More Than Zero Followers: Part 2

I recently saw a number that made my jaw drop: 516. That was the reported number of people who subscribed to Brotherhood at the end of January when Timothy and I went on hiatus. That number has gone down since then, probably because we went on hiatus, to a meager 249. That is still much higher than what I was expecting to see when I checked the numbers just a few moments ago, and it's way more than what Talk of the Tome ever saw. 

It is also an outrageously large number for a podcast that I have made zero attempts to promote. Upon seeing that number I was shocked, then embarrassed, then curious all in a matter of minutes. Who are these people? Are they even real? Podcast analytics are notoriously inaccurate and difficult to understand so it's possible that most of them aren't. Still, 516 is a big number even for bots. As someone who is trying to make a living as a content creator, big numbers are important. What does that big number really mean and who or what is really subscribing to my podcast?

One of these things is not like the other...

First off, that was the number reported by Squarespace's built-in metrics, not Podtrac (which reports numbers much closer to what I would expect a show having no promotion to have). This means that whoever or whatever is subscribing to Brotherhood happens to be using the generic Squarespace URL and not the Podtrac URL. This tell me a lot of things right away.

But first, a quick note: Squarespace automatically generates RSS feeds for each blog it hosts. To get the URL of that RSS feed you add "?format=rss" to the URL of the blog, and this holds true whether that blog is of audio or text. However, I don't use that URL. Like most podcasters, I use a service like Podtrac which gives me a completely different URL so I can keep track of who is really subscribing to my podcast. That is the link I gave to iTunes and it's the link I include in the show notes of each episode.

So this tells me a few things right away:

  1. Almost none of these 516 subscribers came from iTunes or Twitter or even my own blog. They had to deliberately seek that RSS feed URL, which means that...
  2. They all knew about Squarespace's URL scheme independent of my sharing it, which means that...
  3. They are almost certainly all robots.

I find this last point fascinating. Why would someone want a bot to subscribe to Brotherhood instead of Talk of the Tome, which never broke even twenty subscribers?

I think it's pretty obvious: because Brotherhood is laden with SEO friendly keywords. Of course it is, it's a show about one of the most famous manga and anime franchises of all time! You'd be hard pressed not to produce an FMA podcast without such tasty keywords as "anime", "fullmetal", "funimation", and "podcast". Talk of the Tome, by contrast, was a show about making a projection-mapped installation -- something you're statistically likely to have never even heard of. Bots are subscribing to my podcast because it gives them data relevant to their owners. Their owners aren't interested in actually engaging with my podcast.

Moral of the Story?

I think it all depends on what you want. Last week I wrote about a similar experience with my Twitter account, where my posts have been getting a lot of impressions and very little engagement. I said then and I'll repeat now that I'm more than happy to create content for which there is no appreciable audience because I enjoy being creative. But I also want to make creativity my career, which means making smart decisions about the kinds of things I put most of my effort into making. But the 267 subscribers that I gained and then lost aren't really subscribers. I can't do anything with that number. They were only there to collect data, so is it really worth it to appeal to them any further?

I'm going to say no.

I guess the lesson is twofold. First, if you're trying to build an audience by tapping into an existing market, be prepared to deal with inflation. A lot of your hits are going to be other people trying to manage their own SEO, and most of them are going to be bots. Second, always use a dedicated analytics service. You can always use a second opinion, and services that specialize in analytics tend to be more accurate as a rule.