Facebook: Leading the charge for Social Audio?

Audio has gone through some big changes and some fast growth over the last five years. 

The growth of podcasting, the launch of Smart Speakers and the birth of v-commerce have all created waves in the audio industry and the latest of those waves (all be it a ripple at present) is being caused by what has been dubbed "Social Audio".

Social audio is the catch-all term for a new wave of 'audio first' social media channels - Social media that in some way uses audio as the primary medium of communication and allows its users to interact with that audio in some way.

Earlier this year Clubhouse was the first app to really create a stir in this area. It was billed as a hybrid of a conference call, break out room and virtual lecture theatre and the "invite-only" membership created quite a buzz in the audio world. Sadly, that buzz has died down almost as quickly as it grew to leave a void for someone to fill as the industry leader in this space.

In my view the big challenge that Clubhouse, and other similar apps, need to overcome is two-fold:

  1. The two-way communication/conversation they encourage isn't how people are used to using social media platforms. To date, most social media (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram) is a paradoxically un-social experience. We tend to consume these channels in quiet times, maybe in public, where audio consumption is a challenge and contributing would go against social rules (on the train, in the bathroom etc...). These platforms demand a change in user behaviour and that is always a challenge. I'm not saying it won't catch on but there are some deep-rooted behavioural changes that stand in the way of it becoming the "next Tik Tok".

  2. More people want to talk than to listen. The early adopters of these apps are those who want to broadcast rather than consume. News outlets, podcasts, thought leaders etc... have all quick to seek opportunities in these spaces as a new channel through which to push their content. This has resulted in a very top-heavy structure with too many broadcasters at the top and not enough audience members at the bottom. This is not a sustainable model. For these apps to succeed they need to quickly grow the potential audience of listeners and that is no easy task.

These two potential pitfalls are what makes the launch of Facebook Audio so exciting as, from its early stages, it seems to avoid both.

'Facebook Audio' launched last week (22nd June) in a very limited capacity and with limited functionality but this is baby steps... its baby strides.

The rollout is currently only in the US, focused purely on podcasts and only features those shows that would be considered the "elite" in terms of audience reach.

Podcasting is the initial focus but the ambition of Facebook audio is to become a competitor to the likes of Dischord and Clubhouse. So, it's reasonable to expect that the rollout of the new features will be swift.

As I said, the early stages of Facebook audio are purely focused on plugging podcast audio into the Facebook experience. This is a similar approach to that which we saw with video a few years ago. There are several different features added to the Facebook experience.

  • A Facebook "Podcasts" tab allowing users to discover and listen to shows.
  • The ability to automatically publish a podcast to Facebook from your host (as you would with Apple, Spotify etc...)
  • The ability to easily create Facebook-friendly "Audiograms" which Facebook have snappily renamed "Soundbites".
  • New episodes appearing in a users newsfeed after they have been published by a creator.
  • Users able to comment on podcast episodes as they play.

That last element of this list is a big deal.

Facebook has learnt from YouTube when it comes to how people like to interact with web-based media and they have used that model for their new platform.

This method of comment and engagement feels old school in its execution but, to my knowledge, it doesn't exist anywhere in the podcasting world. It could be a game-changer when it comes to audiences interacting with audio. Importantly, it required no big change in user behaviour.

The other big tick in Facebook audio's box is their audience size. They may not be growing at the pace they once were or be the disruptive force in the social space but the 2.76 billion people who use the App around the globe is a huge potential audience who are already happily consuming other forms of content and media via the platform... so why wouldn't they listen to audio? 

Because of that huge audience base, the balance between broadcaster and audience is naturally going to be weighted towards the consumer. It would take a huge shift for there suddenly to be more mouths than ears on the Facebook platform.

The Clubhouse experience (as with Spotify Greenroom) is also hampered by broadcasters needing to establish new audiences from a zero base. Facebook allows you to simply add audio into the armoury of content you are already publishing to your network. This is of huge benefit to those who already have large audiences and ultimately it is those individuals and brands who will be the influencers and drive users in this space.

Facebook isn't done yet either! A complete rollout of features and tools is planned for the latter half of 2021 which will look to put audio at the very centre of the Facebook product.

Future developments are said to include:

  • Live audio rooms (in direct competition with Twitter Spaces, Clubhouse and Greenroom.
  • The promotion of short-form audio (potentially this could include news-type bulletins).
  • A creator platform allowing any user to create and share audio clips (like an audio Tik Tok).

This is the first step into audio from Facebook but they have clearly identified it as a key area for growth so we can expect steps two, three and four to follow close behind. Even at these early stages, they are fast catching those who launched their social audio platforms some time previous. You would be brave to bet against them.