Podcast Subscribers: These are not the statistics you’re looking for.

Why the number of subscribers to your podcast doesn’t matter and what you should be tracking instead.


When we revamped the podcast statistics on Buzzsprout last year the most common request was to include the number of podcast subscribers.

Whether you’ve been podcasting for years or are just starting out, you’re going to want to know how many people are listening to your show. And rightly so. The reasons we podcast are varied, but the common thread is that we all want our episodes listened to by as many people as possible. So it makes sense that the litmus test for success with many podcasters is the number of subscribers.

Alas, this is not a number worth tracking.


What are subscribers?

Number of subscribers is a bit of a relic left over from the early days of blogging. Years ago FeedBurner was the killer app for anyone pushing content through an RSS feed. They did (and still do for some) a great job of providing bloggers with an approximate measure of the number of individuals currently subscribed to their feed.

In 2005 FeedBurner added support for podcasting. This gave podcasters an easy way to create an RSS feed and provided them with those same basic subscriber stats. Problem is those stats were designed for bloggers, not podcasters.


How does FeedBurner calculate subscribers?

FeedBurner’s subscriber count is based on an approximation of how many times your feed has been requested in a 24-hour period. Subscribers is inferred from an analysis of the many different feed readers and aggregators that retrieve this feed daily. Subscribers is not computed for browsers and bots that access your feed.
Subscriber counts are calculated by matching IP address and feed reader combinations, then using our detailed understanding of the multitude of readers, aggregators, and bots on the market to make additional inferences.
Source: FeedBurner Support Documentation

For Bloggers this approach makes a lot of sense. Feedreaders download a RSS feed that contains content for the end user. The content is typically cached locally so repeated viewing of the content does not result in multiple server calls. Some publishers include the full content in the feed while others only provide a preview, requiring readers click through to their sites for the full article. In either scenario the number of people who load that feed and download the content is a valuable number for bloggers.

Podcasting however is fundamentally different.


How do podcast feeds work?

The markup for a podcast feed is similar to a standard content feed except podcast feeds always include an <enclosure> tag. This is where the media file is referenced and it’s what makes a podcast feed different.

Loading a podcast feed in a standard (non-podcast enabled) feedreader will result in a list of podcast episode titles, descriptions, dates, and other meta information associated with the podcast’s episodes. But it will not allow the playing or downloading the media file — this being the main goal.

Podcast enabled feedreaders (or podcatchers) on the other hand, are designed to look for these <enclosure> tags and offer the end user options to play or download the linked media. iTunes and Stitcher are examples of apps with podcatcher functionality.


Why are subscribers irrelevant for podcasts?

The number of podcast episode plays resulting from direct RSS links is diminishing steadily. The rise of the social web is allowing podcast episodes to be discovered and consumed in a variety of ways. Facebook, Twitter, website embedding, mobile, and direct linking to podcast websites are helping podcasts spread further then ever. None of these outlets utilize RSS and trying to measure reach based on feed requests results in a partial picture at best. More realistically what you’ll see is a terribly inaccurate and depressingly low subscriber number leading you to question your true calling as an Internet Podcast Celebrity.

Beyond that, let’s not forget what the feed contains. Podcast feeds contain the podcast’s name, description, meta data and a list of episodes. Each episode has some meta data and a link to an associated media file. The number of people who download this text file is of little value. What matters is how many people actually download that linked media file.


What stats should podcasters be tracking?

Track the stats that will help you produce a better show. Here are some questions all podcasters should be asking and a good stats package should be answering.

How many people have listened to each episode?
For podcasters the number of unique downloads (or plays) you get for each episodes is THE number to watch. This is hands down the best way to determine the reach of your podcast and depending on who’s providing your stats, it can be extremely accurate.

How are people listening?
Are the plays coming from iTunes, Facebook, an embedded player, your mobile app, or somewhere else? How many people are listening on a mobile device vs. a desktop/laptop computer. This helps you understand which promotional efforts are performing best and provides insight into how your content is being consumed.

Where are my listeners from geographically?
Knowing where your audience is from helps you understand how your reach is expanding throughout a city, state, country or globally. This knowledge helps you craft your content to match your (hopefully) growing audience.

What are my listeners saying about my podcast?
This is the easiest to track and one of the most frequently overlooked. Log in to the podcast directories and check the comments and ratings. Setup blog comments for episode posts, create an email address for your show and encourage your listeners to connect with you.

Bonus Round: How many listeners does my podcast have?
This sounds like subscribers, but it’s not. This is the number of plays your next episode will get within a set amount of time (say 90 days). Historical info is great but it get’s really exciting when you use it to predict the future.


Downloads and Listeners — FTW!

Podcasting is generally a creative outlet so keep it fun. Remember that as you run through your stats and work to improve your show. Before digging for a new number be sure to ask yourself how knowing that number will help you make your next episode better and/or reach more listeners.

Improvement is rewarding and stats help us track this objectively. Now let’s just agree that the number of subscribers for podcasts is history and stack hands on tracking episode downloads and podcast listeners.