasters go farther than lying about their numbers, however, choosing to cheat the numbers entirely. This is why even if an advertiser is given access to see their data, it’s still not an accurate measure of how many subscribers a podcast has.

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How to cheat podcast listener numbers.

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

Because servers only track downloads, there are easy ways to download over and over again. 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 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.

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. There’s no purpose for me doing this because I have no advertisers and don’t disclose my numbers, but consider how this can be abused, especially when ad revenue is on the line.

Anyone can easily set a “minimum listen” number for every episode by hiring a developer team. This is the 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 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. Curious if that affected play count, I logged in (I used to have a live iHeart Radio Show) confirming my suspicion. I could add unlimited listens to any podcast on this platform. (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. I’d 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. 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 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 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 in the past. As of writing this, some of his happy customers are sitting in the iTunes top 50. It might all be fake.

These reasons are why it’s so difficult to know how many subscribers a podcast has. It’s 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.

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 starting to make tools to determine how many subscribers a podcast has, but they’re a long way from ideal.

Apple specifically introduced a “Podcast Analytics” platform a while ago within its iTunes Connect platform. The analytics platform, although heading in the right direction, is 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 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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