Is Apple saving “subscribe” for something in the future? Apple Podcasts recently announced that iOS 14.5, which is set to be released in late March, will include a change in wording and calls to action on the app. Listeners will be prompted to “follow” a podcast instead of “subscribing” to it. Does this seemingly small change mean nothing, or does it mean everything? In this SquadCast founders episode, Zach and Rock speculate on this change.
Some questions that came up during this discussion:
- Does “subscribe” imply an exchange of money?
- Will “follow” ensure that listeners know that the content is free?
- Is this an attempt, on Apple’s side, to get listeners used to a free and a paid model of content?
- Is this move Apple’s way of staying relevant (following in the footsteps of Spotify)?
Tune in to find out!
- Podnews reports on Apple’s change from “subscribe” to “follow.”
ZACHARIAH MORENO: While it does seem like we are speculating a lot in this episode, Apple kind of keeps us in this constant realm of speculation because we don’t have a lot of action to go off of, we have little hints here and there that are supposed to weave together into this grand vision that we’re supposed to all be thankful for.
ROCKWELL FELDER: Welcome to Between Two Mics.
ZACH: I’m Zach.
ROCK: And I’m Rock.
ZACH: We’re the co-founders of Squadcast.fm.
ROCK: The best way to record remote interviews in studio quality like this one.
ZACH: Here on Between Two Mics, we explore the challenges, opportunities, and new ideas with the people who are pushing the limits of what’s possible in podcasting.
ROCK: All right. Between Two Mics founder’s episode. How you doing Zach?
ZACH: Doing great. Doing great. How are you, Rock? I’m great.
ROCK: I’m just wondering, are we going to tell folks to follow us on Between Two Mics or we’re going to continue to say subscribe. And that’s exactly what we’re here to talk about.
ZACH: That’s a good question. And I, I’m working on a kind of a creative side project, a little weird for me to say that. Cause Squadcast has always been my, my focus, but it’s a new podcast, and I’ll keep you in suspense for now about that. But, uh, we were working on the trailer for, uh, for that new podcast project and asked myself that very question. So we decided… Let’s just say both for now. Let’s just say follow, subscribe wherever you listen to podcasts.
ROCK: No line drawn. So what are we talking about here? So it was recently announced, uh, early March that with Apple Podcasts, the app is going to let users follow new content instead of subscribe in their iOS 14.5 updates. So it’s a small, but in my opinion, pretty notable change, the way that listeners are going to be able to yeah. Follow a podcast now and get updates about that podcast. And you know, what does this mean for downloads? And why is apple even making this change to begin with? Uh, for me it’s been pretty interesting because I’ve used plenty of podcast apps, but I currently use Spotify the most now. And they’ve had follow for quite some time. It’s a streaming platform, you know, downloading, you can certainly do, but it’s not something that’s core or, uh, the, the default, that’s the word I’m looking for. Relatively small change, but. Apple doesn’t do stuff like this, just because they had, they decided that they wanted to change it. So I’m sure there’s a lot of reasons and potentially data-driven reasons for this, but what’s your first take when you heard this news?
ZACH: My initial reaction was like on some level, it’s a big deal. I think that’s why we’re talking about it. On another level though, iIt’s like companies change labels on buttons all the time. Right? Google is famous for like AB testing. All these different shades of blue of like the search button on, on their homepage. And how do we know this isn’t like an AB test, right? Where it’s like, okay, maybe they’re testing follow versus subscribed to see how that, um, gets like listeners to interact or engage. I also think though, that, it’s kind of occurring to me right now. Was Apple Podcasts or I guess back then, iTunes. That was around before Twitter. Right? Cause I think Twitter really popularized this, this idea of follow.
ROCK: Yeah. I think, I think it was before.
ZACH: So that’s another way to look at this is that, you know, the vocabulary of this kind of interaction, the lexicon, if you will, um, amongst kind of the design pattern that people are familiar with across a lot of apps has kind of shifted, right? So it could be that it’s just a subtle way to communicate. Like the difference here is that you’re going to get updated. You’re going to get notifications. You’re going to find out in your, your feed of podcasts, that like something is new. Um, something has been published, but then there’s also, um, words matter, right? Meanings matter here. The default before was subscribe. And they’re changing that to, to now follow. And has this landed, have you checked on your, on your iPhone yet? Like, does it say follow or…
ROCK: It’s still in a beta version, so I don’t think it’s landed yet.
