Carlos Fenollosa

Carlos Fenollosa

Engineer, developer, entrepreneur

Carlos Fenollosa — Blog

Thoughts on science and tips for researchers who use computers

Whatever Clubhouse is, they are onto something

February 21, 2021 — Carlos Fenollosa

I've been following Clubhouse for a few weeks. As a podcaster, it piqued my interest. So it's like podcasts, but live?

The official slogan is drop-in audio chat. But that's not good. It only makes sense once you've used the app, and it doesn't describe the whole thing.

For me, the perfect definition is: it's Twitch for audio. But then, you need to know what Twitch is.

Yesterday I received an invitation and finally got to try it first hand. And I think that Clubhouse is onto something.

Radio vs Podcasts

Everybody knows radio. Even during this Internet revolution, it still has survived. Why? Because it's convenient. You tune in to some station and listen to music or people talking. It requires zero effort.

Radio has two problems: the fact that it's live, and the selection of topics.

Nowadays it's easy to download aired shows, so if you really like some program but you missed it when it was live, just go to their website and download the mp3 file.

However, the selection of topics still is an issue. Due to the fact that a station is a business, and that its model is airing ads, it requires volume. Therefore most radio stations produce mainstram content.

With the coming of the internet, a few nerds started using a new technology called Podcasts. You could record any audio content with a 1€ microphone and publish it on the internet.

Even though podcasts are naturally asynchronous, many shows air live too. Some listeners can listen to the stream, but most of them just download the audio file later.

Publicly searchable podcast directories aggregate both amateur and professional audios. Thanks to that, we have reached this point where anybody in the world has access to an ocean of audio content about any topic, either mainstream or niche.

Enter Clubhouse

What Twitch did to Youtube, Clubhouse has done to podcasts. For the sake of this explanation, let's ignore that podcasts are an open ecosystem and Youtube is proprietary.

Youtube is a video discovery platform. It has some tools to livestream, but it's not their main focus. Twitch has a much better product (and ToS) for livestreamers and their audience.

Want to watch somebody playing Minecraft? Open Twitch, search for Minecraft, and boom! hundreds of streams right there. Join one, chat with the community, and if you're lucky the streamer may shout out to you.

You can't do that with podcasts.

First of all, there can be some interactivity by combining an Icecast stream with an IRC channel, but it is not a good system.

Second, live podcasts are not aggregated anywhere. It is just impossible to search for "strategies to control your stress during covid-19" and find live shows.

So, if only as a directory of live audio content, Clubhouse has future.

But it is not only that. The product is very well thought and lets the audience participate, with audio.

A naive approach would have been to include a text chat on top of the audio stream. That would replicate the current solution on an integrated app. Okay, not bad.

However, the Clubhouse team spent some time thinking about the use case for audio streaming, which is not the same as for video streaming, nor public chat rooms.

Most of us listen to audio while we are doing other tasks and most of the times our hands are busy. This is why people jokingly call it the Airpods social network. You can participate while being away from a phone or computer.

In Clubhouse, you can tap a button to "raise your hand", and the moderators may "unmute" you. Then you can talk to the rest of the audience. Of course, not all show formats allow for that, but the option is there.

Being able to talk to your idols or even talk to the community of fans is very powerful. My first experience with Clubhouse was moving. I was listening to a concert and after the show all the listeners gathered up to talk about their experience and to have a chat with the band. Everybody agreed that with Clubhouse you can feel that there's people at the other end. Not only the speakers, but also the audience.

You don't get that with podcasts, even with live ones with a chat room.

A new category

Clubhouse has definitely invented a new category which combines the best of radio and the best of podcasts.

The product implements a selection of novel features which, when brought together, create an exciting and very addictive experience:

  • Directory of live audio streams ("rooms") about any imaginable topic
  • You can quickly drop in any room, listen for a few minutes, and jump to another one
  • The audience can participate via audio, which creates a great sense of community
  • Basic tools to follow people and interests, and get notified when they live stream
  • Of course, streamers may record the audio and publish it afterwards, so it's trivial to use Clubhouse in combination with the current podcasting ecosystem.

