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Aug 24 2021
This market forecast includes an overview and contains predictions of the rapidly growing social audio market. I have been a technology industry analyst in relevant markets like social media and the sharing economy for over a decade at tech research firms.
If you were familiar with Party Lines four decades ago, you remember how friends and strangers could dial up to audio-based conversations regardless of location. In 2021, instead of landline phones, quarantine-limited users are downloading apps for real-time conversations with friends and family.
The visual interfaces may vary, from emoticons to text chat integration to avatar integration. Modern app versions contain social graphs, groups, and other social networking features you find in popular tools like Facebook, Messenger, WhatsApp, etc.
When evaluating the app growth, we can say that the team of Clubhouse has brought together several important aspects for creating a viral growth engine:
Using word of mouth marketing as the app is invite-only. The early users were celebrities and tech entrepreneurs creating mystery but also the desirability of this new type of audio-only social app. Network effects via social connections. When someone you know joins, Clubhouse sends you a push to join an audio room with them.
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The timing of Clubhouse couldn’t have been better. With conferences and networking events not being allowed, the social app of “meaningful conversations” gained fast traction to connect people in times of social distancing. The cherry on the top - unlike most other social networking apps, you need an invitation to get into this one.
In order to get data, nearly every conversation will be recorded, whether it’s from the social audio platform itself, or from 3rd party bots that will record for social platform analysis startups, or from nefarious 3rd parties. Best to always be mindful of your words.
As the publishing platforms emerge, the next phase will be social audio analysis. We will see bolt-on features on top of the social audio startups, as well as stand-alone analytics software, plugins, and enterprise-ready versions. Features include: social network behaviors, influence analysis, language translation, voice to text, text to voice, NLP, sentiment analysis, cultural nuance analysis, heat maps, content optimization, and conversation forecasts. A mixture of AI, cloud computing, human analysis, and account services will be used.
The real-time social audio networking category will integrate with the podcasting industry. The social audio platforms will offer recording capability. A small segment of DIY recording artists will capture this information and republish on iTunes, Spotify, and more.
Social audio is a form of social media in which people communicate via audio on a shared app. Think chat rooms but with communication happening through real-time conversation (or singing), not via text or video. Easily the most visible social audio app is Clubhouse. Launched in 2020, Clubhouse has quickly grown to include 10 million weekly active users – up from 600,000 in December 2020. Clubhouse ascended quickly for a number of reasons, including the financial backing of high-profile venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz and the participation of public figures such as Elon Musk. Clubhouse members join different groups and participate in chat sessions called Rooms as often as they would like. Rooms are organized around topics ranging from trends in digital health to monetizing Instagram.
Since Clubhouse has exploded in popularity, the big social media players have quickly begun to build their own versions. On April 19, Facebook unveiled a number of audio experiences, including:
Live Audio Rooms, which should be available to everyone on the Facebook app by the summer. As the name implies, Live Audio Rooms consists of audio chat rooms similar to Clubhouse’s.
Podcasts. Within a few months, Facebook users will be able to listen to podcasts directly on the Facebook app.
Soundbites: short-form, creative audio clips for capturing anecdotes, jokes, poems, and other moments of inspiration.
Facebook also said it will make it possible for users to monetize social audio, with details forthcoming.
Facebook’s announcement was big, but it was not the first from the major players. In December 2020, Twitter launched its own social audio feature, Spaces, in beta mode. The product remains in testing, and only beta users can create their own Spaces at the moment. But, anyone on iOS and Android can join and listen in on a Space.
Meanwhile, Reddit just launched a social audio feature, and LinkedIn is developing a social audio experience tied to a person’s professional identity. Because Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter enjoy huge installed user bases, they could become major threats to Clubhouse, and Facebook in particular is skillful at monetizing that user base for brands.
At the same time, a number of smaller apps have arrived, each of them focusing on a niche experience. For example, Stationhead is a music-oriented app that is achieving rapid growth. Another social audio app growing more popular by the day is Quilt, which Ashley Sumner started as a community platform in which local people met up with one another in their own homes. Covid-19 put the kabosh on that model, so Sumner, after dabbling in Zoom meetups, developed an audio app that went live in January 2021.
