You Can’t Get Good Podcast Subscriber Data. That Sucks.

If you are a podcaster or advertiser doing your due diligence, you may want to find out how many subscribers a podcast has. But you can’t. Sorry. The data sucks, and this makes it easy for many podcasters to lie about it, or worse—manipulate the numbers.

In the “big data” era this seems like a question with an easy answer, but as long as I’ve been podcasting there isn’t one. For almost 4 years this data has simply not been available. This means, advertisers or even guests who inquire about how many subscribers a podcast has, probably won’t get an accurate answer, at least for now.

Can you tell how many subscribers a podcast has? Nope.

For years the only data available to podcasters has been the number of total listens and the origination city. Obviously, the location might not even be accurate due to ISPs and VPNs. But even the available listener data has holes, because it only shows if an episode was downloaded. It’s not a great metric to unpack how many subscribers a podcast has or even if someone actually listened at all. Sounds confusing, right?

Like websites, podcasts are stored on a host server, and podcasters submit that feed to platforms like Spotify, Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, iHeartRadio, Stitcher, Pandora, and others. When one of those platforms “requests” the file, your server logs it as a listen. That’s it. This means you can’t even be sure they listened to it from the server view. “Subscribing” is a user-side software feature that essentially tells your platform of choice, like Google Podcasts, to download new episodes automatically.

But my favorite podcast knows their subscriber number!

You’re probably asking, “but Justin, my favorite podcast seems to know how many subscribers they have—where are they getting that number?” They may be taking the average amount of listeners per episode and assuming that number represents their subscriber base. Obviously, some listeners aren’t subscribed and only listen because of the topic or guest. Some hosts simply lie.

Many podcasters just take the total “listens” number over the duration of the podcast and tell their audience that is their subscriber number. Whether intentionally misleading people, or just ignorant of the data, this is flat out wrong and highly deceptive. Using this metric, if I upload 30,000 episodes and only my mother listens, I can claim I have 30,000 listeners. Do people actually lie like this? You bet they do.

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Because I’ve helped numerous podcasters (many behind the scenes) I’ve seen their dashboards and heard how many “listeners” they claim to have. An alarming amount claim their total listener numbers as their total subscriber base—it happens far more often than you think. This is why it’s almost impossible to know how many subscribers a podcast has. Even if a podcaster does give you the backdoor to their data, however, it can easily be cheated.

How to cheat podcast listener numbers

Cheating and inflating your podcast numbers is shockingly easy, at least from the server-side. Because servers are mostly just tracking downloads, if the same person downloads an episode 10 times, that counts as 10 listens.

In the following thread, some even claim brands hire foreign entities to inflate their numbers by mass-subscribing. I can’t verify this obviously, but it’s not difficult. I’ve actually inflated my own numbers completely by accident. Before you grab your pitchfork, let me explain.

My own accidental inflation of podcast numbers happened when I was building out my new website. As my dev team was testing the API for my podcasting tool, each “test” was logged as a listen. I didn’t even catch it until months after the website was completed and I couldn’t account for the random spike for a guest. I just assumed the guest that joined me had a massive network.

After I figured it out, I was curious if it still logged every refresh as a new download. Sure enough. It did. I refreshed a page 5 times, hit play 5 times, and got 5 listens. I can still do this today using the API on my web player. Consider how this could be abused.

I’d need to do only tell my dev team to create a simple script and I could set a “minimum listen” number for every episode. Even if I provided the login for an advertiser to see all my data, they wouldn’t be able to tell. Finding out how many subscribers a podcast has, even with the access might not even tell you accurate data. And it’s not limited to just my host, show, or API.

I’ve seen this on other platforms too. I’m not going to call the platform or show out, but using an embedded player function on this other major platform, I was able to boost show’s listen count by 200 listens in 1 minute. No coding. No dev team.

I noticed it completely by accident. I hit play on an embedded podcast player, but accidentally refreshed the page seconds after I hit play. I watched the “play” button blink and refresh rapidly. Curious if that affected play count, I logged in the platform and checked confirming my suspicion. And it was repeatable. I could add almost unlimited listens to any podcast on this platform. (I did tell the platform owners that day, although I have no idea if they ever fixed it.)

Because you can’t really know how many subscribers a podcast has, this is one 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.

But there is hope on the horizon… maybe.

Podcast platforms are adding new analytics tools

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

Thankfully platforms like Apple and Google Podcasts are starting to make good efforts to determine how many subscribers a podcast has. I’m assuming this is tricky, due to privacy laws, but they are making an effort and I hope it grows.

Apple Podcast Analytics

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

The tool, in theory, will offer how many devices have listened, duration, total time listened, and average consumption per show. That’s some great data, but in my own tests it’s not that accurate, and in some cases seems completely unaware I’ve uploaded a new episode.

Google Podcast Manager

I have high hopes for Google’s new tool Google Podcast Manager offering a back end look at Google Podcasts, but for now, it doesn’t provide much more data. It 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. For the time being accurately determining how many subscribers a podcast has is still partially a trust game, and partially a guessing game.

In the future, I fully expect 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 and 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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