Follow, Don't Subscribe

How your podcast calls to action need to change...

James Cridland does not tend to overstate things or resort to clickbait for his must-read daily podcasting news email - Podnews. So, when he tweeted:

….it definitely resulted in an eyebrow raise.

The news was what could be seen as just a minor change in a podcasting app - but the repercussions are significant.

Apple Podcasts, which is still the core podcast consumption app, is changing the ‘subscribe button’ to a ‘follow button’.

This is the button that signals you want to receive every new episode of a show. It’s also what nearly every podcast in the world uses to encourage their listeners to subscribe to the show.

Subscribing, as well as turning an occasional listener into a regular one, also helps you motor on up through Apple’s podcast chart. Subscribing is, as we’ve talked about before, the main way to grow your chart position - and therefore your podcast visibility.

The switch to following, I don’t think is that curious. Firstly, it’s the nomenclature that Spotify use to do the same thing, but more importantly I think it signals the direction of travel for Apple Podcasts itself, particularly around a future, potential, paid subscriptions product. Again, something we’ve talked about before.

The word subscribe has its roots in RSS, the clever structured text files that sit on servers, updated when there’s a new news story, blog post, or podcast episode. RSS stands for Really Simple Syndication, and it really is! If your app, or website, or anything digital checks that RSS feed for changes, it can keep lots of things up to date. ‘Subscribing’ to a feed meant that you checked it regularly. As RSS developed to be the distribution network for podcasts, the listening apps used the word subscribing too.

With a boot-strapped, distributed medium, no one researched the branding or checked what consumers thought stuff meant. Turns out using the word ‘subscribing’, for many regular folk, made them think there was some financial cost in doing so. There’s quite a bit of research out there that shows the reason some people haven’t jumped on the podcast listening bandwagon is that they think it costs money to listen.

At the same time ‘following’, popularised by Twitter, Instagram and TikTok (and now even Facebook and LinkedIn) has become a more understandable concept of ‘getting stuff from this person/company in my feed’. It seems right that it’s the time for podcasting to abandon the subscribe for the follow.

All this means that in a few weeks, when Apple’s latest iOS software upgrade makes this change, ‘Following’ will be at the heart of both Apple Podcasts and Spotify - the apps that together make up around three quarters of listening. I also imaging we’ll see a number of the other, lower tier apps, jump on board with this change too.

So, podcasters, update your calls to action. Encourage your followers, to, er, follow (and perhaps explain what it means too).

Forced to follow

Apple’s sudden change of heart is not one that they’ve communicated to anyone directly (all the reporting is based on people using the pre-release operating system). For those not following the trades, they’ll probably just stumble across the change when updating their phone and then rush to update how they talk about their show.

This, of course, is the Apple way. And follows the time when they added new podcast categories without any consultation with the sector. OK, their app, their rules - but it is exceedingly unhelpful to the sector that provides all the content for free to their app and ecosystem. A sector, that no doubt, will end up giving a third of its revenue in an Apple tax when their paid subscriptions go live.

I got even more annoyed when I saw this tweet from Steve Wilson, previously a marketing manager at Apple Podcasts:

They re-branded podcasts in iTunes to Apple Podcasts at the end of 2019, so they’ve known this is coming for at least 18 months, and they still haven’t told any of us.

All the Apple Podcast people I’ve worked with over the years have been lovely and helpful. The editorial job they do across the country homepages is important and balances really well the different parts of the sector. But the corporate-enforced lack of openness towards a sector literally built on openness is particularly galling.

There is no corporate benefit in restricting this information. It is not like revealing the existence of an Apple-branded self-driving car, or iOS infused glasses. It’s a change important to Apple’s content providers that would help them do a better job of preparing their listeners (and Apple’s customers). A heads-up would have been nice.


An unintended benefit of this switching to following is that the name of our free podcast marketing app - Podfollow - has suddenly seemed inspired, rather than just the result of hundreds of searches on domainr. For new subscribers to the email (we’re sticking with that for you), Podfollow provides a free link for every podcast for you to use on social media, the web, in ad campaigns, on-air and even in your podcast. It’s one link that redirects iOS users to Apple Podcasts, Android users to Google Podcasts and desktop users to your (or Podfollow’s) website. It’s designed to easily get from a click to a listen.

Every show already has a Podfollow link (search for yours) but if you claim it (also free) you get stats, and the ability to change where people are sent. So you want Android people to be sent to your show in the Spotify app? That’s fine too! There’s also free links for individual episodes as well as your channel, and they all generate good social images if you paste them into Twitter or Facebook.

We now have over 1 million Podfollow links clicked every month by users, so it’s brilliant to see so many shows using it.

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