ZACH: Right, right. That was, that was what I was thinking. Um, typical Apple, I guess. And I’m, I’m an Android user, so I guess I could check on a different device, but yeah. So will subscribe means something different in the future, do you think, or is this purely like just a change of the button to be kind of with the times, what people are used to?
ROCK: That’s what I, my first initial take from it that, uh, without like reading into the, any of the articles or anything like that was like: Wow. Like from the outside perspective, it’s almost like apples following Spotify, and I’m sure that Spotify is, I shouldn’t say sure. But I wouldn’t be surprised if there’s been other apps services that have used this type of lexicon before Spotify did, but there’s certainly the biggest option that I’m aware of that did it and has done it differently this way, as far as I can remember. Um, so at first I was like…
ZACH: Well, no, it works with music on Spotify. Yeah, sure. Yeah. You follow an artist and then you have them in your catalog on Spotify. So I think for when they added podcasts to their apps, it just kind of followed that. It it followed the follow, I guess of that. But that’s, that’s very interesting why this is the first example where we can actually see Apple Podcast following Spotify’s direction here.
ROCK: Yeah. I mean, I don’t know if that’s exactly what they’re doing, but again, it’s like the outside perspective that I got. But once I started like researching it a little bit more, reading into it, just like trying to understand the why, like, why is this such a big deal? Why are, you know, people that are pretty well-known in the podcast space, like why do they care? Like, cause I, I didn’t think I really cared that much more, uh, beyond my initial thoughts and reaction. But one of the things I thought was interesting that was mentioned in Podnews was Tom Webster from Edison Research in one of his presentations, probably one of the ones that we saw back at Podcast Movement in, uh, 2019. He was saying that 47% of people who don’t currently listen to podcasts think that subscribing means that the podcast costs money, which I think is really interesting because I feel like you and I, Zach, have grown up in this podcast space, knowing that that’s one of the benefits, maybe even the downsides, just some ways. I do think it’s a downside that it’s free, especially for the creators. But, uh, podcasting has always been free. So to me, I’ve never like, it’s, that’s why I don’t, I think for some people it doesn’t seem like a big deal cause we’ve kind of just grown in this world of like: well, yeah, you subscribe to a podcast and maybe you subscribe to a YouTube channel. But I know I’m not paying for that necessarily. I mean, maybe there’s other ways that you can through a Patreon or whatever, which you do subscribe to. I don’t, I’m definitely not in that 47%. However, I mean, Edison Research is the gold standard in research, data when it comes to listening habits and behaviors. And 47%, it’s a pretty significant number. So if we really want this medium to grow and flourish the way that we think it’s capable of. I think it’s worth considering. Should we change this and should we make it easier to, to communicate that this is not free? Or that like you’re teeing up for, and we’ll, we’ll unpack that a little bit later is maybe there’s other, this is the first move, but there’s other moves coming behind that where subscribe actually will mean something, something else for Apple. So therefore they’ll have to change it. Uh, just to correlate some of the data from what we, from what Edison Research is saying, James Cridland on his podcast Podnews was also saying that back in his days at, I think it was Rain where he used to work previously.
ZACH: Sounds right. Could be wrong.
ROCK: Yeah. So he, he was saying that this actually happened all the time for him. Whereas someone like Todd Cochrane from, uh, Blubrry, was quoted in Podnews saying this has never been an issue for me. So that’s kind of the two sides, right? Where it’s, and I’m not trying to put these two against each other. I’m just trying to say that there are two opposing views where people are like, this is ludicrous, you know, maybe more than people like you and me who have just like, we’ve never had a doubt if we’re paying for this or not. But if we, if there are other people, and apparently there are, I think it’s a good thing for the industry as, as minimal as it might sound to some people. Like if this gets more people listening to podcasts, creating podcasts, like aware and understanding of podcasts. Then I love it.
