Analysis: What is 'active audio' content and why it matters to marketers

Just last week, Facebook said it plans to roll out Live Audio Rooms on Facebook and Messenger, in what seems like a move to rival Clubhouse. In a blog post, the tech giant said that Live Audio Rooms will be made available to public figures to host conversations with other public figures, creating a forum for discussion without the pressure of being on camera. This feature will also be made available on Messenger so users can hang out with their friends. When Live Audio Rooms launches, fans will be able to support their favourite creators and public figures through Stars or donate to causes they care about. There will also be other monetisation models soon after launch, such as the ability to charge for access to a Live Audio Room through a single purchase or a subscription. 

Building on its push for audio content, Facebook is also launching other audio products such as Soundbites and podcasts. According to the social media giant, audio creation tools on its platform will enable it to create short-form, creative audio clips known as Soundbites, which can be used to capture anecdotes, jokes, moments of inspiration, and poems. Soundbites will be tested over the next few months with a small number of creators and the product will be refined before being made available to everyone. Meanwhile, Facebook is also ensuring that users can also listen to podcasts directly on the Facebook app - both while using the app or when the app is backgrounded. The tech giant will also help users discover new podcasts and episodes based on their interests, enable users to comment on them and recommend them to friends. Podcast creators will also be able to reach and connect with new listeners within the Facebook app. According to CNBC, Facebook is also working with Spotify on Project Boombox, a feature that enables musicians to easily share their music on the social media platform and users to easily play music on it.

Aside from Facebook, Reddit and Twitter have also made moves into the live audio space. Last week, Reddit offered a sneak preview of Reddit Talk, a new feature that allows users to host live audio conversations in their communities. Currently, only text threads, images, videos, chats, and live streams are available for users to have conversations on the platform. However, Reddit believes that "having a live audio talk may be more useful or, frankly, more fun". Additionally, Twitter's Spaces function also enables users to host and participate in live audio conversations. The interface for Twitter Spaces is somewhat similar to Clubhouse, in that listeners will need to request to speak and there is no limit on how many listeners can join a Space. 

The huge push for audio content came hot in the heels of Clubhouse's success earlier this year. Since then analytics firm Sensor Tower predicted that it has experienced a 72% dip in growth from 9.6 million installs in February to 2.4 million in March, Reuters reported. Despite the dip in usage, the audio chat app is still making waves online, more recently with its first-ever sports league programming partnership with the National Football League (NFL) in the US for Draft Week. Courtyard by Marriott, the official hotel of the NFL, will also host an intimate live Clubhouse conversation for fans to chat and comment on the NFL Draft.

Similar to Facebook's Stars, Clubhouse also launched a Payments feature for its creators earlier this month, with 100% of the payment to the creator. Patrick Collison, CEO of Stripe which is Clubhouse's payment processing partner, previously tweeted that it is cool to see a new social platform focus first on participant income rather than internalised monetisation or advertising.

Safe to say, podcasts and audio streaming, in general, have seen a rise in popularity over the past year. In 2020, Kantar predicted that podcasts would turn out to be one of the fastest-growing channels for ad spend. This year, global brand director at Kantar's Insights division, Duncan Southgate, said "the audio renaissance will continue with host-read podcast advertising alongside inventory on podcast networks". True to Kantar's prediction, Apple turned up the heat on the monetisation of its Podcasts with a subscription plan for listeners. The premium subscriptions include a variety of benefits curated by creators, such as ad-free listening, access to additional content, and early or exclusive access to new series. Users can also find more shows from their favourite creators, as well as paid channels and channels that provide additional benefits for subscribers.

Not just a rise in audio but "active audio"

While there has been much chatter going on about the rise of audio, Ramakrishnan CN, partner at Entropia and head of EXR, views this as more of a rise in "active audio". According to him, the evolution can be seen from active listening (radio news) to passive listening (music stations) to semi-active on-demand (Spotify or podcasts) and now to an active audio experience (live audio). "In Clubhouse and other upcoming competitors, the main differentiator will be how actively people are engaged with the content. It is transient, hence 'active audio' thinking is what any marketer keeps in mind while planning a consumer engagement," he explained.

For now, the various ways that brands can use the platform ranges from PR management by bringing the management in direct conversation with customers, in thought leadership of the company in their specific areas, engaging people by bringing them up close and personal with celebrities and even figuring out quick qualitative research on various topics.

