If you haven’t heard, audio is going social. While music streaming services and social networking apps may have co-existed before, there hasn’t been a single platform to sync them up together until now. Social audio apps like Clubhouse offer a revolutionary way not only to tune in to global conversations in real-time – but to chime in as well.

The best of both worlds

On the one hand, digital audio has had social features for years. Yet, the interactions have remained somewhat static. You could, for instance, comment directly on a song with SoundCloud, or share podcast links via Spotify to your various profiles and timelines. Whereas something you couldn’t do is ask the host a question in the middle of an episode. With social audio, the guest list has become democratized as the audience becomes the panelists.

On the other hand, social media as we know it has been dominated by Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and other infinitely scrolling visual feeds. Content strategists continue to vie for our eyes while we approach an inevitable saturation point: peak screen. There has been less of an investment on our ears, especially considering an estimated 85% of videos are watched on mute. With captions available, much of the experience ends up being silent. As the demand for higher engagement escalates, the power of audio may end up being the final thumb stopper.

Joining the club: social audio adoption

Clubhouse downloads skyrocketed during the pandemic. Since entering the App Store with 10,000 iOS users, that number has grown a thousandfold. Now available on Android, these 10-million-plus users seem eager to give their eyes a break and adopt more audio experiences.

While Clubhouse may be cooling down, the competition is only starting to heat up. New entrants include Spaces by Twitter, Greenroom by Spotify, and Facebook’s Live Audio Rooms. No matter which app emerges victorious, it’s still a win-win for audio branding.

Setting the stage for sound strategy

Social audio is contributing to the conversation of sonic branding in several distinct ways.

First and foremost, it forces brands to start thinking about what they sound like (if they haven’t already). With little-to-no iconography, banner images, visual logos, or graphics, the essence of their branding has to be communicated instead with music, sounds, and of course, voices.

Secondly, by virtue of the former, users are beginning to discuss the power of sound with one another. Different rooms/spaces/channels are being dedicated to discussing audio branding as a subject unto itself.

Finally, the platforms themselves are deploying audio branding assets such as earcons to help users navigate the experience, as well as differentiate from the competition.

Use cases for audio branding

For brands with existing audio identities or for those just getting started, there are a few things to consider when entering the new space.

Arguably the most important sound source on social audio is the voice of your brand. This persona will be responsible for communicating your messaging to and with each person partaking in the experience. Stakeholders must ask themselves if this voice is an ambassador that can speak authentically as their brand to the audience. Due to the live nature of these dialogs, the persona(s) may be more or less candid. From one brand to another, this can mean something entirely different – that’s part of what makes this medium so unexpectedly delightful. In one room, you can have Elon Musk directly chatting with consumers and CEOs alike. In another, mascots become moderators, as is the case with the Kool-Aid Man interjecting with nothing other than his catchphrase, “Oh yeah!”. This opens the door for other conversational caricatures such as the GEICO Gecko or Cheetos’ Chester Cheetah to come to life through your speakers. Whatever the case may be, be sure to upgrade the fidelity with an external microphone. While speaking directly into your smartphone may be common, the feedback from the speakers can distract from the content with cacophonous delays. Similarly, users with AirPods or similar hearables will be able to isolate their inputs and outputs, but many Bluetooth codecs will sound compressed. Try instead using a microphone that can plug directly into the headphone jack, or use an aux-to-Lightning converter.

Secondary to voice talent is to make the most of music. To fill any unwanted silence as speakers get ready, on-brand music can easily establish for the audience from whom they are about to hear, while simultaneously warming the room. Better yet, for brands with anthems, podcasts themes, or music libraries, this can be as simple as porting to a new touchpoint. For those that want to really curate their experience, a system of intros, outros, loops, and interjections packaged together with any audio logos and UX sounds can help score the experience even better. Thanks to the new Music Mode feature on Clubhouse, streaming audio has become more easily accessible to all. While this didn’t stop DJs from playing sets, producers from sharing tips, singers from harmonizing, and study sessions from sharing soundtracks, the streaming quality will be easier to increase without the need for any hacks or workarounds. Now, there is no excuse to not implement your audio branding assets into the equation.

