The Mystery (and Deception) of Podcast Subscriber Data

If you’re a podcaster or advertiser doing your due diligence, or maybe just a curious listener, you may want to find out how many subscribers a podcast has. But you can’t. Sorry. The data sucks, and because of this, it’s easy for many podcasters to lie or worse—manipulate the numbers.

In the “big data” era subscriber count should be easy to figure out, but as long as I’ve been podcasting there isn’t one. For almost 4 years this data has simply not been available. Anyone who asks how many subscribers a podcast has is completely at the mercy of the podcaster’s honesty… for now.

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

For years the only data available to podcasters has been the number of total listens and the origination city. Even that data isn’t accurate though, because it truly only tracks if an episode was downloaded, and due to VPNs and ISPs the location isn’t accurate either. To unpack how many subscribers a podcast has or even if someone actually listened at all, we need better data from the actual hosts.

Like websites, podcasts are stored on a host server. Podcasters submit their 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—you can’t even be sure they listened from your server data.

“Subscribing” is a user-side software feature that essentially tells your platform of choice, like Google Podcasts, to download new episodes automatically.

How does my favorite podcast know their subscriber number?

“But Justin, my favorite podcast seems to know how many subscribers they have—where are they getting that number?” Good question.

They may be taking the average amount of listeners per episode and assuming that number represents their subscriber base. Because some listeners aren’t subscribed and only listen because of the topic or guest this isn’t accurate however.

Podcasters also present numbers that are partially truthful, communicating their subscriber number as the total number of listeners over the duration of the podcast. Whether intentionally misleading people or just plain ignorant, this is highly deceptive.

Using this metric, if I upload 30,000 episodes and only my mother listens, I can claim I have 30,000 listeners. But 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 data and heard how many “listeners” they claim to have. An alarming amount misrepresent their subscriber numbers—it happens far more often than you think.

Some podcasters however, go even farther than simply fudging the numbers. Some, actually cheat the numbers entirely. That way, even if you’re given a backdoor to their data it’s still not a good way to determine how many subscribers a podcast has.

How to cheat podcast listener numbers

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

Servers track downloads and that’s it. Therefore there are fairly easy ways to download an episode 10 times and have them 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 there was some kind of public event that discussed the podcast. Later I found out the real reason. As my dev team tested the API on my website, each “test” was logged as a listen. This is still a problem.

Even today I or even you can use the API on my web player on my podcast page to artificially spike numbers. If I refresh a page 5 times, hit play 5 times, I get 5 listens. 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 parter has access to the data, might not be accurate. 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 another major platform, I was able to boost a show’s listen count by 200 listens in 1 minute. No coding. No dev team.

After hitting play on an embedded podcast player and 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 almost unlimited listens to any podcast on this platform. (The platform is aware of this issue and I can’t confirm if it has been fixed.)

Podcast listener data can even be faked via the platforms themselves, like iTunes. In the following thread, some claim brands hire foreign entities to inflate their numbers by mass-subscribing. I can’t verify who uses this strategy, but it does work.

Just like artificial engagement on LinkedIn, Twitter, etc. clickfarms exist overseas for the sole purpose of inflating numbers artificially. 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.

He confirmed, with screen shots and other data which podcasts he’s helped inflate. Some of those podcasts, as of writing this, are still in the iTunes top 50. And it’s all fake.

You can’t really know how many subscribers a podcast has, and 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.

Hopefully, real data is around the corner.

Podcast platforms are adding new 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 clickfarms as well.

Google’s new tool Google Podcast Manager seems to show signs of life, but for now, it doesn’t provide much more data than iTunes Connect. 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 as well.

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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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