Facebook broadens audio ambitions as Clubhouse, podcasts command spotlight

Dive Brief:

  • Facebook plans to start testing a feature called Live Audio Rooms wherein public figures can host discussions around various topics with fans listening in, the company said on Monday in a blog post. Live Audio Rooms will be piloted in Groups and then expand to Facebook’s chat app Messenger, with the goal of having a wide rollout by the summer.
  • Facebook also revealed it would integrate podcasts into its main app within the next few months, as well as discovery tools for finding new programs. Facebook wants to help podcast creators better connect with new listeners and monetize their content directly through its platform.
  • Facebook’s slate of new audio products are coming down the pike at a time when the mobile channel continues to attract audience and advertiser interest during the pandemic.

Dive Insight:

Facebook is significantly broadening its suite of audio products in recognition of a boom in interest for the channel. Podcasts have continued to proliferate under the pandemic, becoming a larger part of the growth strategy for digital publishers and streaming apps alike. At the same time, the invite-only app Clubhouse has taken the social media category by storm, creating a buzzy online forum for public figures like Elon Musk and Bill Gates to speak in an off-the-cuff fashion about a variety of topics.

Brands including IHOP and Burger King owner Restaurant Brands International have hopped on the Clubhouse trend, indicating there’s a clear advertiser interest in testing the social audio medium. Clubhouse, which recently secured a Series C funding round, is reportedly valued at $4 billion.

Facebook can quickly create scale for Live Audio Rooms, which closely mirrors aspects of Clubhouse. Groups now draws 1.8 billion monthly users, according to Facebook, while Messenger also commands a sizable audience. Regarding monetization, Facebook will allow content creators to charge for access to a Live Audio Room chat through either a single purchase or subscription.

The attempt to replicate the Clubhouse model fits in line with a history of Facebook cloning concepts from popular competitors. The social giant famously cribbed the disappearing image format Stories from Snapchat and more recently introduced a Reels feature to Instagram, looking to capitalize on the hype around short-form video app TikTok. But Facebook is hardly alone in trying to ride the Clubhouse wave.

Reddit on Monday revealed a similar live chat room experiment called Reddit Talk that will host Q&As, lectures and feedback discussions among the site’s various subreddit communities. Twitter late last year rolled out a product akin to Clubhouse named Spaces, and was reportedly in talks to acquire Clubhouse at one point.

On the podcasting front, Facebook clearly sees another means to drive up engagement. More than 35 million users are already members of Facebook groups dedicated to podcasts, so opening up listening and discovery capabilities seems a natural next step. Speaking to the tech journalist Casey Newton, author of the Platformer newsletter, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said that Facebook is partnering with Spotify to allow users to access podcasts and music through the audio streamer. The integration, internally dubbed “Project Boombox,” won’t require Facebook listeners to leave its app, TechCrunch reported.

Other Facebook audio products in development include short-form clips called Soundbites that will be used to share jokes, personal anecdotes, inspirational quotes and more. The feature is being tested by a small group of creators including comedian Drew Lynch, accessibility advocate Lolo Spencer and motivational speaker Molly Burke. In his discussion with Newton, Zuckerberg suggested Soundbites will serve the same function as Reels but for audio content. It also plans to open an Audio Creator Fund to support emerging talent and hear feedback on the format.

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