The app’s mandate is wellness. Rooms fall into one of three different categories: spiritual and personal development; career and purpose; and relationships. Anyone can start a room, and engagement is high: Quilt says that 98 percent of hosts attend others’ conversations, and more than 50 percent of participants talk during discussions. As Mayfield Fund partner Rishi Garg says, “Part of the magic of Quilt is that everyone can feel like they have something to offer.”
It’s not just Clubhouse anymore — social audio is here to stay, and so is the opportunity that comes along with it: for creators, networking, expressing ideas, monetizing, connecting with new friends in an immersive virtual way, and so much more.
But it was in February that Clubhouse user numbers really took off: Tesla CEO Elon Musk and Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg both appeared in Clubhouse chats, drawing so many listeners that the rooms maxxed out their 5,000 person limit and sent people to overflow rooms. Conversations — including some with 2021 No. 1 Disruptor company Robinhood CEO Vlad Tenev — about the WallStreetBets trading phenomenon drew buzz and interest.
Although the social audio app is not yet a year old, it has become a buzzy platform among the Silicon Valley crowd. Built around the idea of live audio-only interaction, Clubhouse enables users to broadcast their live conversations and invite live audience feedback. Instead of a central content feed, users are presented with different “rooms” to join for live discussions on various topics where they can choose to simply listen or to participate.
After raising a series B round at a staggering $1 billion valuation last month, Clubhouse scored an Elon Musk appearance on Sunday night that caused a “virtual stampede” and further pushed the app into the mainstream consciousness. It now boasts over 2 million weekly active users, despite the fact that it’s still in an invite-only rollout stage.
As with any breakout social platform or emerging media format, we here at the Lab are always on the lookout for the potential brand opportunities that they may unlock. In the case of Clubhouse, it not only signals the exciting rise of a new social platform, but also a new tweak in the digital audio format. A closer look, however, reveals some uncertainties as to how Clubhouse can effectively monetize the attention it garners, as well as what the rise of social audio means for audio advertising.
Still, exclusivity only works for social platforms in the early stages, as limited scale usually hinders growth potential and limits the kind of sustainable business model it may pursue. Clubhouse may be the hottest social upstart that we’ve seen in a while, creating a new format that could be the biggest addition since nearly every social platform copied the Story format from Snapchat. However, Clubhouse will need to address several issues innate to the live audio format if it were to truly bring social audio to mainstream consumers.
First of all, every conversation happening on Clubhouse is live streamed, with no recording feature to create content for on-demand listening. People can record a conversation on their own device and post it elsewhere later, but it is not a natively supported feature.
While the live-ness does add urgency to the user experience and encourages users not to miss out when the people they follow go live, it also severely limits the content inventory it could’ve amassed otherwise. One would assume that a “record for time-shifted listening” feature is in the works.
Then there is a pesky issue with content moderation, which has been a rather thorny issue for all social platforms that monetize user-generated content. While major platforms like Facebook and Twitter have been making progress on that front — partly due to increasing regulatory scrutiny, but primarily because their ad-supported business model depends on creating a brand-safe environment — the social live audio format creates a bigger challenge for content moderation, especially if it scales up in volume and opens up to a wider audience.
Another issue facing the social audio format lies in its content discovery. Clubhouse surfaces different rooms in its main tab, but it has yet to develop a simple search function for users to find conversations on topics they are interested in, let alone an “Explore tab” a la Instagram or an algorithmic feed like TikTok where users can find data-driven recommendations on conversations that align with their interests.
Currently, Clubhouse users would still rely on following the people those options they value as the primary discovery mechanism outside the main feed, but as the success of TikTok has proven, the next-gen social media will eliminate that pain point in the user experience with fine-tuned algorithmic recommendations.
In addition to on-platform content discovery and recommendations, enabling external embedding is also a must for Clubhouse to expand the reach of its content.
Interestingly, a potential solution to the scale and content discovery issue of social audio might be on the horizon, as Twitter is reportedly working on an “audio-based social networking project” called Twitter Spaces, after acquiring social broadcasting app Breaker.
Details are scarce as to how Twitter will approach this format and integrate it into its existing platform, and the company’s track record with developing new features does not exactly inspire much confidence.
Still, if one were to be optimistic here, Twitter’s platform has a big user base consisting of various interest groups and communities, and its algorithmic main feed with a strong focus on “the now” could lend itself way to the social audio format if it’s implemented correctly. After all, the largest Clubhouse user going live notifies a few hundred thousand users, whereas the largest Twitter user would notify hundreds of millions.
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