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Social audio a 'goldilocks medium' for boosting usage at Facebook, Twitter

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Social audio a 'goldilocks medium' for boosting usage at Facebook, Twitter

A new year has sparked a new internet obsession, and tech giants are taking notice.

Influencers and celebrities have been flocking to Clubhouse, an invitation-only voice-chat social networking app launched in March 2020 that allows users to interact in live conversations on various topics. With the app's usage suddenly skyrocketing, the format has caught the attention of Facebook Inc., which is reportedly developing a rival offering, and Twitter Inc., which is beta testing an audio chatroom feature called Spaces after acquiring social podcast app Breaker Inc. last month.

Clubhouse lets users create and join live chat rooms to discuss topics such as politics, sports and entertainment. Its chat rooms are often hosted by subject-matter experts, including celebrities, journalists and notable venture capitalists. Amid pandemic-induced screen fatigue and other side effects of working and playing from home, analysts say the emerging social audio format provides a unique entertainment alternative that could help pure-play social platforms boost their user engagement.

SNL Image
Clubhouse is an invitation-only audio-chat social networking
app
that continues gaining popularity since its launch in 2020.
Source: Apple App Store

Jessica Liu, a Forrester Research analyst with expertise in social marketing, called social audio a "deeply engaging and intimate medium" compared to the "broadcast nature of status updates or tweets" on traditional social sites. She said internet platforms are well positioned to capitalize on the voice-based trend as they look to attract users who want to reduce time spent on visual feeds amid the pandemic.

"It's no surprise that audio is popular," Liu wrote in a report. "You can listen while cooking dinner or walking the dog, unlike more visual activities like watching TV or scrolling through a social network feed."

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg in February participated in a chat room discussion on the app. The CEO joined "The Good Time Show," a talk show on Clubhouse, to discuss Facebook's augmented reality and virtual reality goals. Contacted by S&P Global Market Intelligence about its social audio plans, Facebook did not directly address reports that it is developing a Clubhouse competitor, but a spokesperson said the company is "always exploring new ways to improve" its audio and video offerings for users.

Facebook does have a propensity for making new product features that are similar to those of its competitors, said Seth Shafer, an analyst at Kagan, a media research group within S&P Global Market Intelligence. For instance, Facebook's Instagram LLC unit in 2016 debuted Instagram Stories, a Snapchat-like feature in which photos disappear after 24 hours. Last year, the same unit launched Instagram Reels, a short-form video-sharing format that is similar to the popular TikTok Inc. app.

"Facebook is especially notorious for cloning popular features and functionality from rivals," Shafer said in emailed comments. "They have little to lose from giving social audio a whirl and being well-positioned if it turns into a durable trend. They've always been willing as a company to try out dozens of new things live in their app with the knowledge that only a handful may stick as a permanent, popular feature."

Shafer also agreed that the timing is right for Facebook and its peers to tap into social audio, as it provides an opportunity for users to engage on many topics in a way that is not "quite as demanding as yet another Zoom call or video chat."

Though hardly a blip on the radar for much of last year, Clubhouse's usage recently has skyrocketed. According to data from analytics firm Sensor Tower, global installs of the app from Apple's App Store just passed 10 million, with the majority of those occurring in February of this year. Paul Davison and Rohan Seth, co-founders of Alpha Exploration Co., which operates Clubhouse, said in a recent statement that their purpose for launching the app was to create a "more human" social platform, where "instead of posting, you could gather with other people and talk."

In terms of how Facebook and Twitter might monetize social audio, Jeremiah Owyang, a technology analyst at San Francisco-based research and advisory firm Kaleido Insights, said ads are unlikely, at least initially. Instead, the companies will likely install mechanisms where users tip content creators, or they might create a subscription-based model for people to access content.

"[Social audio] is definitely a continued trend, for sure," Owyang said, calling it a "goldilocks medium" for the pandemic-weary world.