Social Media’s Audio-First Future


We’re going to be listening to a lot of social this year. 

It’s time to get smart on audio-first social apps. There’s Clubhouse, Marc Cuban’s Fireside, Twitter’s Spaces, and soon even Facebook will have an audio chat product. Social audio is a growing trend in 2021 social media, and one that’s going to explode in the coming months. 

Why are they going to take off and why now? Podcasts have never been more popular and accessible, but they are inherently one-way communication. Someone records an episode, and you download or stream it. But these audio-first social apps offer real-time content and the opportunity to LITERALLY join the conversation. And in a global pandemic, when many are yearning for connection and screenless activities, these new audio platforms offer a new alternative to the endless scroll norm. And there’s big money involved, too.  

Clubhouse, Spaces, and more on the way

Clubhouse is the fastest growing, audio-only social network that lets you listen in on conversations about specific topics, and participate by asking questions or even joining the conversation yourself.

“What if Twitter was a podcast you lived inside of?” – PCMag’s Jordan Minor

Right now Clubhouse is iOS-specific and invitation-only, but it’s been making waves for news-breaking conversations – like Elon Musk grilling the CEO of Robinhood about GameStop, Mark Zuckberberg joining to talk about the future of AR/VR, Steve Ballmer and Kanye joined, and just this morning at 7 a.m. I listened to a live conversation between Kim Dotcom, MC Hammer and Deadmau5 offering advice on “Tech startups for musicians and creatives.” 


Topics range from parenting advice to cooking tips, deep intellectual thought leadership to celebrity gossip, Black entrepreneurism to relationship support. And if you don’t find a topic worth joining, you can start your own. 

But it’s not just Clubhouse. Twitter is launching its own version of audio-only social networking, called Spaces. Just this week they expanded their beta test group and will surely open it more broadly soon. You may even be already seeing Spaces chats in your mobile app where the Fleets (aka Stories) are located. Because of Twitter’s massive existing user base, they will be able to introduce this function at-scale quickly once the product is ready.

Twitter Spaces

Marc Cuban co-founded Fireside, a podcast app where hosts can talk to fans live and monetize their conversations that will launch publicly this year. And this week we learned Facebook is also building an audio chat product that is similar to Clubhouse.

Some observations about why the appeal of audio-first format is exploding in 2021:

  • The Technology is Here: The combination of always-on, high-speed internet with handheld super computers and social network infrastructure makes broadcasting live audio simple. And streaming it even simpler.
  • Intimacy: It’s almost like eavesdropping on a call between friends. Compressed audio isn’t as big a deal when you aren’t looking at faces, and it harkens back to the nostalgia of when we used to use our phones for phone calls.
  • Screen-Free or Second Screen: There’s a limited need to look at the screen when consuming the content – which is powerful in a pandemic world where we stare at screens all day and all night. Or perhaps instead of having a TV on (or another episode of The Office), you’ll have an audio chat on while surfing your phone.
  • Ephemerality: In most cases, if you miss a live conversation, you missed out – which is refreshing in a content-rich world with too many choices and the pressure of permanency where content lives forever. Of course, many of these are recorded (and those tools are coming), but this format reduces the pressure of more formal audio production and syndication.
  • Live + Engagement: The live, two-way interface is highly unique in audio-first social networking – which democratizes the experience differently than a pre-recorded podcast or walkie-talkie-style app, like HeyTell or Marco Polo.
  • This Ain’t New: Gamers already know the value of audio social and having a group of friends in your ear talking about topics while playing games. Discord, XBox Live, and other systems have enabled this social networking layer through audio for years.

“Who Are These Apps For? I Don’t Have Time for This”

I wasn’t super big on audio-first social apps for one primary reason –  lack of commute time. My commute of 60-120 minutes a day evaporated with the pandemic, and that was my prime time for listening to podcasts and non-music audio. But what I’ve discovered is I’m repurposing my doomscrolling and cable news consumption for 2020 into educational and intellect-growing activities in 2021. And Clubhouse and Spaces purposefully align with this healthier new habit. But with a social spin and a more ambient approach.

Specifically, for those who like traveling to big thought leadership events like South by Southwest (SXSW), they may find a lot of those high caliber conversations can be found live on Clubhouse and Spaces. For those who like listening to late night satellite radio shows about love and dating, that’s here, too. For those interested in place-based and travel content like you would find on Axios and YouTube, there’s a channel for those, also.

