When you start a podcast and are growing your audience, topping the charts can really help build listeners fast. Obviously, you need to obtain some listeners to be on the chart in the first place, but once you are listed, the extra visibility will be great for rapid expansion. So how do podcast charts decide rankings? It’s not always as simple as merely the most listens within a given period.
Although podcast charts operate in a similar way to music charts, there are subtle differences between them. The biggest variation is that you can subscribe to or follow a podcast, which you don’t usually do with a musical artist. This is what you’re hoping for as a podcast producer, because there is no better signal for engagement than subscription - although note here that while many podcast platforms support paid subscriptions, in this context, it’s simply referring to signing up to receive new episodes.
Within platforms, as with music, there are genre-based charts and location-based ones too, so you can see how you are faring against podcasts with similar themes and in your region. The latter can be particularly useful if you’re chasing an audience and advertising in a particular area.
Chart ranking is at heart a popularity contest, but it’s a system you can optimise to your advantage, if you know some of the subtleties of how they work. A lot of this remains secret, in a similar way to the obscure nature of the exact algorithms behind search engines and social media platform news streams. But like the latter, you can still learn a few things with careful research, which can inform your approach.
Viewing the Apple Podcasts charts directly is generally achieved through the iTunes Store application or Apple Podcasts app. This should illustrate why it’s so important to do well in these listings if you want your podcast to succeed. Apple Podcasts remains the leading podcasting platform for downloads, and the primary discovery conduit is through what is shown when browsing the store. If you’re not listed there, listeners will need to know about you already to find you.
There are other third-party listings that replicate the Apple Podcasts charts, such as Chartable. But these are taken from the Top Episodes and Top Shows lists that are by default on the right of the iTunes Store interface and a few sections down in the Podcasts app. The main area in both is a curated selection, which will only be indirectly affected by listener numbers and subscribers.
The app also includes Top Subscriber Channels and Top Subscriber Shows. The former covers channels which include two or more shows, while the latter is for individual podcasts. Top Subscriber rankings are only available in the US, UK, Canada, and Australia. There are currently 20 podcast categories within Apple Podcasts, including the All Categories option.
Beneath that are top tens for episodes and shows. Click through on either and you’ll see a top 200. In other words, you need to make the top ten to be on the front page, and top 200 to be seen at all in any Apple Podcasts chart. The Top Subscriber sections in the Podcasts app only go to 100, which is even more limited.
Although the iTunes store lists episodes first, the Podcasts app places shows first, so getting high up here is your best chance of visibility, because most people will be browsing and subscribing on their smartphone rather than via the desktop iTunes store. The Top Shows chart is not based on the shows with the most subscribers ever - because if it was, Serialwould probably be in first place for the rest of time. Instead, there is a clear bias towards newly released shows. Rob Walch, vice-president of podcaster relations at hosting platform Libsyn (cited in the excellent book Podcasting by Martin Spinelli and Lance Dann, published in 2019), claimed that the equation used to generate the placings on the Top Shows chart is calculated as follows:
- The number of new subscribers on the day of chart multiplied by 4;
- Plus the number of new subscribers on the previous day multiplied by 3;
- Plus the number of new subscribers two days ago multiplied by 2;
- Plus the number of new subscribers, three, four, five and six days ago;
- Divide the total by 13
In other words, the scores only take into account the newest subscribers, and subscribers from over a week ago aren’t included at all. Ratings, reviews and shares are nice to have, but apparently, they don’t directly feed into the charts either. It’s impossible to verify the exact methodology Apple uses with certainty, but to the best of our knowledge, this basic process remains unchanged.
Meanwhile, the top episodes chart is based on listens rather than subscribers, again with a bias towards new listens, although there is less information about the exact weightings here. Nevertheless, this is why focusing on a big push at launch is more important than little and often. But we’ll get to that shortly. First, let’s look at some other platforms.
Despite being an increasingly important platform for podcasts, and now the second most significant by volume of listens, Spotify doesn’t place so much emphasis on podcasts as Apple within its app interfaces. Chart-related listings can be found via the Search interface. Alternatively, you can head to https://podcastcharts.byspotify.com/, which is a site maintained by Spotify showing the chart information that is fed into the apps. When you browse Top Podcasts in the Spotify app, you see a list of the top 200 shows. Alternatively, you can browse by category, which is divided rather differently on the charting site compared to the app.
The separate Spotify chart website lists the top podcasts and top episodes, but also tracks 17 individual genres. However, if you browse in the app you will see wider genres such as Arts & Entertainment, Business & Technology, or Educational, with sub-categories beneath each. These don’t match the charts directly.
Spotify’s charts are a popularity contest for number of downloads and listens, derived from information in the application. The Top Podcasts lists include followers, but the Top Episodes is based on daily listens. As with Apple, there is a bias towards newly published episodes, but the nature of this has not been publicly explained. The episodes also need to have been listened to all or most of the way through. There is none of the “three seconds is enough” that has caused so much controversy with Facebook videos. Spotify supplies specific charts for 26 different countries. However, you can only see these on the Spotify chart site mentioned above. On the smartphone and desktop apps, the chart you see will be based on your current location.
How to work the charts for success
There’s a lot beyond your control when promoting your podcast and hoping for large audiences. But an early concerted push can provide greater return on investment than spacing your efforts out over a longer period. As can be seen from the way Apple calculates its subscriber-based charts, there is a weighting towards your most recent new audience. Gaining a lot of these early on in one go can place you at a higher chart position than trying for a more consistent flow, making you more visible on the podcasting directories.
With this in mind, doing a big promotional push when you have particularly significant episodes - such as a high-profile guest or a big event - can help push your podcast higher on the rankings than sustained general promotion. It’s also worth remembering that once you have a subscriber, they will probably keep listening to your episodes as they come out. So the sooner you get them on board, the more they will consume.
It’s not a one size fits all approach, however. Spotify’s categories are more finely tuned than Apple Podcasts. This means you need to pay particular attention to choosing the category for your podcast wisely when you submit to Spotify, although this is true of Apple Podcasts as well. The genre determines where browsing listeners will find you on Spotify, and where your content will be placed during search, too. But it also dictates which of the category-specific charts your podcast appears on. Choose the most appropriate genre for your show, and conversely keep your content within that genre, otherwise listeners might be confused and switch off.
A high position on a chart, once achieved – and preferably the top one – can be used in marketing to show the potential popularity of the podcast to prospective new listeners and advertisers. This is another reason why focusing the majority of your attention on initial release can pay higher dividends. Consider using the age-old media of an email newsletter. Make full use of social media channels for promotion. Apple even provides a Social Asset Generator to help you create posts. But whatever method you use, it’s clear that chart success is loaded towards the initial launch stages, even if long-term podcast viability is much more organic and gradual.