If you're in the podcasting community you should try to find an invitation. It is the real deal.

Tags: internet, podcasting

Comments? Tweet  

Making podcasts mainstream

March 06, 2015 — Carlos Fenollosa

There is no better companion for a long trip than a podcast. Familiar voices talking about familiar topics, listened on demand. Definitely better than turning the radio on and following some random program that's scheduled for that day at that time.

I've been podcasting since 2005 and my numbers have always been modest. I know I'm not that good, it's my hobby and it makes me happy. However, I've always wondered why people are turning away from the audio format, since it was so popular during the radio days. Maybe there was nothing better back then? Given the choice, nowadays the audience will prefer images, text and video over audio.

Now, I'd like to test the viability of podcasting as a format.

A game of numbers

In the US there are some shows which are more popular than ever, and even mid-range podcasters can produce with regularity and getting a fair number of sponsors. On the other hand, in Spain, I'd say 80% of the population doesn't know what a podcast is. They've never even heard the word.

For most of us, our audience is a niche. That usually means it's less abundant but more committed. Listeners are more vocal, participative, and opinionated than a general audience. They're sincere and give honest feedback. However, there is an audience ceiling for podcasters; depending on the topic, your download peak may never surpass 10k-50k hits.

There is still something that has yet not been tried here, to start a podcast with a radio superstar. In the US most senior podcasters are ex-radio hosts. Maybe if a popular host can publicly quit and announce that they'll start their own show, that could attract some audience to the format.

We find ourselves with a textbook "chicken or egg" problem. How can professionals jump to solo podcasting if it is impossible to earn a living? They can't quit their day job and work 9-5 preparing a show, either daily or weekly. There is just not enough money in the equation.

In my opinion, it is not really a technical issue. The days of needing to explain what a RSS is are long gone, thanks to iTunes, podcast apps and embedded audio players. I know a lot of non-tech people who listen to radio shows on the internet; that's what podcasting is for them. Off-schedule radio listening, plus some really bad amateurs. They are probably not wrong.

We won't know until some professional host tries to close the gap and see if audience trickles down to us amateurs. But who will be the first? Who will open the can of worms, um, sponsors, for them to see that podcasting is an acceptable medium to advertise on?

I started podcasting when I was 20 and it was—still is—a hobby. But my time is now more valuable, and while it's ok for hobbies to cost money, it is difficult to justify the hours it would take to emulate a professional effort and polished product. Simply put, if a podcaster can't earn a few hundreds of bucks a month to contribute to their regular income, it will never become more than a hobby.

Interactivity

I was mentioning before that niche audiences tend to be more cooperative. They give valuable feedback and fill the comment forms on our web pages.

Well, at least until the age of social media. Now everything has changed.

It used to be that you had a podcast, published it on your blog/website, and people left some comments. Now the tables have turned; the audience wants to leave the same comments, only on their own website. Which, for the overwhelming majority, is Twitter.

It makes some sense. People apparently prefer a crippled comment system, which not only has a character limit, but also makes it impossible to follow multiple branches of a debate. In reality, that system allows them to treasure all of the user opinions on a single place, which is their Twitter profile, akin to a personal website.

We—notice the first person plural—love the idea that someone else may browse our Twitter profile to learn our cool interests and read our witty criticisms of other people's work. That just doesn't happen, however.

Another interesting feature is that every time one at-mentions an author, they get notified and get to see your face on a profile picture and maybe drop a quick 'thanks', creating a feeling of self-importance. In blogs, you never know if your comment is even read.

That sounded a bit sarcastic but it's why Twitter has hundreds of millions of users; they are hoping for a retweet from their idols, big or small.

