Credited as the app that birthed the social audio movement, Clubhouse was arguably the most hyped app in 2021. Despite this, the buzz around Clubhouse has died down as people started heading back to the office and appeared to be choosing the convenience of integrated social audio offerings from the tech giants instead of a purpose-built platform such as Clubhouse.
To find out about the future of Clubhouse, I spoke to Maya Watson, head of global marketing at Clubhouse.
Prior to Clubhouse, Maya was an executive at Netflix, leading editorial and publishing, and a long-time executive at OWN Networks and Harpo Productions.
Brendon Peterson (BP): Clubhouse is arguably the app/platform that kick-started the social audio revolution. This in turn has led to pretty much every social platform on the planet announcing their own version of an audio platform, usually as an in-app/in-platform offering as opposed to a stand-alone one. How do you as Clubhouse defend the format that you helped create and continue to expand and provide offerings that provide enough value to persuade people to download your single-purpose app? (Especially in the context of a continent where the cost of data and devices are relatively high, and infrastructure is ageing or nonexistent).
Maya Watson (MW): We don’t want to come from a place of defence. Our utmost priority is to continue to create value for our community. Our vision for Clubhouse has always been to create a place where people can talk with each other, not at each other. It’s been incredible to watch a community come together and grow on Clubhouse over the past year. We’ve seen millions of people gather to talk, listen, and learn from each other in real-time, build connections, and meet new people.
We’re constantly building the platform, developing new features to enhance the experience for creators and members, continuing to fuel the growth we’ve been seeing over 2021. Over the summer, the number of Clubhouse rooms created daily grew from about 300,000 to about 700,000, and the average listener now spends north of 70 minutes per day on the platform.
Our community engagement has continued to grow throughout the summer, despite all of the new market entrances. Seeing other platforms realise the power of social audio has validated the Clubhouse model and we understand why — audio is an incredibly durable and engaging medium. But for Clubhouse, this is our singular focus rather than a bolted-on feature, and we’re working with our community to build the best and most simple social audio experience. We are committed to delivering the most innovative and focused platform for that community which is itself a new vanguard of creators.
BP: You famously hosted a Clubhouse room that crashed because Oprah joined. While we’ve seen a fair share of celebrities jump onto Clubhouse, relying on celebrity hype isn’t a viable growth strategy. What is?
MW: You are right, relying on one tactic for growth is not a viable strategy in the long term. We initially grew really quickly during the pandemic due to lockdown restrictions across the globe, and as the world continues to open up, our community continues to grow, showing that there is an appetite to interact with all people, not just celebrities.
We believe Clubhouse offers the full spectrum of experiences from hanging out in small private rooms with your friends to being in the room and on stage with your favourite artist or celebrity. Similar to podcasts, Clubhouse is becoming a platform for people listening on the go. From commuting, going to the gym, folding laundry at home, people are tuning in to learn about what’s going on with NFTs, meditate, talk sports, and yes, to hear Oprah recap her interview with Adele. Clubhouse is another complement to our real-world behaviour, similar to how people aren’t going to stop using dating apps because bars are open or stop shopping on Amazon because they can go to stores.
We’re in an exciting new chapter for the company as we have launched a series of product updates over the last few months. Our creators are able to share top moments of their rooms through our new features like Clips and Replays and can further engage with audiences through Pinned Links, allowing them to feature sponsored brands, products and web pages. With this evolving experience, we’re seeing creators create genuine connections with brands and audiences which is effectively driving people to come to the app.
BP: Since my last interview with someone from Clubhouse (Justin Uberti — head of streaming), you’ve brought spatial audio to Android, launched a Music Mode and brought the ability to record conversations. What can we expect next?
MW: The last few months have been quite busy for us. Building on feedback sourced from the Clubhouse community, we've launched a raft of new features since coming out of Beta in July such as Local Language support, Backchannel messaging, Pinned Links, Shareable Clips, Universal Search, Spatial Audio, Topics, Replays and more. Clubhouse is all about its community and we develop platform features that cater to the way creators and members use the app.
We have a pipeline of amazing features coming up over the next few months which will change the way brands and creators engage on the platform and we’re excited by what’s to come.
BP: Earlier [in 2021], you brought monetisation capabilities to creators on the app. Initial reports indicated that it wasn’t rolling out as smoothly as expected. How is monetisation faring now and how much of a responsibility do you think that Clubhouse has to educate content creators on how to build, manage and leverage their brands and conversations?
MW: From the beginning, Clubhouse was created as a creator-first social media platform that gives creators independence with full ownership of their content and empowers them by providing both creative and monetisation tools. We don’t sell ads and we give creators ultimate control and ownership of their IP. And, as we don’t collect or sell user data, we’re redefining how creators can work with brands and monetise content which differs to other social platforms.
