Whether you’re getting ready to start a podcast for the first time or a tenured podcaster with many seasons and episodes in your past, Apple Podcasts’ 16.2 update has us all asking the same question. Follow or Subscribe, which is it? For some folks, “subscribe, rate and review us on iTunes” is something they’ve heard so many times they say it in their sleep. “Follow,” however, makes sense because Twitter and Instagram use the word “follow” to mean “continue to receive this account’s updates.” There are all kinds of podcasts, and all kinds of audiences, so which is right for you and yours? Should you use follow or subscribe when you ask people to continue getting your podcast episodes?
A Quick Review of Podcast History
Once upon a time, when the earth was young, just before the lava cooled, I used a 6th-generation iPod to listen to podcasts that no longer exist. Back then, every single podcast used their outro to remind us to “subscribe, rate and review us on iTunes,” because that was where most people got their podcasts, unless you were Adam Curry or Dave Winer. People still got excited about the idea of a free and open-source Internet. But computers, recording gear, and electricity cost money, and podcasters had to get creative about how they fund their productions. And so, the crowdfunding and content monetization industry blossomed.
In 2021, Apple served itself a piece of the content-industry-monetization pie by helping podcasters sell subscriptions to private podcasts on Apple Podcasts. The word “subscribe” now means that the audience pays a recurring fee to continue receiving episodes of a subscription podcast. However, podcasters could still offer free episodes via Apple Podcasts (and anywhere else). Rather than asking people to subscribe, Apple asked podcast producers to say “follow” the podcast for free episodes. Around the same time, the user interface in various podcast-listening apps changed to reflect the “follow or subscribe” divide.
Spotify and Stitcher were among the first to use “follow” to invite users to continue receiving a podcast instead of “subscribe.” Both offered premium (paid) listening services, so not only did it make sense, it may have cleared up some misunderstandings. Overcast and Amazon Music use “Follow.” As of this writing, Google Podcasts, Castbox, and Podcast Addict still use “Subscribe.”
Follow or Subscribe: Which is Right for Your Podcast?
You want your audience to continue listening to new episodes of your podcast. What do you want to call that? This question isn’t as easy as it sounds.
Is Your Podcast a Paid, Private Podcast?
If you produce a private podcast and distribute the episodes via an RSS feed that your audience pays to receive, then “subscribe” is the word you want to use in your call to action. This is especially true if your paid podcast is available via Apple Podcasts. Their house, their rules.
Is Your Podcast 100% Free and Available In Any Podcast Directory?
Here’s where the follow or subscribe debate gets a little more tricky. Use “follow.” Yes, your audience could use a listening app that uses the term “subscribe” for all the podcasts in its directory. Your audience should be able to intuit that clicking on “subscribe” means they will continue to receive new episodes, and they can browse the back catalog. If someone in your audience can’t extrapolate from incomplete data, and they write you an angry email saying, “how am I supposed to ‘follow’ your podcast when the app only gives me the option to ‘subscribe,” thank them for being such a passionate and loyal fan, and tell them that in that app it’s the same thing.
Then, invite them to your crowdfunding site.
What If Your Podcast Is Mostly Free, But Has Some Paid Bonus Episodes?
Now the follow or subscribe dilemma is even more interesting. So, you have one RSS feed, available in multiple directories, that holds most of your podcast episodes. Then, you may have extra episodes or bonus content available via a crowdfunding website or a private RSS feed.
Use “follow” for your call to action for episodes in the main RSS feed. People who need to hear this call to action are new to it, and they’re not ready for the bonus content yet.
Use “subscribe,” “become a patron,” “back it,” or whatever the preferred nomenclature is for the website that maintains your bonus content. This is the good stuff, the top-shelf bottles for people who are already invested in the show.
Follow or Subscribe: The TL, DR
Save the term “subscribe” for transactions where you exchange your podcast episodes for money.
Think of using “follow” for situations where you’ll continue to produce the podcast episodes, publish them on your RSS feed, and the audience can consume it at their own pace. This is a soft sell, which works when you’re in it for the long haul.
Follow or Subscribe: Don’t Worry About This Too Much
Making a great podcast requires attention to detail. But, this is a detail you can set and forget. You can write “follow us wherever you get your podcasts” on a post-it note and stick it to your microphone. Then add some duct tape because post-it notes aren’t as sticky as we think. If you say “subscribe” when you mean “follow,” it’s not going to make you seem sloppy or less professional: correct yourself and move on. There are hundreds of enduring, memorable, evergreen podcast episodes from 2015 on Apple Podcasts that still say, “remember to subscribe, rate, and review us on iTunes.”