Subscribe or Follow a podcast: What’s in a word?

Subscribe to podcast

I subscribe to a lot of podcasts. Until now, I’ve never thought much about the word ‘subscribe’ and its meaning in the context of podcasts.

To get a podcast, you subscribe to it. That’s the way it’s been since the dawn of podcasting back in the early 00s when we spoke of using a podcatcher to get your content. We needed to know about things like RSS feeds, the prime method for enabling your podcatcher to get a podcast each time one is published.

While these things made it relatively easy for podcast creators to offer their content to anyone who wanted it, it wasn’t like that for consumers outside of those with keen subject-matter interest and the tech-influenced early adopters.

So while podcasts gradually entered the mainstream, they didn’t start to become a ubiquitous content medium until the turn of the past decade when Internet connectivity did become ubiquitous and low cost compared to before, more – and more interesting – podcasts were appearing, and apps and other methods were available that made it very simple and easy to get your content.

It shielded you from things like RSS feeds and did it all for you. Instead, what you saw was your desired content showing up in an app every time there was a new episode.

It’s evolved further where, today, all you need to do is open an app or go to a website and click or tap something that starts playing audio (or video). You don’t need to even think of the term ‘podcast’ – it’s just content you can consume and share.

Of course, you still have to take an action to indicate you want the content so that’s why ‘subscribe’ is still part of the picture.

But it seems that changes are afoot in how podcasters should present podcasts to people and the word they use to get them to, er, subscribe.

Active or Passive?

According to a report by PodNews, Apple will make a subtle shift in how they describe the act of getting a podcast with the next new version of the iPhone operating system that’s due later this month – the word ‘subscribe’ isn’t used at all in the podcasting app.

Instead, Apple wants you to ‘follow’ a podcast.

This means that all podcasts listed in Apple Podcasts will be listed with ‘follow’ and not ‘subscribe.’ Apple Podcasts is the world’s biggest podcast directory by devices and downloads, with over 60% and 40% shares respectively. It’s the default podcasting app on iOS.

Might this move have clout in forcing the uptake of a new word by other podcast directories? That’s already starting, says PodNews:

Other larger podcast apps have already changed: Spotify and Audible use “follow”, Stitcher uses “+ follow”, and Amazon Music uses “? follow”. Meanwhile, Google Podcasts and Castbox use “+ Subscribe”, and Overcast and Castro uses “Subscribe”.

Does all this really matter, you may be wondering? I think it does as having a consistent way to describe a key aspect of podcasting will make it clearer what the process is.

It would help address a confusion over the word ‘subscribe’ that exists, according to a survey by Edison Research that showed 47% of people who don’t subscribe to podcasts think that ‘subscribe’ means ‘costs money.’

Okay, but would ‘follow’ really address that perception? And is ‘follow’ the best alternative to ‘subscribe’?

I’m not sure it is, certainly not in every case. And ‘follow’ is such a passive word. It doesn’t suggest any action. I just don’t see that as the universal replacement.

Instead, I prefer ‘listen.’ It suggests an action outcome from subscribing! It puts your focus on the content not on the means or techie method of acquiring it. It may also address the perception from the survey mentioned earlier, where ‘listen’ wouldn’t confuse you into thinking there’s a cost involved. Probably.

In any case, quite a few platforms already use ‘listen’ – Apple, Google and Spotify to name three – in the badges they offer podcasters to display on their websites.

Listen to a podcast

If change is coming, I can see ‘listen’ more likely to gather momentum and potentially replace ‘subscribe’ than ‘follow.’ I can see additional options, eg, ‘sign up’, ‘free sign up’, and ‘listen for free’.

You could even have ‘subscribe for free’ or ‘free subscription’ – that would eliminate the need for any change and also remove confusion over free and paid.

Still, will podcasters embrace a change? If it helps remove uncertainty and doubt that is a barrier to someone getting your podcast, I think they might.

Watch this space.

Neville Hobson

Social Strategist, Communicator, Writer, and Podcaster with a curiosity for tech and how people use it. Believer in an Internet for everyone. Early adopter (and leaver) and experimenter with social media. Occasional test pilot of shiny new objects. Avid tea drinker.