Our focus is on helping creators be successful long-term and get recognised for the content they produce. Today, 100% of payments on Clubhouse goes straight to the creator. We introduced Pinned Links to help creators better monetise their efforts through promoting books, selling tickets, raising money or growing their audience on the platform. This and the Replay feature are allowing creators to work with brands through the platform too, meaning that branded content can live on through the app and provide ROI for brands with pinned links through to web pages or products. Clubhouse takes none of the proceeds generated through creator activity on the platform.
BP: Let’s talk about the creator economy and Africa. Traditionally, Africa as a whole has been disadvantaged when it comes to connectivity and the ability to actively and meaningfully participate in, and reap rewards from, movements like influencer marketing. It’s only now, years later when the global influencer marketing landscape has shifted and died down that Africa is now able to embrace it. Do you see the same thing happening with the creator economy in Africa because what I’ve seen so far is that when people talk about the creator economy and the financial benefits that will arise as a result of it, it’s always in relation to the creator economy in the US or Europe. Why is this and how do we change it?
MW: At Clubhouse, we are hyper-focused on our creator community worldwide — they are the lifeblood of our community. We believe that the success of our creators is intrinsically tied to the success of Clubhouse, which is why we’ve incorporated tools, creator resources, and are continuously rolling out monetisation mechanisms that our creators can use.
We want to bring creation and monetisation for our creators in one place, and ensure they can make a sustainable income on the platform. We are seeing success stories emerge all over the world, with creators in India seeing huge successes, and Africa is no different. We want to bring programs like Creator First to more countries including Africa and all creators have access to the platform-tools that they need to help them capture this success. Markets develop at different rates, adopting marketing tactics when brand strategies and consumer behaviours evolve. In Africa, we expect as the platform grows and creators gain bigger communities, brands will see the value in sponsoring content on Clubhouse to engage with their target audiences.
Unlike other companies, where creators are only one part of the strategy, for us creators are everything and we are focused on providing them with these key tools that empower them to generate revenue from content.
BP: Is Clubhouse making any sort of investment in Africa either from a financial perspective or from a skills development perspective or even from a job creation perspective?
MW: Africa is an important market for us. There has been a rich tradition throughout Africa of oral storytelling where messages, stories, proverbs and history are transmitted orally from one generation to the next. Clubhouse is a platform where such traditions can continue with our African creators at the helm.
The power of voice allows our creators to make authentic, genuine connections which creates stronger relationships with audiences. We are focused on introducing features and tools that not only help creators create authentic content but also allow them to monetise it to help grow their rooms, clubs, community and brand.
We have introduced local language support in Nigeria for Hausa, Igbo and Yoruba. This allows creators and their audience to connect and navigate Clubhouse using their home languages. This is one of our most requested features outside the US and it opens creator content to a new audience that may not be able to communicate in English. We aim to introduce more African languages on the platform soon.
Beyond providing the essential tools that allow creators to develop and monetise content, Clubhouse provides assets and advice to support this evolution and within the next year, we are looking to grow our team even further to provide specific regional representation.
BP: What are some of the unique challenges that Clubhouse has faced as it’s ramped up its expansion both globally and in Africa?
MW: Clubhouse was created just before the global lockdowns of 2020. We grew our platform through word of mouth — friends of friends inviting each other to have great conversations and be part of our community. Our goal is always to grow the platform in a measured way to grow the community responsibly. But the reality is that we grew very quickly, which presented a whole new set of challenges for us that we initially hadn’t anticipated. For example, this included needing to scale our platform, tools and team as our community grew. Each time you add a new feature, a new employee, or a new user, you’re changing the molecular structure of that initial idea and we want to stay true to the founding concept of the platform as a host of live and human conversations.
We now have over 90 employees, which allows us to focus on developing and adding new features to make our creator and member experiences the best possible, meaning we can focus on the long term and steady growth as we move into 2022.
BP: Africa has stories that are unique not only to the continent but also to each country here. How do you help African creators tell their stories in a way that is true to themselves but also connects with global audiences especially at a time when it feels like most of the social content that we consume is American in its cultural identity, origin and intended audience?
MW: Clubhouse has been able to jumpstart the decentralised distribution of audio and the platform is built for and around the community of creators. This means that creators in Africa and around the world, regardless of who they are, have access to a global audio-obsessed audience. Everyone has a voice on Clubhouse and our goal was to make it easy for anyone to be a creator because everyone has something they want to say. Taking away the performance and artifice of traditional social platforms makes it easier for people to participate and be their authentic selves. Authenticity is what helps drive people to find their tribe regardless of where they are based around the world.
