The Future of Social Audio Is Bite-Size

After Disney Pulls Execs From CinemaCon, Other Studios Take ‘Wait and See’ Approach

The Future of Social Audio Is Bite-Size

Social apps experiment with finding the sweet spot for soundbites

Since Clubhouse pushed the concept of social audio, there has been gaining interest from upstart companies and social media giants to get ahead of the next big trend in audio apps. Now the content economy is carving out a new market: the creation of bite-size audio recordings or micro-podcasts that run anywhere from 90 seconds to a few minutes.

Short-form audio is easier to share, cheaper to make and less time-consuming. It’s the kind of on-the-go content people are seeking — and the social giants are taking notice. Facebook earlier this year started experimenting with Soundbites, its short-form audio feature, and Twitter has also been testing a feature for voice tweets up to 140 seconds.

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During the pandemic, people looked for entertainment beyond the screen — and audio seemed to fill that gap. Audio apps were also an alternative place to gather and facilitate conversations while in-person events were shuttered. Some firms are discovering that these soundbites and remixed versions of longer shows or content can serve as effective marketing to pull people in to their channels.

Because this kind of social audio is in its early days, it is difficult to quantify whether and how companies can make money, but users and founders point out that “microcasting” comes with less friction than a highly produced podcast or audio broadcast, or even a live audio room like on Clubhouse. Clubhouse this year launched a content incubator program and other monetization features, and the app this month ditched its invite-only approach and officially opened to all users.

“Monetization is one of the challenges of social audio, along with the unpredictability of live content,” Stephanie Chan, mobile insights strategist at Sensor Tower, said. “Some startups like Beams and Quest are hoping to circumvent this by using soundbites rather than live audio chatrooms. However, it’s a trade-off since part of Clubhouse’s success was reportedly due to the spontaneous feel of the platform.”

Beams, an audio platform offering a place for 90-second posts, is one such company taking an early bet on short-form audio content. Based in Berlin, the startup was built by former employees of Instagram, Soundcloud and Spotify, and is backed by Mangrove Capital Partners and Redalpine. People can start Beams around anything, from parenting advice to skincare talk, and then invite a small group to share or open it up to everyone.

Alan Sternberg, co-founder and co-CEO of Beams, said they are not interested in the advertising route. Though Beams did not disclose its number of users, Sternberg said some of their most popular threads in parenting and cultural topics draw hundreds of speakers and listeners. More than 80% of the current activity is from the US, he said.

Beams found that 90 seconds was just enough to capture a meaningful thought. They observed that people stopped recording after about a minute and also tracked when people would stop listening to come up with that sweet spot.

“You can say it’s our magic sauce,” Sternberg said in an interview. “Voice will be how you operate, and there are many investments into voice systems. It is the format of the future.”

While larger social media companies are focused on profit, Sternberg said his platform is aimed at providing value on creating communities around audio content. They see Beams as “complementary” to social media platforms like Discord and Facebook, he said, rather than as a competitor.

“The companies that last are companies that are finding their niche. Social media today is not about being a horizontal social media place. it is about finding your verticals and dominating,” Sternberg added.

This month, Facebook said it would shell out $1 billion over the next year to attract content creators, offering bonuses for livestreaming and hitting certain milestones on Facebook and Instagram. The move comes as social media networks get more competitive for users and the content that feeds their platforms. Even publishing platforms including Substack and Automattic, owner of WordPress and Tumblr, have entered the podcast and audio game.

Audio, in particular, is seeing more people willing to pay for audio content: 47% of Americans surveyed by Edison Research pay for an audio subscription of some kind, nearly doubling since 2015 when it was 23%. Edison expects that total to surpass 50% in the next year or two.

“I am a little cynical about the short-form audio concept,” said Seth Wallis-Jones, analyst at Omdia, noting that bite-size audio seems to be following in the lines of TikTok’s popular short-form videos or the hype around Clubhouse. “Facebook is also working on a similar Soundbites feature, so with Facebook’s reach there will be major competition for new entrants even if there is user demand,” he added.

User demand looks to be gaining, especially in social audio growth driven by Clubhouse’s popularity. Beams already has competitors of its own, including Quest, Racket, Cappuccino and Pludo, with each offering their own take to capture ears. Quest offers audio posts from experts and leaders on career advice, while Pludo is also doing 90-second soundbites from experts on specific topics. Still in beta, Beams has reached about 2,000 installs since launch. Clubhouse recently hit 30 million installs globally, according to Sensor Tower estimates.

Shareability of shorter audio is a big advantage for Bonni Stachowiak, host of Teaching in Higher Ed podcast and dean of teaching and learning at Vanguard University, located in Southern California. She and her husband are both podcasters who regularly attend industry events. Her show, which started in 2014, gets about 10,000 downloads per episode.

With short audio clips or posts, she said users can mix things up, repurpose and add hashtags or discussions around that content. “There’s a universe of things you could do with audio content,” Stachowiak said. “The clips are the new thing. That’s just not been done, but it’s coming fast.”

As a teacher, she also thinks of sharing or playing an audio clip during class as a way to regain or redirect people’s attention. In general, people’s attention can wander after more than 60 to 90 seconds, she added. 

For companies, ranging from radio shows to music labels, socialized soundbites can help promote a project. Over in the music world, a production company called POPCult has been testing microcasting content of about five to seven minutes. Their first project was with singer K.Flay, who released 20 episodes of short-form content alongside her album and tour.

“We put the story alongside the music, so what you have is a full storytelling plus music experience on Spotify. What we’re finding is short-form audio integrates well with music, if you play your cards right and keep it brief and interesting,” said Lars Murray, POPCult partner in strategy and marketing.

POPCult’s microcasts are embedded into playlists on Spotify. Each episode of the company’s show “My Record” features a person talking about a song that inspired them. Short-form audio allows them to make the content very dynamic in how audio gets monetized, whether it be subscriptions, donations or advertising . POPCult is looking at different ways to monetize, primarily through ads.

POPCult has five upcoming projects with major media companies, with some that are focusing on short-form content or a mixture that includes long form. Three of those projects involve Universal Music Group. Having been in the digital music business for a long time, Murray said he learned to be modular and flexible.

“What we’re catering to is, people have very limited time and attention span these days,” Murray said.