Here's my business card: Name, email, Twitter. Email is too serious, send me a tweet. So we do that, and Twitter has become a global identity. Not Facebook, not about.me, not OpenID, not Google Plus. Our Twitter handle is our online persona, we use it to network with strangers, so we want to use it as much as possible.

I really see the rationale behind it. It's literally our internet username. There is no other website since the dawn of the internet that has managed to be used as a global identification system, and many have tried really hard.

And, like that, Twitter killed the blog comments.

So, what now? Well, now we adapt to this new situation, simple as that. On the positive side, it has increased comment quantity, even if at the huge expense of quality. And, in a world where a podcast debating politics only used to get 0.1% of its audience to comment, that may be a good thing.

Discoverability

You know what else Twitter is killing? Organic search and directories. Content discovery is now done via social media, and that definitely is a good thing. An audience of 10 committed listeners who are referred by a friend who knows their taste is worth 1000 random visits from Google. Those 1000 visits will never even listen to a minute of your audio. They'll think, "bah, it's not text/video" and close the browser tab.

Generalizing, there are two kinds of audio listeners, the ones who have a podcast app with their favorite shows and have integrated podcast listening into their daily workflows, like running or commuting, and the rest. That majority are casual listeners, who aren't used to consume content in an audio format. It's not that they don't have the time; some people will block half their morning to watch a Minecraft show on Youtube, but won't listen to a 40-minute podcast on their way to school.

Unless?

Well, unless they really like it. There's no trick here, people only do stuff that either makes them feel good, or they get paid for.

How to get people to quickly check out our 90-minute podcast? They can't just skim audio as if it were text.

Here's where micro podcasts may help. A micro podcast could be defined as an audio file with the following characteristics:

  • Self contained, i.e. not an excerpt or a slice of a full show
  • No longer than 5-7 minutes
  • Has the same quality of a full show, including audio production and contents

My theory is that there is excellent podcast content, but unlike text and video, it is very difficult for a potential listener to decide if they are going to like it. Thus, they don't make the investment of listening to a couple long episodes to make that decision.

I'm currently experimenting with a podcast-in-a-tweet. It's like a regular micro podcast, but the main distribution channel is Twitter. The audio is actually hosted somewhere, but my marketing strategy is 100% focused on Twitter.

That's ideal because it appears in front of the audience exactly at a point when they are predisposed to consume content, since they are in fact browsing Twitter. Furthermore, they don't need to leave the page or perform another action, like subscribing or downloading a file.

Click and listen. Since the episode is very short, the user is still there, in front of a text box, when the show finishes. That directly invites the audience to participate and share while they are still inclined to do so, as opposed to long podcasts which are consumed in a scenario where the listener is unable to interact, like driving or jogging.

Us podcasters may succeed if we can lure the general audience into becoming sporadic audio consumers. Then we should fight to make them regular podcast listeners, but not before. We have to get the format out of the way, at least initially, and push our best content as digestible pills.

******

I don't know if that will work, it's a wild bet. Right now, since I just started, most of my audience still listens from a podcast app. I guess that old habits die hard, and a person who consumes many shows has little incentive to change their workflow. For them, the micropodcast is in the same category as a regular one, and treat is as such.

Let's try to reach out of our regular audience, the ones who don't have a podcast app. In a few months from now, and thanks to Twitter's new analytics, I'd love to see that the number of casual listeners surpasses the number of subscribers. My goal is not that they end up subscribing to the show, but rather to see a huge spike of social-driven listeners when a brilliant episode is produced, similar to what happens when awesome content is published in other formats.

If you are a podcaster or a listener, I'd love to hear your opinion. I really want to see people who never cared for audio listening to micro podcasts. That'd be an enormous achievement.

If you understand Spanish, you can follow my podcasts at 5 minutos con Carlos Fenollosa and Dame la voz, and recall episodes of the now defunct El Amuleto de Yendor.

Tags: internet, podcasting

Comments? Tweet