We are seeing huge growth in audiences across the world, with markets other than the US spending increasingly more time on the platform. As Clubhouse sees member growth in Africa, we expect that even more creators and audiences will connect on the platform to participate in culturally specific conversations.
We are also always looking for ways to make it easier for people to find creators on Clubhouse. We have introduced support for 26 languages on Android and we currently support 13 languages on iOS. This means that African creators who speak Hausa, Igbo, Yoruba, French, German, Arabic and more, can connect with audiences in different markets across the world. We have recently updated the feature formerly known as Interests — now called Topics, with a broader, better taxonomy that will make it easier to discover rooms, clubs and people with shared passions or relevant expertise. Topics allows users to display topics they follow on their profiles so people can get a better sense of who they are and in near future, it may be tested on the hallway allowing users to create topics of their own to better connect with their tribe.
BP: Are international audiences receptive to content that isn’t from a country or continent that they have much experience with or does that create an additional challenge for content creators?
MW: Spoken audio is a universal thing and it is the oldest form of human connection. People want quality and authentic engagements and audio is a special medium that makes this possible. Regardless of where you’re from as a creator, sharing stories and hosting these conversations will allow you to connect with audiences from different parts of the world.
For example, in commemoration of World Mental Health Day (October 10 2021), we ran a first-of-its-kind Global Mental Health Awareness Day event for 24-hours straight. The room had creators from 15 countries and saw 33,000 members from all over the world join over 24 hours, with 305,000 minutes listened to overall. The theme of this year’s World Mental Health Day was “Mental Health in an Unequal World” so we wanted to host open and honest conversations on mental health across as many different countries as possible. For example, The Nigerian session hosted by local creators had a diverse, international audience engaging within the room.
We have also seen rooms connect individuals from the African diaspora across the world with a shared heritage. This summer we heard a really sweet story about two long-lost cousins of Nigerian heritage who realised they were related in the “AfroVibes” room, leading them to meet in-person in New York. The global aspect of Clubhouse transcends borders and has the power to bring African communities together no matter where they live.
BP: How can brands and media leverage audio and Clubhouse to both connect with their existing audiences but to also reach new audiences and use the platform to tell their stories and market their goods in new ways?
MW: Successful creators are rooted in authenticity. Audio is a valuable tool to convey brand values, initiatives, and talent, allowing listeners to get under the skin of the business. The power of voice allows brands willing to have those real, authentic, and not fully scripted conversations have genuine engagements which create stronger relationships with audiences.
Pinned Links also allows brands to drive traffic to external sites and promote products or events, contributing to even greater engagement from consumers. In just the first month alone, we saw 5.5-million clicks to pinned links on Clubhouse. Brands such as TED Talks have seen great success with this feature in recent months, seeing a click-through rate of 27% during a particular room.
Brands should also leverage the communities — clubs or individual creators, specifically ones that can speak to the conversations they want to touch on. For example, Valentino hosted a conversation about what it means to be a provocateur, a key value for the brand, and had guests including jewellery designer Betony Vernon, singer Chrystabell, and Diane Pernet (journalist and founder of A Shaded View of Fashion Film) participate in the conversation and to celebrate the launch of one of their new collections.
BP: Many of the truly engaging conversations on Clubhouse take place during the US day, which at times is in the middle of the night here. While the ability to listen to a recorded room is available, it still means that due to something out of your control (time zones) we’re not always able to engage with potential audiences. Is that something that’s possibly being looked at or something that you may have suggestions or words of advice for?
MW: We are always looking to enhance people’s experiences on the platform against different challenges including time zones. It’s part of the reason we created features such as Clips and Replays which allow people to reshare and promote content, or repurpose it for other mediums.
Replays make it easy for creators to record and allow the conversations to live on and it allows people who missed the discussions to be immersed in them. Clips also allow creators to capture 30 second snippets of conversations that can live off the platform and be shared to encourage new members to listen to Replays or other live rooms. It’s like Beyoncé performing her “Homecoming” set at Coachella and then creating a Netflix special out of it. There’s magic with being in the crowd at Coachella, but the performance lives on through other platforms and more people get to experience it.
BP: What are some of the biggest misconceptions that people have about the creator economy?
MW: Two of the biggest misconceptions about the creator economy are that it is a part-time job and it is lucrative at the start. Creators spend many, many hours a day planning and creating content and have to invest time and energy before they can begin to monetise their content and generate a full income from this. Many creators do this full-time work, while also holding down jobs in the daytime. It’s no mean feat and shows real talent and perseverance.