ZACH: It just prompted me because there is some precedence here. I, I always try to draw a parallel in my thinking of how does Apple treat podcasts versus how does Apple treat apps on the app store? It’s exactly the same relationship. Whether you’re an app developer or a podcaster, there is a platform. You are publishing something to that platform. You want some analytics about how people engage with that. Whether that’s an install of an app or, you know, a download and a subscription or a follow on, on a podcast. It’s, it’s the same. So podcasters are essentially audio app developers, or I think of those as being synonymous. What is useful for that thought experiment though, is where do the two diverge from one another? And why is that? So one example I’ve talked about at length and with, you know, our friend James, is developers get these rich APIs that they can use to look at the engagement of people inside using their app and purchasing things, in-app purchases. And they get all this data, but podcasters, we don’t get that same thing. And that’s not what this episode is about, but just kind of one example. Um, like it, another example that I just pulled up, um, is I went into the app store and I was like, how does, what are the buttons say when you go to install a new app? So I didn’t choose an app that I am interested in. I just clicked on the first one I saw. And the button says in all caps, get. G-E-T. And then it’s got a little subtext, a label next to it that says in-app purchases. So let me double check real quick. If you bear with me, I’m going to look for a paid app then. Yeah. They all say, “get.” Some of them say in-app purchases. I’m trying to find one that I have to like buy. Are you aware? Oh, okay. So if I go and look at Logic Pro. That doesn’t say get, but instead of get, it has a price tag. So it says 199.99 for Logic Pro or Mainstage is another one that’s next to it that says 29.99. So, you know, it’s interesting that some people think that the subscribe button in a podcast app might mean that they have to pay for something and maybe there’s some hidden fee or something like that, that, uh, I don’t necessarily want Apple to like automatically charge me for. Um, and yet the only real like precedence here is that they clearly label price tags when they are price tags. Legally they have to, I think I’m not an attorney, but there has to be disclosure, I imagine. And even about in-app purchases where it’s like, well, it’s not a purchase right now, but it’ll be a purchase a little bit later, if you’re into that. So I find that fascinating that, you know, does the word get really makes sense? You know, I would think like install or something like that, but maybe that’s too technical for, for everybody’s tastes. So I just find that very interesting that, uh, the buttons in the app store, which is a parallel to the buttons in the podcast app are a little bit ambiguous and kind of weird on their own. So what do you think about that, that distinction?
ROCK: Let’s take a short breather. We’ll be right back.
ROCK: We want to tell you all about our Facebook groups, our community manager, Arielle, manages two Facebook groups for Squadcasters and remote recorders.
ZACH: These groups are amazing resources for podcasters, and we encourage you to join them. In-person community is hard to come by these days, but thankfully the internet helps with that. And our online community of Squadcasters is growing.
ROCK: You can find our Facebook groups by going to our Facebook page and navigating to the groups tab. Then, request to join.
ZACH: Once you’re in, you can post questions, discussion prompts, connect with other podcasters and more.
ROCK: See ya on the internet.
ZACH: What do you think about that, that distinction?
ROCK: I think it’s an interesting comparison. And I think, like I said, I think they’re doing this for a reason and this might not be the entire equation here. Like there’s probably some other stuff going on, but in the comments for some of the articles, I read that, folks that were responding to the different articles I read, was one of them that stuck out was like, okay, to tech people this seems silly. We’re like, why, why is this even news? And they were like, but people like my grandma and not just my, my grandma, not like only in their nineties or eighties or whatever, but like, you know, people a little bit younger than that. People maybe a little bit closer to our age even, are they think, and are scared that if they press that subscribe button, that somehow they’re going to get charged. If this eliminates that, then that’s just better.
ZACH: It’s interesting that podcasters are having this conversation because ultimately this is a UX consideration of like one app that presents their podcasts. Right? I think most podcasters have their app. Like, are we talking like if Overcast were to change the label on the button, would people be talking about this?
ROCK: No, but I think they’re, they’re gonna, this is a domino that will have effect on all the others like them.