Speakers can get creative with their production techniques. In addition to plug-in mics, routing vocals and music through a mixer in Music Mode beforehand can bring a polished podcast sound to the experience. This also allows for more control over fading tracks in and out to match the cadence and flow of the event. Afterall, anything is better than holding your phone up to your laptop speakers.

Clubhouse on Twitter
Lastly, think about product sounds and immersive soundscapes. How else can you transport your listeners into your world? This can be a soundbite from a sporting event, sound effects from a movie, UI sounds from your devices, or in the case of a certain multinational breakfast brand, the sizzling sound of bacon.

That’s right. To promote their Steakhouse Premium Bacon, IHOP hosted a room exclusively on April 13th featuring the frying sounds of their pork product. Fast food has been known for its sensory experiences, harkening back to KFC’s ASMR-friendly website, KFChill. There are countless clubs dedicated to mediation, lullabies, and soundscapes, and more segments than QSR should be tapping into the unspoken side of social sound.

Conversations about audio branding

Topics in the burgeoning landscape of social audio can quickly become meta. That is to say, many peers may end up talking to one another simply about the platform itself. Likewise, many audio branding specialists take the stage to talk about using audio branding on platforms such as Clubhouse. These conversations range from best practices to audio branding case studies and research.

Search and you’ll see countless clubs and profiles dedicated to discussing sounds. The Power of Sound is an example at the intersection of voiceover and audio branding, and a great place for podcasters to pick up tips and tricks for creating better audio experiences. The Society of Sound Thinking tackles important topics permeating the audio industry such as sonic diversity. Beyond casting talent for audio ads, social audio is a place to be cognizant of transcending the sonic color line and to be inclusive of voices of color.

Social audio branding

What are the sounds of social audio?

There’s a key differentiator between a push notification from an app like Slack versus Clubhouse: the earcons. While many apps default to the signature sound of the operating system, Slack’s iconic “knock-brush” sound indicates instantly that a colleague has messaged you. Clubhouse likewise has a 2-note indicator for scheduled events or when a contact is starting something new. During conversations, sound can assist in state changes. How do you know when someone invites you to the stage? A higher-pitched, 3-note melody plays. There is a suite of sounds for these exact reasons, and guide users into taking the correct course of action.

The audio aesthetic of Clubhouse is significantly more digital sounding and disconnected than Greenroom, which opts for a slightly more hybrid approach akin to a synthetic xylophone performing each earcon. Be sure to take note of subtle differences, such as how when a speaker joins or exits in Greenroom, the sounds pan from left to right, and right to left, respectively. The key takeaway here is that sounds can say a lot, especially when there is already a lot of verbiage going on. Currently, these cues reduce chatter about speakers, but someday can aim to solve other redundancies within the conversational framework.

The future of social audio branding

During the lockdown, listening habits have already increased across the board, with more music, news, talk shows, podcasts, and sports streamed and broadcasted. This increased appetite for audio consumption seems to have fed into the hype of a new interactive listening format. Especially for those that suffer from “Zoom Fatigue”, social audio may even become a welcomed cure for the common conference call. In fact, this new networking format could eliminate three of the four causes identified for this new syndrome. When it comes to reducing cognitive load, nothing beats face-to-face, but the audio-only format eliminates straining to make eye contact, the distraction of seeing yourself while you talk, and best of all, you’re free to roam the room.

The framework of social audio is still in its infancy, with the potential to become more accessible and interactive, and the go-to place for brands to be heard. For those suffering from various degrees of hearing loss, introducing future features like live transcriptions and translations can help to broaden the audience. Similarly, for anyone having trouble seeing the names or profiles of the active speakers, earcons and text-to-speech voices can assist in narrating portions of the experience. This can be helpful to speakers who may forgo the etiquette of announcing their name before and after they speak.

Whether or not Clubhouse becomes fully eponymous with social audio, or if we one day refer to the interactions as “Firesiding” or “Greenrooming”, the evidence points to a future filled with one-click conversations at our fingertips. Whichever audio-first application flourishes, it’s a no-brainer for marketers to deploy their audio branding in this space.

Cover image source: cottonbro