They've been in the works for a little while, but now Facebook has made it official, with the announcement of a range of new audio social options across its apps as it seeks to tap into the Clubhouse-led trend.
Facebook's history of replication suggested that it was always going to copy Clubhouse in some way, with the audio meeting app seeing significant usage momentum as people look for ways to replace IRL meet-ups amid the pandemic.
And given Facebook's massive reach, and established presence in many people's lives, it could pose the biggest threat to Clubhouse's growth as yet - especially given the breadth of tools Facebook has announced.
First off, in what's likely the most direct assault on Clubhouse, Facebook is launching an audio-only version of its Rooms feature in Facebook and Messenger, which will enable people to start up audio rooms that their connections can join which will be highlighted at the top of News Feeds and chats within each app.
As you can see, the new option will have a very Clubhouse-like format, with hosts highlighted at the top of the screen, and listeners tuning in shown below. Users will be able to make their rooms public or private, while they'll also be discoverable in a separate Rooms tab.
Creators will also be able to monetize their Rooms, via Facebook's Stars donation system, while it's also working on additional monetization models, "like the ability to charge for access to a Live Audio Room through a single purchase or a subscription".
In addition to this, Facebook says that creators will also be able to turn a live conversation into a podcast for everyone to listen to later, providing more ways to use the content.
Of course, Facebook is not designed around audio connection like Clubhouse is, which may make its audio rooms less engaging. But then again, Facebook does have one specific, directly aligned tool to help boost its audio rooms option - Facebook groups.
As part of the initial rollout of audio rooms, Facebook will test the option in groups, with users able to set up audio rooms within their groups specifically, which could be a great way to spark engagement among like-minded people. And given that groups are used by over 1.8 billion people every month, that could make this a highly valuable add-on, with people now able to drop in and listen to chats among group members on topics they're already regularly engaging with.
For comparative context, Clubhouse, at last check, has around 2 million active users. If Facebook's audio rooms catch on in groups, that could mean that a significant chunk of potential Clubhouse users never switch over to the audio app, staying within the groups and tools they know instead.
If there's any question as to why Facebook is always copying other platforms' ideas, this alone would be justification enough.
Facebook rooms will also initially be made available to public figures, with a broader rollout coming in the summer.
In addition to this, Facebook is also launching a new tool called 'Soundbites', which will enable users to create short-form audio clips using a range of effects and tools.
The new tool will showcase Facebook's various advances in audio tech - as explained by Facebook:
"Through our advances in AI, we can make audio quality magically great - even if you record on a busy street corner. You will be able to use music from Facebook’s Sound Collection in the background of your story to set the tone. And with the ability to mix audio tracks, a growing collection of sound effects, voice effects and filters, it should be a lot of fun too."
The option will eventually enable users to post their own audio clips to Facebook, in a whole new format.
Utilizing audio clips in this way is not entirely new - Facebook's actually been testing out audio clips as an update option since 2018, though those tests have primarily focused on the Indian market, and haven't included these advanced audio filters and tools.
But now, with the rising popularity of audio as a connective option, Facebook's expanding its audio options, which could help it further align with the social audio shift.
Facebook says it will start testing Soundbites over the next few months
Facebook's also looking to tap into podcasts more specifically, with the launch of new podcast listening and discovery tools in the app.
As explained by Facebook:
"Within the next few months, you’ll be able to listen to podcasts directly on the Facebook app - both while using the app or when the app is backgrounded. And because it’s still hard to discover podcasts you like, we will help you easily find new podcasts and episodes based on your interests, comment on them and recommend them to your friends."
The option will give Facebook more specific connection with the evolving podcast space - which somewhat aligns with its investment in newsletters also, ensuring it has a stake in every rising digital connection process.
Which is really what this is all about. While some will deride Facebook for copying every emerging digital connection functionality that it can, in an attempt to maintain relevance, when you actually analyze that argument, it makes perfect sense.
None of these features is hugely difficult for Facebook to implement:
- As noted, Facebook already has billions of users engaging around specific topics within groups, so adding newsletters actually makes perfect sense as a revenue generation add-on
- Most podcasters already have Facebook Pages, so adding a direct connection function to help link users to relevant episodes as they're posted will streamline the process, potentially increasing listenership
- Facebook already has video rooms - if anything, downgrading them to audio is a step-back for the platform, technologically
When you look at it from this perspective, why wouldn't Facebook look to tap into these trends. Yes, Facebook's working to maintain relevance, because it doesn't want to go the way of MySpace and be rendered obsolete by challengers, especially when it can fight back, and likely beat them, with its own variations of the same.
That likely doesn't help Facebook's case in its ongoing antitrust battles. But from a business perspective, it's all logical, it's what pretty much any other business would do, if it had the opportunity to fend off competition.
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg announced the new features in an interview on Sidechannel, in which he described audio social as a "first-class medium", and likely priority for the company moving forward.
As explained by Zuckerberg:
"Every once in a while a new medium comes along that can be adopted into a lot of different areas."
Clearly, Facebook sees significant potential in these new offerings, and while they will start in limited roll-out, their arrival flags the next stage for Facebook's audio push, which could become a significant element in the broader Facebook experience.
That's likely not great news for Clubhouse, which is already seeing a slowdown in app adoption.
I've added Snapchat and Twitter for comparison in this chart (via app analytics company Sensor Tower).
Part of the reason for this, of course, is that Clubhouse still doesn't have an Android app, which is in development, and it's still growing via an invite-only process, which means slower adoption.
But it could also be that users are becoming more accustomed to the same in other apps. Twitter Spaces, for example, is available on Android, and is being rolled out to more users every other week. Having audio meet-ups appear at the top of Twitter feeds provides significantly more reach potential than Clubhouse can, while Twitter is also working on improving audio discovery, something that Clubhouse users have noted is becoming more problematic as the app adds more people.
More broadcasts inevitably also means more bad broadcasts, and Clubhouse rooms that simply aren't worth your time, so Clubhouse needs to improve its algorithmic matching to ensure an optimal user experience for each individual visitor.
That type of matching is another element that the bigger platforms will have in their favor, as they've been developing similar algorithms across their apps for years, and have significantly more development resources in this respect.
For its part, Clubhouse has recognized these elements, and is working to evolve quickly.
"While we’ve quadrupled the size of our team this year, stabilized our infrastructure, launched Payments in beta to help creators monetize, and readied Android for launch, there is so much more to do as we work to bring Clubhouse to more people around the world. It’s no secret that our servers have struggled a bit these past few months, and that our growth has outpaced the early discovery algorithms our small team originally built."
Clubhouse knows that the challenge before it is rising, and these new additions from Facebook will only add to that.
Will it be able to develop fast enough to stay in touch with the competition, or will Facebook blunt its growth momentum, and make audio social a key feature within its own product suite, as it did with Stories?
We'll have to wait and see what comes next, but it does look like these new additions will be a hit on the social network.
And for marketers, they'll add a whole range of new considerations for connecting with your online communities.