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Will social audio apps like Clubhouse make it big in India?

Clubhouse has raced ahead in the last few months.

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KOLKATA: Audio-chat app Clubhouse has raced ahead in the last few months, especially it has gained more momentum after its Elon Musk moment. The Tesla CEO’s debut on the platform has not only maxed its craze but has thrown limelight on a new rage in the social media ecosystem. While emerging social apps based on audio chat are knocking on the door, established platforms are also making strides in the segment.

What is the ‘Clubhouse’ frenzy?

The invitation-only social media app Clubhouse has found takers in silicon valley investors, venture capitalists, tech executives, artists, musicians, TV presenters. Even before reaching its first anniversary, the company had amassed close to 10 million users and reached a valuation of $1 billion. Given the buzz the San-Francisco based app has generated in the international markets, it’s no surprise that a number of prominent faces in India are also jumping on the bandwagon.

Another app which offered live voice chats way before Clubhouse is Discord, a niche platform popular among gamers. The app, boasting over 100 million monthly active users, secured $100 million in funding last year and is positioning itself as mainstream with the new tagline – “Your place to talk.” After it saw massive growth in voice users, it started to emphasise heavily on the voice chat feature. According to media reports, tech giant Microsoft is in the running to acquire Discord, in a transaction pegged at $10 billion. It is one of the most popular apps among the booming gaming community of India.

The bottom line is that Clubhouse and Discord are relatively lesser-known names in our 1.3 billion-strong nation. However, social media platforms that have already made headway in the mass Indian market like Twitter, Facebook are investing big time to take on these emerging apps.

“Audio-based apps are liberating for the user as it allows users to multitask than any other media out there. You can drive, text, run or do your chores while dropping in to listen to Elon Musk,” Tonic Worldwide chief strategy officer Unmisha Bhatt says.

Will Indians adopt this global trend?

The Indian digital ecosystem has kept up with all new global trends so far. No doubt the charm of something new will onboard users initially, but Mirum India joint CEO Sanjay Mehta is sceptical about the sustainable growth of audio based social media apps.

He notes that the overall audio segment, as well as voice technology, is a high growth area in terms of consumption of content and creation of audio content. When it comes to apps like Clubhouse, the structure being used there is almost similar for all. Under the open discussion format, if any user just walks into a chatroom, one cannot be sure that the content they will get access to will be valuable. It leads to appointment listening – that is, joining the chats at the time when a particular well-known person is speaking on a topic of interest.

According to Mehta, the concept of appointment consumption does not work well in a busy life. Hence, he is of the view that these apps will have limited value if the structure does not change. To have long-term growth compared to established social media players, the template or format needs to change.

Isobar India COO Gopa Kumar also says that audio as a platform has been well accepted in India overall, giving examples of Gaana, Saavn, and Spotify. Which is why apps like Clubhouse will also see good uptake in India. Moreover, these audio-based social apps give users a certain kind of privacy. People can actually move around at their disposal and still interact, he explains.

The reason users are receptive to audio is because they can consume content on the go as well, observes Kumar. But in the end, it’s the nature of the platform and the kind of content it puts out that makes all the difference. And since social audio apps is still a very niche segment, Kumar says it is too soon to judge if it can turn into a mass medium.

“The growth of Clubhouse has been fuelled by high profile early adopters. With celebrities and Silicon Valley leaders leading the early adoption, users discovered and flocked to the app. Since these are live conversation apps, the audience consumption has been skewed towards quality content by well-known creators. For it to succeed in India, it would need a similar pattern. Mainstream content creators, celebrities and film folks would bring in the masses, otherwise, it will remain a niche product in India,” Bhatt adds.

Moreover, India being a multilingual country has its own challenges. IdeateLabs founder and managing director Amit Tripathi is of the view that adoption in India might struggle until voice and vernacular marries. Video on the back of visuals and subtitles make it easier to be consumed in unknown or little known languages but audio does not stand that chance. So, regional content needs to be on platforms like Clubhouse to make them successful.

How are big tech giants gearing up their efforts?

Twitter announced a new voice chat room called Spaces last November. The microblogging network rolled out the feature gradually for some of its users globally, including India. It plans to make it available for all users in April so they can “Tweet and Talk”.

Internal teams at Facebook are reportedly developing a product similar to Clubhouse to catch up with the trend. Notably, Facebook boss Mark Zuckerberg himself appeared on Clubhouse in February to talk about augmented/virtual reality. Messaging app Telegram that rose to fame in India after the WhatsApp privacy policy controversy has launched Voice Chats 2.0 that lets channels conduct live voice chat sessions with unlimited participants.

With so many dollars being pumped into social voice features by these deep-pocket players, it will be interesting to see how this space evolves, Tripathi adds. He points out that adoption, penetration can be of a lesser challenge for the audio-based social apps compared to acceptance and usage which will be driven by content on the platforms.

“Without proper content, customisation, a lot of education, I am not sure how far it will grow, how fast it will grow,” Tripathi sums up.

Will brands jump on the bandwagon?

Brands are already experimenting on Clubhouse to cash in on the craze. Isobar’s Kumar says that it is tough to project what kind of advertising opportunities will open up in the future, though he mentions that brands can open their own chat rooms and engage with consumers.

“Brands will have to wear a creators hat to explore opportunities on these apps. For the right brand – one that’s willing to curate quality content and truly add value – there's an early mover opportunity. But these are early days and as adoption grows, we will see interest from brands,” Bhatt concludes.

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