This morning, James Cridland of Podnews broke the news that, when Apple iOS 14.5 comes out of beta in a few weeks, Apple Podcasts will no longer use the word “subscribe” to describe the action listeners can take to… well, subscribe to the episodes of a podcast. Instead, would-be listeners will have the option to “follow” a show.
That seemingly minor change in semantics will have wide-ranging implications for all of podcasting. Bigger I think than five or so years ago when Apple asked us all to stop using the product name “iTunes” in favor of “Apple Podcasts”.
That means you—and I—have to stop using the verb “subscribe”. Because if we don’t, we’re setting up a disconnect between what action we ask potential listeners to take and what action they are actually able to take. This is 100% about the new listener, one who perhaps doesn’t even listen to podcasts.
Gone will be the big fat purple button emploring new listeners to SUBSCRIBE. And if the beta versions of the app I’ve seen hold true, that big button will not instead say FOLLOW. Nope, it’ll say “Listen”.
Show Me There’s No Money
It’s quite likely Apple is doing this for purely psychological reasons. Tom Webster from Edison Research has plenty of survey data that show almost half of non-podcast listeners say they don’t listen because podcasts cost money.
Sure, you and I and everyone in podcasting know that’s not true. But their perception is our reality. Outside of podcasting, most subscriptions do cost money, so it shouldn’t be surprising they’d carry that assumption to our world as well. Removing a language barrier could be a big step in the right direction.
For the better part of 17 years, we’ve been asking people to subscribe. Yet most people still don’t have the podcast listening habit. Will it be more inviting—and will see a spike in new listeners—if we ask people to follow our podcasts instead?
Try First, Follow Later
But there’s a problem with the name change, and I think Apple is trying to do something about it. The problem, as I wrote not long ago, is that getting someone to just listen to your podcast is a big ask. Yet here we’ve been, assuming they’ll hit subscribe without even listening to an episode. I think a case could be made that they’re really not any more likely to follow a show until they have listened to an episode.
That’s what Apple will be showcasing with the new version of Apple Podcasts. The action Apple wants people to take first is listening. That’s it. And if they like what they heard, they’ll (hopefully) hit the “+” button at the top to follow the show.
This Seems Sorta Social
There’s already a medium where the concept of following is front and center: social media. This may be wild speculation on my part (which, ostensibly, is the conceit of Podcast Pontifications), but this could be Apple positioning themselves to add social networking components to podcasting.
If you follow my podcast’s Twitter account, my public profile shows my follower count increased by one, and I get a notification that your account has followed mine. Could Apple Podcasts do that? Castbox already publicly displays a subscriber count, so this isn’t without precedence.
If you like or leave a comment on a post from my podcasts Instagram account, the heart and/or comment count—publicly visible—increases, and I get a notification of the social actions your account took on my post. Could Apple Podcasts do that, transforming their app into a true social network?
Well... maybe. But let’s reign in that wild speculation with a healthy dose of reality.
Bolt-on social media doesn’t work.
Lots of apps tried (and lots of apps failed) to add social components to their extant app. They discovered, as Apple is likely to discover, that building a meaningful and desirable social experience is a ground-up proposition. Not a quick add-on.
And then there’s the fact that Apple has let the social media wave pass them by, happily being the hardware, operating system, and app store vendor to get those social apps to us. The last time a behemoth hardware, OS, and app store vendor with zero experience building social networks made their big push into social, we got Google+. Yeah.
Podcast listening is anti-social
Podcast apps do two things: they ingest media from RSS feeds and allow people to listen. An oversimplification, for sure. But accurate enough to illustrate how completely different they are from social networking apps.
With one notable exception, creators cannot post directly to a podcast listening app; and listeners cannot post anything directly to a podcast listening app. That notable exception: Anchor. Yeah.
Who owns the podcast account?
Once seen as a bad idea, nearly every podcast hosting company will now submit your podcast to Apple Podcasts and every other podcast app or directory with the click of a button. That’s a great shortcut, as it typically takes the better part of a day to get a show full submitted to all meaningful directories. But at what cost?
Were social components added, how would you “claim” your podcasts’ listings on Apple Podcasts? Will they be tied to the hosting company, forcing you to social engage not with the app itself, but within your podcast hosting company? Or will you get no notifications of comments, making your podcast’s listing on Apple Podcasts seem as abandoned as the spam-filled Blogger account you thought was a good idea in 2006?
Podcast listening is commoditized
In the open ecosystem of podcasting, podcast apps are more akin to web browsers than social apps. To give the best user experience, browsers give access to decentralized, distributed content like web pages. Similarly, podcast apps give access to decentralized, distributed podcast content, because that’s how we built podcasting.
You can use your browser to leave comments on a website, sure. But you’re not leaving comments on that website as it exists in that single browser. Can you imaging having to check Chrome, Firefox, Safari, and whatever the hell Internet Explorer has been rebranded as to see all comments people have left for you? Of course not. Nor do you want to maintain accounts on two dozen or more podcast listening apps for the same purpose.
Right Or Wrong, The Time To Act Is Now, Podcaster
While the concerns I raised above are large, they’re not insurmountable for a company with the money and influence of Apple. Spotify has been nipping at their heels for a while. And I think Spotify would have their own challenges making their app truly social, since they really can’t mess with their livelihood too much.
One thing I am certain of; you need to watch your language. And by that I mean scrub your podcast’s website, getting rid of subscribe, and going with follow. Staring on your very next published episode, dig into your in-app episode details—you may still call them show notes—and remove the reference. And starting with your next recording session, stop telling people to subscribe. Might as well get ahead of it.
And get your podcasting peers on the same mission. Send them a link to this article, if only to get their blood pressure up. And be good to each other, pointing out a few missed places, as it’ll take us all a while to break free of the “subscribe” habit.
And f you like the things I have to say, please go to BuyMeACoffee.com/evoterra and think about sliding a virtual coffee my way. That's always nice.
I shall be back tomorrow with yet another Podcast Pontifications.