The social media giant has pulled out of podcasting.
It feels like only yesterday that everyone (including me) got a little over-excited about Facebook's announcement that they would be entering the world of podcasting in the social audio space. Now, barely a year on from that initial launch, the tech giant (now under the new umbrella of Meta) has completely reversed its strategy and will soon be closing down its audio operations.
Quite rightly people are asking what has changed, why have Facebook decided that audio isn't for them and what does it mean for the future of podcasting?
Earlier this week, Bloomberg published the story Facebook would cease to support audio on its platform. In the coming days, users will no longer be able to upload new audio and from June 3rd listeners will no longer be able to access the content. Facebook will also discontinue both its short-form audio "soundbites" feature and remove its audio hub. In other words; Facebook no longer does audio.
So, what's changed and why has Facebook made this call after barely scratching the surface of what is possible and what was promised?
I believe the clue is in the name when it comes to Facebook's primary driver for this decision. Back in April 2021, when this venture into the audio space was first revealed, Meta was barely a twinkle in Mark Zuckerberg's eye. Now, it is the flag under which Facebook sails and the name “Meta” is more than just branding.
Meta is not only a name but it is also the direction of travel for Facebook right now. Zuckerberg sees the future of his company firmly in'The Metaverse' and the different opportunities within. Whilst audio is certainly a key part of the metaverse experience it is unclear what role (if any) podcasting or short-form news content has there. So, a change in wider company strategy could be one reason for their withdrawal.
A second clue came in Meta's communication with its partners notifying them of the changes: It read; "We’re constantly evaluating the features we offer so we can focus on the most meaningful experiences" adding that it doesn't plan to alert Facebook users that podcasts will no longer be available. Rather, they will leave it to content creators to spread the word. For me, this indicates that the numbers of people using Facebook as an audio platform are very small at least by Facebook standards anyway. Any changes likely to impact large quantities of users are usually well managed and well communicated - this is neither - which leads me to think that Facebook had simply failed to get any kind of foothold in the audio space.
As we've seen with other social media platforms that have tried to "bolt-on" audio to their existing offering; user habits are very difficult to change. If your user base currently uses your platform to watch funny cat videos and message their Aunt Beril can they easily be persuaded to use that same platform to listen to 1-hour political podcast? Maybe not.
The potential was certainly there for Facebook in audio. With the audience numbers they already have at their disposal, they would no doubt, eventually, be able to establish themselves as a player in the audio game, but it was always going to take time and resources. The podcast/audio market has grown crowded in recent years with huge financial investment from the likes of Spotify and Amazon and it would appear to me that Facebook simply wasn't up for the fight. Instead, choosing to invest their time and money in what is to become their USP: The Metaverse.
To answer the second part of my question; What does this mean for podcasting? The answer is not a huge amount.
Whilst there may be some reactionary analysis that suggests this is the end of the "pod-boom" and cooling of the market, for me, that doesn't ring true. There is huge interest and huge investment in audio and I see no reason why any of those investors (including those mentioned above) would copy Facebook's lead - they already have more skin in the game. Yes, the Podcast market is becoming crowded but it is a long way from being saturated and there is plenty of evidence to suggest room for growth in terms of content and revenue.
As for what difference the move makes to producers and listeners, again the impact is minimal. In truth, Facebook had done very little in this space (especially in the UK) and the platform appeared to have tiny audience numbers for audio. The data here is hard to come by but my research suggests Facebook listening accounted for less than1% of the audience (although as this article from The Verge suggests it's hard to tell how accurate that is).
To me, this feels like a missed opportunity for Facebook and podcasting as a whole. The chance to engage Facebook's mammoth user-base in audio could have been a game-changer for the industry. Likewise, a cleverly integrated widget within the app could have put rockets on social audio. But that's it, a missed opportunity rather than a hammer blow.
Because Facebook had achieved so little in this area to date, it feels like their (not so big) announcement will make no more than a ripple in the podcasting world this time around.