A few months after its beta version went live in March last year, social audio app Clubhouse had around 1.5k users. Fast track to January this year, and it hit 2m. A month later it had reached 10m and, across the same time period, its valuation has risen from $100m to $1bn.
Clubhouse is the most famous platform, but it’s not the only one. It’s part of a growing cohort of new social media trying to capitalise off an increasing interest in audio content.
Jeremiah Owyang, a tech analyst and investor, describes audio as the ‘Goldilocks’ medium: it’s not as impersonal as text but also not as invasive as video — something particularly important for the Zoom-fatigued user.
For Leni Andronicos, the founder of new social audio app Logcast — which went live on the App Store in Sweden this week — the move to audio is all about users’ desires for a more authentic media.
“It’s almost like we’ve done a full 360 on the media evolution,” she says. “I believe the reason audio has become so popular is because, ultimately, language makes us human and language is the oldest form of building community and social relationships. It’s through language that we get to know each other.”
Clubhouse’s ‘interesting-ness’ problem
But things aren’t all rosy in audio app land. There are reports that, after the initial flux of new joiners to Clubhouse, retention is falling and so are app downloads.
There’s also a growing number of Clubhouse sceptics, including Twitter’s head of product Shaan Puri who, in this thread, laid out why he thinks the app will fail.
Puri said that the app has an ‘interesting-ness problem’: apps like TikTok and YouTube have millions of pieces of content to show their users, and an algorithm to select the right stuff. Clubhouse doesn’t have that, because the content shown to the user has to be live.
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Users need to be shown good content within seven seconds of opening an app, Puri said, and that’s hard when you only have live (and therefore less) content to choose from. There are also those who say that the app just did well initially because the world was in lockdown and people wanted someone to chat to.
So, if this new cohort of audio apps can compete with Clubhouse, can they overcome the problems levelled at it too?
Andronicos says she’s grateful for what Clubhouse has done for audio content. She started building Logcast in September 2019, six months before Clubhouse’s team started and back then, she says, investors didn’t see why they should fund social audio.
“I’m thankful for Clubhouse because it accelerated the social audio space by at least three to five years, and made audio one of the hottest industries for investors.”
Still, she maintains, Logcast is very different from Clubhouse. The central idea is to create a more informal version of podcasting, and to make the form social.
Users record ‘logs’ of up to 10 minutes and upload them onto the app. Other users can follow their favourite creators and like their content or direct message them.
In an attempt to encourage authentic content, the app doesn’t allow pre-recorded uploads; instead, users have one shot at pressing the record button, recording the content and publishing.
We want Gen Z teenagers in a couple of years to say ‘oh what’s a podcast, I only log!’
“We see ourselves in the sweet spot between Spotify — who look after full length podcasts — and Clubhouse, which is about live talks and jump-ins. Logcast is in the middle, for people who don’t feel comfortable recording a longform podcast, but also don’t feel confident jumping into a live conversation.”
Logcast doesn’t rely on live content so perhaps could overcome the problem that Puri suggested Clubhouse is encountering; but it would still need to curate a lot of content before it was able to offer users the same instant gratification that apps like TikTok and YouTube achieve through their algorithms.
Social for the Airpods generation
Although Logcast is building a mobile app, the company’s really building it for the Airpods generation, says Andronicos.
“I really believe that the next major computing interface will be Airpods and we won’t be walking around holding phones anymore, we’ll be using Airpods to communicate, build community and share social updates,” she says.
“We want Gen Z teenagers in a couple of years to say ‘oh what’s a podcast, I only log!’”
At present, Logcast's early users include comedians, entrepreneurs, influencers, parents and wellness experts.
There are a number of other companies building social audio apps, a lot of which are based in the US.
American entrepreneur Mark Cuban is developing an app, ‘Fireside Chat’, which is described as a ‘next-gen podcast app’ where users can record live conversations then record and broadcast them. The app will also have built-in analytics so creators can work out which content performs best and monetise it.
In the US, there’s also Discord, which runs audio hangout rooms for groups and Chalk, which does a similar thing — providing secure voice hangout rooms.
In Europe, alongside Logcast, there’s Soapbox, built by a Swiss and German team.
Soapbox differs from Logcast and Clubhouse in that it wants to create serendipitous conversations between people, rather than being about semi-professionalised content creation.
“Clubhouse is your conference. Soapbox is your living room,” says Dean Eigenmann, the app’s founder. The app places you into a conversation with strangers and provides mini games for users to play together. The next iteration of the app will match users together based on their interests.
“Our mission is to provide a space for people to have naturally flowing conversations in a way that builds upon and enhances the real life experience of hanging out with friends and meeting new people,” says Eigenmann.
There’s also Anyone, which, like Logcast, is based in Sweden (the country tends to do well on audio, following in Spotify’s footsteps). Anyone allows people to schedule five minute conversations with people offering advice, from financial guidance to relationship support.
As well as new companies popping up to produce social audio apps, big tech companies like Twitter, Spotify and Facebook are also looking to capitalise off the interest in voice content.
In March, Spotify acquired Locker Room, a live audio app where, at present, users talk specifically about sports.
Spotify has said it’ll expand the areas Locker Room covers to include music and culture too, and use it to give “professional athletes, writers, musicians, songwriters and podcasters” opportunity to host real-time discussions with their fans.
The acquisition forms part of the company’s ‘future of formats of audio’ manifesto, set out in February this year, which highlighted the need for podcasting to move beyond being a “one-way street — from creators to listeners — with little opportunity for feedback.”
Twitter, meanwhile, has been working on Twitter Spaces, which is in test mode but is expected to be rolled out to more users very soon. The idea is that a ‘host’ could start a room where followers can join and discuss a topic.
It was also reported that Twitter tried to buy Clubhouse itself, with people close to the matter saying a figure of $4bn was discussed.
Facebook’s also reported to be working on a feature to rival Clubhouse. Last year, the company launched Rooms, which allows users to video call in groups, and it’s rumoured to be working on an audio-only equivalent.
So who will the winners be?
Sameer Singh is an investor who also advises startups on network effects. He used to work at App Annie, and is interested in new forms of social media.
“Getting the network right is still a challenge for social audio; it’s easy to create something that goes viral then falls off a cliff,” Singh says. Building something that people flock to for the novelty is relatively achievable, but it’s a lot harder to make something with a network that sticks around.
People are more likely to tap into Spaces to see what’s going on. That behaviour isn’t likely on Clubhouse.
“The biggest challenge with audio is that if you want to do live conversations, you need an audience who you know will be there. That’s hard if your product isn’t very ‘here and now’ already.”
That puts Twitter in a strong position, Singh says. If it can figure out the strategy for Spaces, he says, Twitter will have a huge advantage because it already has a high level of live engagement on its news feed.
“People are more likely to tap into Spaces to see what’s going on. That behaviour isn’t likely on Clubhouse.”
This means apps like Logcast, which are focused on asynchronous content and aren’t trying to compete with Twitter on a live engagement front, could do well.
There’s room for Clubhouse to do well too, Singh says, if it focuses on being a ‘scheduled destination’ app, something it’s moving increasingly towards. But if Twitter can work out a way to hack scheduled conversations as well, it could come to dominate on both fronts.