While the platforms for live audio, such as Clubhouse, are currently ad-free, Ramakrishnan said there is a possibility for these platforms to open up solutions for marketers soon. For now, brands can use live audio streaming platforms such as Clubhouse in various ways including PR management, where the C-suite can engage in direct conversations with customers and expand on the thought leadership of their company in specific areas. This channel can also be used to engage consumers to bring them up close and personal with celebrities and even figuring out quick qualitative research on various topics, he explained.

Meanwhile, Lion & Lion's regional head of social media Ham Maghazeh believes that the rise in audio gives a "new soul" to a brand's marketing, adding another layer of communication to its marketing mix. This also signals the need for brands to build closer bonds with their consumers and listen to them. "This is the foundational promise of social media - the democratisation of voice. We already experienced this in the form of podcasts, but like any other medium, audio is evolving to shorter and a more conversational form," Maghazeh said.

Jumping on the emerging success of social audio a little too early?

While some industry players agree that the latest movements in the industry signal a rise in audio, Joe Sen, MediaMonks' head of strategy, Southeast Asia, said the move to build on the emerging success of social audio is a double-edged sword. While it creates "new formats" for marketers to invest in and brands to create content with, he said the industry is possibly doing so a little too early". 

With only a year into its launch, Sen explained that Clubhouse has yet to find its first generation of super creators. "There are no Internet personalities such as Amanda Cerny or Zach King gaining traction with a larger audience yet," he said. At the same time, Facebook's social audio play will push its focus towards monetisation a little too soon. "Live Audio Rooms and its 'Stars' features do not create the best platform for brands. It will also drive convention and culture toward more short-term wins, most likely shaping a very different community from the one grown around Clubhouse," he explained. 

On the other hand, Sen said the Apple Podcasts app might be experiencing the complete opposite problem. Having paved the way for an ecosystem of content creators and distributers 15 years ago, Apple might have taken a little too long to provide them with monetisation options. "While still holding on to the lion's share of the podcast app market, there is still a diverse range of channels through which audiences currently find creators, including Spotify, which have secured some compelling exclusive shows. Podcasters and podcast networks have also created alternative ways to court advertising dollars and the support of fans," he said. 

Apple's new monetisation options are certainly likely to see a decent uptake amongst podcasters, Sen said. When it comes to podcasts for advertisers and marketers, however, he said it is still about identifying the right creators and shows to find the right audience. "And Apple has not made that a whole lot easier with its new announcement," he added.

Social audio and podcasting are two separate mediums

When it comes to monetising audio, Sen advised brands to think of social audio and podcasting as two separate mediums. According to him, Facebook does not seem to be making brands a priority for its Live Audio Rooms feature but there are potential opportunities around Soundbites, its short-form audio format. 

Get in early – the effectiveness of many Facebook formats tend to go down over time – and follow its advice on how to best leverage its platforms' marketing tools to maximum effect.

Additionally, brands should constantly remember the strengths of audio as they venture into these new territories. "It is a medium that can build a great deal of intimacy with the listener. In contrast to video and other native content plays, audio can insist on your focus, as it drives narratives forward one single stream of consciousness at a time. Think about when and where in the journey those strengths help your cause," Sen explained. When it comes to podcasts on Apple, Facebook, and Spotify, brands should continue to court the right creators and listen to them on the best ways to place their brands within their programming.

"There is no doubt that audio is on the rise. You can see the signs of this across platforms; there is a shift in consumer behaviour," said Prabhjeet Singh, head of marketing at Cisco India.

"According to Forbes, about 600,000 active podcasts are streaming online, with 120,000 created within one year. Social audio is perhaps going to be the next big thing for marketers," he said. Singh explains that podcasts are a unique storytelling platform and can help effectively drive thought leadership initiatives. They can also be deployed to substantiate and complement virtual events, offering choice to customers to consume content on-demand on multiple neutral platforms.

Podcasts also open up an opportunity to launch branded channels enabling marketers to accumulate a large follower base and create a community of their own.

"With the rapid adoption of voice search, marketers are optimising and redesigning keyword strategy. We do not use the same keywords to search when we speak vis-a-vis when we type. This offers marketers a great opportunity to rethink and adapt their content to deliver an improved customer experience," Singh explained. 

While there is plenty of excitement around podcasts and audio streaming, Singh warned that the content needs to be relevant and refreshed periodically. The reason being, the shelf life of audio is relatively short hence the delivery has to be in an interesting story format.

Photo courtesy: 123RF

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