And for those who like to talk, be heard, ask questions, or challenge the status quo, hosting a conversation with a potential audience has never been easier through the technology within these apps. Bonus: it works in every language.

Like a lot of “new” social networks, there will be early adopters who help shape the direction and utility of these sites and how they are used. But as more people join, they may drastically change it up. In fact, look for paid tiers and subscriptions across all of these. And potential advertisers. And then this feature to show up in more places — like Spotify, Amazon Echo devices, and more.

Moderation and the Complicated Nature of New Social Networks 

One of the most appealing things about joining a social network that is just taking off in popularity is that it feels fresh. And free. It’s a chance to start your friend network anew. There aren’t a massive amount of trolls and bots. It’s a feeling that only comes around every few years, and while it feels great, it also sets us up for some bitterness in the long run. It’s also a place for communities and people who aren’t always heard or represented in big social.

But Clubhouse has already faced issues with moderation, bullying, multi-level marketing, bro-culture, and elitism. And as a new social network grows, there are new issues with the scale of bad behavior and the darker side of the social web. Eventually, algorithms may be needed to help elevate the best content and police the assholes, which brings its own host of complications. And founders needs to be more aware and responsible for the communities that grow on their platforms. Especially rich, white, male founders from Silicon Valley. This category is a “to be continued.” Just don’t be surprised when there are problems. 

Should My Brand Be On Clubhouse?

Like most new social networks and social behaviors, it’s still early when it comes to brand adoption and figuring out where these fit in the marketing ecosystem. So far few brands have been directly involved in hosting content or positioning their experts, but that’s going to change.  

Subject matter experts from companies are perfectly poised for using these channels and flexing their category expertise by creating regular and recurring talk show-style content series around things their brand is passionate about. But they need to be sure not to sell or be overly branded, at least at first. Instead, these series can include topic and guests the brand identifies in advance, plus real-time guests who join and are “asked onstage” to join the conversation. 

These chats can be promoted in advance on the brand’s social channels and PR (especially LinkedIn), and over time, these series will build their own following – positioning the brand as a leader in an emerging social network that reaches influential audiences with messages that scale to the mainstream.

So for today, activating on Clubhouse is primarily an executive visibility strategy in a burgeoning social network where there is a lot of white space for innovation from brands. Your PR team needs to get moving.

How Do I Get Started?

Clubhouse invitations can be found by asking your social networks to send you an invite. Download the app, and you will appear in your contacts’ list to invite. If you need help, tweet at me and I’ll share the request. Twitter Spaces is invite only, so follow @spaces for now. And Fireside has an email address here where you can request to get on their list.

Here’s what else I’m tracking this week…

Fake Famous is Kind of Fake: This week there has been lots of buzz about Fake Famous, a new HBO documentary where journalist Nick Bilton found three everyday people and used fake bots and influencer content strategy to try to make them go viral. Not all the buzz about the film is positive, and it’s fair to say a lot of Bilton’s faux-outrage and hot takes about social influence are a decade old and full of stereotypes or urban legends. But if you’re looking for a trending documentary to hate-watch while second-screening this weekend, give it a watch.  

Dark Social’s Dark Side: In the last month, tens of millions of people have downloaded the private messaging programs Telegram and Signal, making the two services the hottest apps in the world. Some new users include far-right groups that were barred from posting on Facebook and Twitter after the storming of the U.S. Capitol. And the shift to private messaging has renewed a debate over whether encryption is a double-edged sword. While the technology prevents people from being spied on, it might also make it easier for criminals and misinformation spreaders to do harm without getting caught. Read more about the issue here.

The 4 New Global Capitals of Music: A growing number of the biggest pop stars in the world are from outside the traditional capitals of the continental U.S. and U.K. – Puerto Rico, Colombia, India, and South Korea. See the pop star power rankings here.

Internet Recipe Hacks are Trending: BuzzFeed first popularized the “top-down, two hands making a meal” formula with their Tasty brand six years ago, and today it’s an entire category in social media. And therefore, it’s ripe for parody and sometimes horrifying recipe hack videos. Perhaps you saw this Spaghetti Os pie recipe nightmare. The Atlantic has a full breakdown on the trend, including the economic tension in fine dining recipes, the appeal of “disgust” in social content, and the appeal of counterintuitive content in social.

Quick Hits:

See you on the internet!