ZACH: Well, that’s the importance of like design patterns, right? Is that they are recognizable across multiple experiences, across multiple apps. So like in Squadcast, the, the, uh, navigation menu is a little three-line, so called hamburger menu. We didn’t invent that. We don’t expect people to know what that means because we invented it. That is a common design pattern that is used across mobile apps and mobile websites. And I remember the first time I saw it and was like, are people going to know what that means? And it’s like, no, but you know, 10 years later, they do.
ROCK: Yup, yeah. We’re kind of, we’re conditioned where as more so like I’m looking at on Squadcast, we have the gear, which is for settings. That’s probably influenced by Apple, right? I mean, that’s what, it’s an easy app to find on your phone, and you have to use it quite frequently enough that it’s worth, uh, memorizing to some degree. And, but yeah, I think we’ve been kind of trained and conditioned just to further your point there.
ZACH: That’s a great, great example. Yeah. And I also want to back up and clarify when you click on, “get”, it changes to “install.” So you have to kind of double click. Uh, so that’s kind of interesting. That’d be fascinating if it’s like follow and then it changes to subscribe.
ZACH: Yeah. That’s not great UX in my opinion. Um, but who am I to doubt Apple? So I think that this is a, this is fascinating that there are so many different opinions about this. The speculation is fascinating that maybe they want to re, they want to reserve the word subscribe for something that actually is more in line with a subscription in the future.
ROCK: Yeah. I’m glad you brought that up. I want you to unpack that a little bit more. What do you, what are you saying?
ZACH: Yeah, so I guess the logic, the thought experiment here is that we’re going to change it to “follow.” People, know what subscribed means, and if we change it to follow, then that gives us the freedom In the near future, uh, maybe 15.1 or something like that to add some sort of feature set that would empower listeners to subscribe financially to podcasts. Which is something that, um, I think we just noted earlier today, in fact, that, that this is a feature that Anchor has, you know, again, part of Spotify. Spotify for podcasters. You know, so maybe it doesn’t start and stop with Apple following Spotify as lead with the follow button, but maybe they’ll also continue that trend with the subscription model.
ROCK: Yeah. Yeah. And it’s, that’s actually been somewhat of a rumor that folks have been talking about. Apparently this whole switching from subscribe to follow has been in the works for like 18 months is what I read, kind of crazy. I mean, I guess it makes sense with Apple, they got to plan..
ZACH: That’s an important button!
ROCK: 18 months to roll this thing out? Good lord.
ZACH: Imagine if we were doing that, yeah.
ROCK: Yeah. Well, that’s the benefit of being a small startup, right. Move fast decisions don’t need to take 18 months. We’d be dead if it took 18 months. [laughs] Anyways, I think maybe this would what happen. And we’re definitely looking into this more than we actually know, but you know, maybe the whole goal was to create subscription to you know, using in dollars, subscribe with money, to certain shows or have a subscription plan that like Apple podcasts or whatever, and they needed to work backwards. Okay, well this subscribe button now means free. We need to change that. Or maybe they just are like: holy cow, Spotify is gaining ground. We need to, you know, it’s time to make some more offensive moves, not being this, uh, I mean, they were dominating the space without doing. Anything other than having the iTunes app and the Apple Podcasts. So who knows, we’re totally speculating here and looking into it, but. I hope that we can get more creators paid. I think that’s a good thing. I think it’s where we’re all going. I think the big thing is like how many will get paid? Can you make a living off of your art?
ZACH: Hopefully it’s more than 1% of people.
ROCK: That’s what I’m saying. Like how, how large is that pool? Like, is it only going to be like the top of the top where they can actually make a living from this where, uh, everybody else is still kinda stuck in the same situation. Like that would be, be terrible.
