Are Drop-In Audio Apps the Future?

As people stopped traveling, bars closed, conferences and in-person meetings went virtual — we found new (and not so new) ways of trading ideas and staying in touch. Staying connected has never been more important. While Zoom and video has dominated workplaces and get togethers with friends, we’ve also seen audio apps take off — Clubhouse being the primary example. But there are others I’ve been exploring such as (livestream a phone call) and Roadtrip (listen to music with friends).

“Audio hits different.” –a Clubhouse user the other day

In 2020 there’s been a lot to discuss. I consider it an inflection point in modern day history for several reasons, but that’s for another time. Whether it’s the global pandemic (and it’s politicization), George Floyd and Black Lives Matter, the US election, Brexit, or the economy, there’s a lot happening in the world that’s surfaced (or re-surfaced). We need a public gathering place to address these things. So are these drop-in audio apps like the modern day Agora? In Ancient Greece, the Agora served as as a gathering place for political debates, trade, sports and other functions. It served a lot of purposes, but it helped democratize information by creating a public forum.

Now back to 2020.

While Twitter still dominates the ‘real time’ zeitgeist, news and other forms of fast information exchange, these new drop-in audio apps prove to be doing well because of their simplicity, familiarity and scale. Audio is familiar (think podcasts, radio, etc), but it’s also low commitment if you want it to be. You can listen in for a bit without having to actively contribute to the conversation — you don’t have to actively play DJ with Roadtrip if you don’t want. The scale and accessibility is real too: it’s on our phones and can be accessed globally — listen to thought leaders or “normals” exchange ideas on a topic on the train or while driving (or 35 thousand feet up when we’re all flying again).

There’s still an element of spectatorship though — in a crowded room, you might not know who’s who. While your favorite celebrity might feel more comfortable not putting something down in writing, they and the rest of us are still careful in what we say — conversations come with a lot of context. On Clubhouse for example, there’s no rewinding, it’s not rehearsed or scripted. (Although, there are have been reports of screen recording recently).

I was recently in a room with Joe Budden and a few others who were discussing the risks in ‘saying whatever comes to mind’ — you might have execs or others with power in the room listening in. You’re not completely free from critique, just ask Akademiks when he joined his “Welcome Party” on Clubhouse.

“This isn’t a clubhouse anymore, it’s just a club.” –a Clubhouse user a few days ago expressing concern about the growing lack of exclusivity with the platform.

Will audio replace other media types or platforms? Nope; it’s complimentary. Most recently, I saw that Twitter is testing into audio rooms, allowing people to create/join rooms — this would create a one-stop-shop, since they already have live video as well. I joined a conversation where Twitter’s Chief Design Officer, Dantley Davis, was hosting a great discussion on the thinking so far and how they’re experimenting with it. As folks contributed to the dialog, Jack listened in — it was actually really awesome.

A simple graph showing the interconnected nature of creators, content and an active user base.

I think there’s product/market fit for drop-in audio apps (and features) if they can figure out how to make it a business while satisfying their user base. There’s been some recent discussions on Clubhouse’s influencer program, for example. On Twitter, I would imagine this could further help their engagement KPIs (e.g. DAU and time spent per session). I think there’s consumer demand for audio, as long as the content is valuable. If you don’t get enough interesting people (and consequently interesting content), then you’ll lose the audience and not achieve product/market fit — hence why the point on business viability here is so important.

In general, I like where it’s going and how the main players are testing into it and validating along the way.

Looking forward to hearing your thoughts. See you online!

product vp @americanexpress. founded yixxie, a boutique digital firm. @cal alum. opinions are mine.