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Clubhouse CMO on its post-pandemic future (and where brands fit)

Clubhouse’s new tools aim to fix social audio’s discovery and sharing issues

Social audio platforms are recreating in-person conversations for the digital age. More intimate than text and less polished than video, social apps such as Clubhouse aim to return conversation and intimacy to online communication. But that intimacy – and the relative newness of the social audio space – presents a challenge for brands looking to reach audiences.

Clubhouse rapidly rose to prominence as the Covid-19 pandemic became a reality. At the height of its popularity it saw over 9.6 million downloads of the app in February 2021. Building upon previous, less sophisticated audio chatrooms, Clubhouse offered opt-in audio spaces with various levels of privacy.

But, it's faced questions on what its future holds. In August, Clubhouse saw about 1.7 million global installs, down 35% month over month from about 2.6 million in July according to TechCrunch. Currently, the average Clubhouse user spends 70 minutes a day on the platform.

Clubhouse and its competitors across platforms including Discord and Twitter Spaces, are now heding their bets on how the audio space will evolve as the it becomes more sophisticated.

Maya Watson is head of global marketing at Clubhouse. She tells The Drum that the next iteration of social audio will allow for better discovery of the rooms that comprise the majority of social audio consumption. To that end Clubhouse is launching a number of new features designed to improve how users can find and share ongoing conversations.

Watson says: “The first one is universal search ... it’s been a little crazy that we haven’t had it. And what’s exciting about search is now you can type anything in topic, ideas, in search, and it pulls up real-time events, the rooms that are live in the moment. The reason that’s exciting is because I think one of the best use cases I’ve seen for Clubhouse is just how it’s a place where people come to have conversations about the things that are happening in the world.”

The live and in-the-moment nature of audio conversations is one that is unreplicable in other mediums. While it presents challenges, Watson believes that it is the bedrock on which social audio is based. She cites the ongoing issue surrounding Netflix as an example of the type of flashpoint around which some of the best social audio is based.

The platform is also launching tools around scheduling and clips to better enable users to share conversations they think are interesting, before and after the fact. It’s an attempt to build a much more structured type of social audio, one that should hopefully help Clubhouse to stay ahead of its competitors.

Watson says: “The conversations that I’ve been having with Paul [Davidson, Clubhouse chief exec] and the larger team is the need for creators and partners, and for brands who want to come be a part of the Clubhouse community, one of the things that we need to solve is more distribution.”

To that end the platform took advantage of how members of the Clubhouse community were already finding ways to share its audio across other platforms such as YouTube.

“Live is incredible ... with ephemeral content you don’t know what’s going to happen. [But] it’s limiting in terms of how many people can experience that moment. So with replays, with clips, what we’re hoping is that more people get to experience these moments and we’ll start to have this incredible content library of experiences that people can [listen to] for a long time.”

The brand proposition

Just as audiences flock to social audio, brands are looking to take advantage of a new channel to reach self-selected audiences on those platforms. The tricky part is that, just as it would be jarring to have a salesman pitch up mid-conversation in the pub, social audio spaces are relatively unstructured, informal and unsuited to traditional marketing messages.

Pre- and post-roll advertising around replays and clips are one potential way to solve that, one that could take advantage of the boom in audio advertising – but it does not allow marketers to take advantage of the unique strengths of social audio.

Watson says that the app is speaking to a number of brands about the opportunities of hosting events on the platform: “The good thing about Clubhouse is it’s like the human experience, so whatever you can imagine happening in real life, you can do it on Clubhouse in a really cool way.

“So if you want to have a dinner party and have an intimate conversation with influencers in your brand, you can do that on Clubhouse. If you wanted to hold a press conference, you could do that on Clubhouse, as we often do. If you wanted to humanize your team ... if you want to talk about a project that’s coming out, or a film that you’re starring in, or how this this campaign came to be, all of those things can happen.”

Despite those opportunities she is clear that the primary attribute required by marketers on the platform is authenticity and ensuring that it fits with the overall mission of the brand being advertised. She points to partnerships with Ted and Genius as examples of brands that have transitioned well to social audio, since so much of their output was already conversation-driven.

One area that might put brands off, though, is that brands cannot exist on Clubhouse as brands – it has to be individuals associated with the brand who chair those discussions. Given that brands have historically been reticent to forgo control over how their content is presented on platforms, it’s a hard sell for some marketers. Watson believes, though, that some of Clubhouse’s recent experiments prove that it can be done well, citing the work Kiehl’s did on the app over the course of Pride as an example.

Watson states that, while it is still very early into the life cycle of social audio as a medium, the best thing brands can do is look at how its audience is using the app. By creating conversations around the flashpoints and topics that interest them, it is both an opportunity to speak directly to an opt-in audience, and to discover what those consumers are most interested in.

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