ZACH: Yeah. You know, it just, it’s also occurring to me now that like apple could have also solved this problem by putting like “for free” next to it, you know, just in the similar way that they have a little subtext next to the get button in the app store, they could have said subscribe and then for free, next to it, that would have also solved this problem. So I think that if anything, that’s maybe an indication to the speculation that like, they want to, they want to use that word subscribe for something else. And they’re probably working backwards. And as you said, of course, this is, this is speculation. So do your own research, ask Apple, go on Twitter and ask Apple podcasts or, uh, whoever, whoever, you know, think deeply about this, how it affects you and your podcast. Does it ask your audience? That’s something we’re always encouraging people like, you know, are you more likely or less likely to follow or subscribe? You know, that’s, that’s an interesting AB test. I’m curious if other people maybe just didn’t notice and they have been testing this, um, to your point about 18 months.
ROCK: I am curious how it’s going to affect, you know, usually when podcasters talk about how their show’s doing, they, they talk in downloads. I got this amount of downloads this every month, or, you know, this one episode, I had thousands of downloads. And so I figured out what happened with that one. And then I just started recreating that type of a situation. So now it’s like going to go more towards, I think listening is going to be like, how many listens my episode got. And I think that’s just a better metric because like the way things used to be your sh, your shows would get downloaded as soon as they got released. Right. And that download would count towards some type of metric for the podcast or in the podcast analytic tools. But that doesn’t mean you necessarily listen to it. Right? So.
ZACH: I feel like subscriptions would get like automatically downloaded.
ROCK: Yes. Correct.
ZACH: That kind of inflated people’s perspective on how many people were actually listening. And it’s like: well, a download isn’t to listen, you know, and that’s really where the analytic conversation comes in. And I would even add beyond just listens, I would want to know listened minutes, and which minutes. That’s something that is interesting to help podcasters, like want that information to tailor their show. I mean, anybody who’s used the analytics that come with YouTube, you can see that kind of information. You can see how long people are watching or, and, or listening to your videos and, and which of those minutes the, the, the total duration. Did they, did they skip around? Did they, you know, what was the behavior there? Apple absolutely has that information. Spotify has that information. Will they provide it? I think it would make sense for the health of the ecosystem for them to do that. So that’s probably another chapter in the future of this evolution that will probably be another founder episode to talk about.
ROCK: Yeah, totally. So just to put a bow on it for this episode, like, is this a big deal? And if so, why should podcasters care?
ZACH: It will become a bigger deal if Apple has grander plans. I mean, we’re constantly being told as founders and a technology company in the podcast ecosystem, we’re constantly being told by our peers, by Apple, by other people, oh, we’re working on something big. Apple is doing this huge thing. It’s going to change the game for everybody. Apple is: oh, I wouldn’t count them out. And that’s true to some extent. They checked it, but we’ve been, we’ve been at this for five years and that’s a long time. Like we did an entire startup, we built our product, we rebuilt our product. We have grown all this stuff. And Apple has changed the design of the, the app, in this same window of time. They’ve changed the design of the app, which a lot of people aren’t really in favor of, I think maybe could be seen as a step backwards. Um…
ROCK: I don’t use it anymore. I mean, it’s just…not necessarily because of that, but it hasn’t kept me for what and Apple, we love you are, you know.
ZACH: I’m on a Mac Mini right now.
ROCK: We built this company on Apple products and I’m sure you, you know that. But just want to say, like, we’re not trying to bash Apple here. It is an observation that you’re absolutely right about in the podcast industry that is kind of, it’s a good joke every once in a while.
ZACH: And at a point it’s just kind of like, alright, you know, I’ll believe it when I see it. I’m never going to count them out. You know, they’re, they’re also supposedly working on a car, you know? Cool. Does that affect us right now at all? You know, or is that something that maybe is for stakeholders to try to drive stock price or something weird like that? I mean, they’re a massive company. Audio is part of it for them. It’s not even the biggest part and, and podcasting falls within that slice of audio. You know, I would say music’s probably more their focus than podcasting, just from what we’ve seen from their products. What, what we know today. While it does seem like we are speculating a lot in this episode, Apple kind of keeps us in this constant realm of speculation, because we don’t have a lot of action to go off of. We have little hints here and there that are supposed to weave together into this grand vision that we’re supposed to all be thankful for.
ROCK: Is it a big deal? Why should podcasters just care then?
