February 19, 2021
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Clubhouse and Twitter’s Spaces Are Great Opportunities For Engagement

It still amazes me that our reaction to sitting on far too many Zoom calls during quarantine was to rush onto an app that gives us the ability to have conference calls with random people.

And yet, nearly a year into Clubhouse’s existence, it has quickly become one of the most talked-about apps.

I joined in May, spent some time engaging with people, stopped using it for a few months, and then started trying it out again. I’ve met some interesting people, some of who have gone on to subscribe to A Media Operator. I’ve also been bored to absolute tears listening to some people ramble on about nothing at all.

Fast forward to today and there are now multiple companies opting to compete with Clubhouse. Facebook, the copier of all, apparently wants to be in the audio business now (why it doesn’t just buy Clubhouse, I’ll never know). And then there’s Twitter with its slowly-rolled out Spaces product.

I’m unenthused by Facebook, so I won’t focus much of my time even talking about it. However, Clubhouse and Spaces, in particular, are interesting and I wonder if there are opportunities for publishers to use them as a way of reaching our audiences.

Before I jump in, let me offer a caveat: you do not own the audience on Clubhouse or Twitter. If a lot of people listen to you there, that’s great. It’s not your audience.

Okay… now that my public service announcement is out of the way, let’s discuss how we could use these products.

What has made these rooms so interesting to me is that there’s a level of humanity to them that doesn’t exist on the increasingly overproduced Zooms that we are part of. The other night, I was listening to a Space and Andrew Ross Sorkin from The New York Times and CNBC was on. Not realizing he wasn’t muted, the entire room got to realize that one of the leading TV personalities sometimes has a bowl of cereal for dinner.

We’ve all been there, working later than we intended, and needing to just eat some cereal so we’re not hungry anymore. That’s normal. People multi-task. They let their guard down just a little bit in these audio rooms.

That authenticity is really compelling and it presents an interesting opportunity for publishers.

If we lean into the idea that stars are a big driver of new subscriptions, giving the audience an opportunity to engage with those people can create intense loyalty. But even for publications that don’t have subscriptions, it can still be an opportunity to build habit and brand affinity.

There are a couple of ways that I can see this working for publishers with some limitations.

The first is to look at these rooms as a different way of hosting impromptu events. When a typical event session is over, it can often be tricky to take questions. We have schedules to keep and passing a microphone around from person to person just seems really inefficient.

But with these rooms, it’s very straightforward. Someone can raise their hand, the moderator can add them to ask their question, and they can just as easily remove them from the conversation when their time is up. I’ve participated in a few of these where the first half of the conversation is an interview which is then followed up by listeners getting to ask their questions.

This changes the structure of the session. For many virtual events, we’ve opted to keep them shorter. Most people don’t have the attention span to last for an hour listening to a panel. However, with these rooms, people have more opportunity to ask serendipitous questions, which makes them more compelling. Once the audience feels like part of the experience, they are more likely to stay engaged.

Another way to think about Clubhouse is as a direct avenue to the reporter or creator. It goes without saying that the reason people subscribe to any publication is because of the content. Some of us on the business side might like to say it’s because of an amazing product experience, but at the end of the day, it’s the content.

What if there were a weekly room where one of the writers went through the biggest news of the week and people could then ask questions about it. Consider Punchbowl News, the new publication by former Politico reporters. What if they took questions from average readers once a week on what’s occurred on Capitol Hill?

It can either be scheduled or impromptu. And it doesn’t have to just be mainstream media as the driver of this. I could see b2b media companies doing this when there is a big story in their niche. The right people would show up, questions would be asked, and people would feel closer to the story.

More than that, though, it would act as two additional benefits for writers. The first is it would prompt new story ideas. Questions by the audience are a good generator of stories because it shows where there remain information gaps. The other benefit is its potential for source building. If a reputable individual joins the room to ask a question, that person could one day be a source.

The reality is, this presents a very interesting opportunity for the audience and the creator to have a closer connection. And that’s really important. In my piece, Subscriptions Are Perfectly Fine; But Community Can Give You More, I wrote:

Media companies have never been good about this. They stay away from really engaging with readers. In their minds, they push content and readers consume it and that’s the end. Which, look, is perfectly fine. Like I said above, that transactional relationship is perfectly acceptable.

However, the difference between a passive and active reader could be as simple as replying to people. One of my favorite journalists is my colleague Leigh. Not only is she fearless in her reporting, but she engages with the community that reads her. As a female journalist, she certainly receives her fair share of vitriolic comments. But she also has legit conversations on Twitter about her stories. I would wager her readers are more active and engaged in her reporting.

The Athletic is another company that has done a good job creating this community despite selling a very straightforward subscription. Their journalists do Q&As with hardcore fans of the sport. They last about an hour, but that is enough to get people excited.

At the end of the day, people just want to feel as if they have access to the expert.

There are still limitations, which I want to breakdown.

The first is that Clubhouse has specifically been built as an almost anti-publisher platform. There is some speculation to suggest that Clubhouse won’t allow brands to create accounts. According to one of the rules, “you must use a real name and identity on the service.” I don’t think a “The New York Times” account would be allowed.

The other difficulty is that Clubhouse is tied to the phone number. Therefore, if I did want to break the above rule and still create an account for a media brand, I’d need an entirely separate phone to do so. That’s not the end of the world, but it is annoying when that means you have to send the phone around to each moderator every time they host a room.

This means there can’t really be a centralized entity that handles all the rooms for that specific publication. Instead of one account accruing all the following, it’s more decentralized where individuals are following individuals. That’s not inherently bad, but it does limit reach in a world where publishers are used to centralized growth.

Publishers will likely have an easier time with this on Twitter because it specifically allows brands to have accounts and it’s not linked to the phone number, but rather, the logged-in user. Now individual journalists and the brand can host these events.

Another major issue with these is that monetization is virtually nonexistent. And even if you didn’t want to monetize, finding a way to gate it for only paid subscribers is also hard because your systems don’t talk to each other. This, by the way, is why Twitter buying Revue is so ingenious and why I have very quickly become very bullish on Twitter. (Disclosure: Long Twitter).

You can think about monetization in a couple of ways. You could offer incredibly low fidelity sponsorship of conversations where the host effectively says, “thank you to our sponsor, [insert name], for making this possible” and then jump right into the conversation. With Spaces, the moderator is also able to pin a Tweet to the top of the conversation. You could pin a sponsored tweet there, so when people join, they see it.

But the truth is, I wouldn’t view these as tools for engaging with just paying subscribers or to make advertising dollars (though both are interesting).

The really exciting opportunity here is for a lot of people to start building a connection with the people that are creating the content. That, in turn, could act as a top-of-the-funnel tactic to drive individuals to newsletters, specific articles, or paid subscriptions.

The sense of acknowledgment that comes from being invited to ask a question is one of the best ways to build a fan for life. Publishers should be thinking about how to do that in a way that helps everyone involved. For some, that could be Clubhouse or, more likely, Spaces. For others, it might not be on the platforms at all.

We need to build a tighter relationship with the reader. And this is one of the ways I’d consider doing it.

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