When the country was hit by pandemic lockdowns in the spring of 2020, there were concerns that the booming podcast business might take a hiatus – the dramatic drop in commuters meant fewer people were listening along the way. The number of podcast downloads initially decreased by 10% between February 25 and March 25. Instead of accelerating, however, digital audio rebounded and in 2020 a new generation of social audio companies catapulted to the fore.
The new format – live conversations – became an audio trend with social media giants stepping up efforts to stay in control of Internet experiences. Discord, one of the audio upstarts that started out as a chat platform for gamers and has been around since 2015, has exploded in popularity. Meanwhile, Clubhouse, launched during the pandemic, quickly scaled its user base to millions and its valuation to billions.
Despite all expectations, podcasting revenue continued to grow, and eMarketer had to revise its 2020 estimate from a 1% decrease in the time US adults spend on audio to 8.3% for about an hour and a half per day. According to Clubhouse, users spend an average of over an hour a day using the app.
While people may have commuted less and spent the early days of the pandemic watching the news, the versatility of the audio format remained: people listened to the cooking, cleaning, and exercising. It turns out that audio can be the consumer’s last unfilled window of time: there are many more occasions when someone can listen or even participate in a conversation than they can fix their eyes on a video.
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Discord landed number 3 on this year’s CNBC Disruptor 50 list due to its size and rapid growth. The company, which enables people to chat via text, audio, and video, claims it has around 150 million active users per month, up from 56 million at the end of 2019. The company enables people to set up “channels” or virtual rooms, that serve as online communities to talk about various topics. While the company’s early user base focused primarily on talking about video games, the company’s appeal has grown dramatically over the past year as the platform was used to find communities to talk about video games, news, sports, or fantasy football and their neighborhoods .
More coverage of the 2021 CNBC Disruptor 50
Its CEO Jason Citron wants to provide the best version of community “space” on the Internet, be it redesigning a dormitory, library, restaurant or auditorium in a virtual environment. According to Citron, many Discord users still experience it today in smaller groups of friends, say six to ten people. However, the company sees significant potential in meeting the needs of larger communities for topics of interest, and this is a focus of new product development, including its stage channels.
“We see enormous opportunities to expand our business model,” he said.
The platform caught the attention of Microsoft, which approved $ 10 billion for the platform. Ironically, Citron and its Discord co-founder Stanislav Vishnevskiy were gamers who started the company because they were frustrated with communication technologies like Microsoft Skype.
Discord has raised nearly $ 500 million from investors including Sony Interactive Entertainment, Tencent, Index Ventures, and Reid Hoffman’s Greylock.
The clubhouse was launched in April 2020 as a live audio conversation platform by invitation only with events hosted by people in the community. The app’s audience grew in the first few months of the pandemic, supported by the frequent participation of Andreessen Horowitz partners, who led three rounds of investment in the company.
Facebook, Twitter, Spotify speak back
But it was in February when the number of clubhouse users really rose: Elon Musk, CEO of Tesla, and Mark Zuckerberg, CEO of Facebook, both entered clubhouse chats, drawing so many listeners that the rooms were reaching their limit exceeded by 5,000 people and sent people to overflow rooms. Talks about the WallStreetBets trading phenomenon generated great interest. (Discord also noted that its user base grew among exchange traders that year.)
For Clubhouse, exclusivity helped: the company limited the number of people who could join. New users needed a member invite, and the company only expanded from iOS to Android devices this May after a year of iPhone exclusivity. CEO Paul Davison told CNBC this week that “millions more” are waiting to join the platform since Android launched.
Voice is the oldest medium. … voice is a permanent medium.
Paul Davison, CEO of the clubhouse
In the final validation of Discord and Clubhouse’s innovative models, the social media giants launched similar services. Twitter first started testing Spaces late last year so users can click on a live chat from a tweet and launched it in 2021. Facebook announced “Live Audio Rooms” in April – Zuckerberg said the company had been working on audio for “a very long time” – and also began testing a Q&A product that allows developers to speak to an audience ( either with video or audio only) that can ask questions over either text or audio.
Microsoft LinkedIn is working on an audio feature that will focus on professional conversations. To add to the conversations that used to be around the water cooler, Slack, recently acquired by Salesforce, experimented with a feature designed to restore the spontaneity of corridor conversations. And in March, Spotify bought Betty Labs, the parent company of Locker Room, an alternative to the clubhouse.
Some social media trends come and go, but Clubhouse CEO Davison told CNBC this week that the story is on the side of his company’s business model: “Voice is the oldest medium. … We’ve hooked up with other people in Meeting small groups and speaking since the dawn of civilization. … Voice is an enduring medium. “
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