ZACH: I didn’t answer your question. I think podcasters should be more critical of Apple. I think, uh, I think podcasters should pay attention to what Apple is doing, but they should also hold them accountable when they do not deliver and move the medium forward. They did a great service to podcasting by kind of Kicking a lot of this off in, in a, in a lot of ways. And we, we are eternally grateful to them for that. But that’s kind of where it starts and stops for me. Um, there’s not been a second chapter to that. It’s just been a perpetual: Well, they’re gonna make big moves and they’re going to move podcasting forward. This podcast is all about moving podcasting forward. And how often do we talk about Apple on here? I mean, that’s some sort of indicator as well.
ROCK: Shots fired.
ZACH: What do you think?
ROCK: I think if I’m a podcaster, I’m going to think like much like you where it’s just like, okay this is probably not a big deal today. My life is not going to change or anything like that. But what I like about it is that it’s a sign. It’s still a sign that there’s, this is still early days in podcasting. We’re still figuring out what to call things and what to call the different participants and roles it takes to create a podcast. And so it’s still early days. So if I’m a podcaster or still working on my craft, honing my craft, building my audience, to me, this is a sign that like: It’s still early. We’re still all figuring this thing out. Like it’s, it’s still, uh, an exciting time. I think. And, and moves like these as minute and insignificant as it may seem to some people, I think it’s, you know, it’s not going to be the, this is the day podcasting changes, when Apple, I don’t think so. But like, I think it’s trending in a place that I am optimistic about. But it’s still early.
ZACH: Positive energy. Yeah. It’s, it’s positive, you know, and even if it is just them testing stuff, that’s positive too. There’s somebody, there’s somebody home. If you knock on the door, like that’s good. And also I’m a big fan of the smallest possible change to an experience that can have big impacts. I, I often quote, the Isaac Asimov book, um, The End of Eternity with this concept called the MNC, the minimum necessary change. What if all it took was changing this label on this button to get more people into podcasting as a listener, lower the barrier to entry? No argument there. That’s beautiful. Let’s see more of that. All right. Anything else?
ROCK: No, I mean, we’ll definitely keep our eyes on it and, you know, continue to, you know, it’s an industry thing. I think it’s a big, I don’t know. I’m not, I don’t think, I don’t know if it’s a big thing yet.
ZACH: To be continued.
ROCK: But yeah, it’s, we’re going to continue monitoring it for sure.
ZACH: So yeah. Let us know what you think about the subscribe versus the follow conversation. Are you seeing this in other apps that aren’t, you know, Apple and Spotify? Does it affect your behavior at all? Talk to your audience, ask them, does this, would this affect your behavior at all? Maybe ask somebody outside of podcasting: Are you more likely or less likely to click this button, if it says subscribe or follow? I think those are all questions worth asking. And, um, you know, I, I am hopeful that, uh, no question, Apple knows what they’re doing, so we’ll see, we’ll see where that takes us. To be continued.’
ROCK: Thanks for tuning into this week’s episode of Between Two Mics.
ZACH: We hope you enjoyed our conversation. If you learned something or we intrigued you a bit, let us know on social media.
ROCK: You can follow us on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and LinkedIn, by searching for Squadcastfm.
ZACH: And if you want to show the podcast some love, you can leave us a rating or review wherever it is you’re listening right now.
ROCK: This show is put together by us, Zach and Rock. It’s mixed and produced by Vince Moreno. With help from Arielle Nissenblatt. Our logo is designed by Alex Whedbee.
ZACH: Since we’re a podcast about podcasts, we want to shout out the brands and products that we trust. We’re recording, using Squadcast.fm. And here’s our current stack. For recording, we’re using ATR2100 mics, Apple AirPods Max headphones, and Focusrite Scarlett 2i2 audio interfaces.
ROCK: We edit the show on Adobe Audition and our hosting site is Simplecast.
ZACH: That’s it for us this week. We’re back next week with more from between these mics.
[music fades out]
Vincent Moreno Jr. is an Audio Engineer, head of SquadCast Support, and avid BBQ’er. He aims to make sure Podcasters can create content smoothly while sounding crystal clear with ease.