Live Audio Is Not Dead. It's Niche

While major platforms like Spotify are scaling back, it can still be the perfect outlet to connect with consumers

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The downturn in the fortunes of live audio, as implied by the recent withdrawal of both Spotify and Reddit from their respective ventures in this space, is not the story of a failed concept, nor a redundant platform. Instead, what we are witnessing is simply a large scale, but far from terminal, shift in response to the behaviors of audiences.

This is not so unusual to those of us who live and breathe social. Smart marketing investment is influenced on a micro level every single day by audiences’ moods, interests, behaviors and preferences. The changes to the live audio landscape can be understood as a macro-level example of this pattern.

A supersonic surge triggered by a pandemic

The supersonic surge in popularity of the live audio format peaked mid-way through the pandemic, as people sought new forms of entertainment and connection in lockdown. Clubhouse, which began as an invite-only site, led the pack and was followed by the likes of Twitter Spaces, Facebook Live Audio, Reddit Talk and Spotify’s Greenroom, with Amazon’s Amp offering something for wannabe radio hosts.

It made perfect sense for brands to explore being in that space at that time. A cocktail of unique variables made live social audio a significant new format as appointment-driven entertainment offered routine and focus at a time when a lot of people had lost the structure of their day-to-day lives.

The particular qualities of audio-only met other needs; offering a break from interminable screens and ‘Zoom fatigue,’ allowing us to tune in while walking around in nature or opting to add an alternative soundtrack to the repetition of the same house arrest companions. There were emotional triggers too—audio, especially live or podcast formats with their more conversational tone, are more intimate and empathetic than other entertainment formats. When we were isolated and structureless, live audio offered us real human moments of connection.

It makes sense that there was a behavior-led shift unique to that point in time. And so it also stands to reason that, as normal service resumed, the demand would ebb away. People went back to work, on school runs and to Monday night football. Our diaries filled up again and any sort of appointment-based activity took a hit.

The opportunities await

Today, moth-balling and layoffs from big names who had rushed to the live audio party, like Spotify, Reddit and even the increasingly beleaguered Twitter, point to a deprioritization of the format, and as such the bell has tolled for live audio as a serious media opportunity for mainstream marketers. Put bluntly, the scale of the user base isn’t there anymore and no one is trying to lure it back.

But that’s not to say the format is dead, nor that marketers should turn away en masse from investing in the space. On the contrary, for the right brief, it can be the perfect outlet.

The likes of Discord’s Stages attract niche audiences, with specific communities gathering to share hobbies and interests, be it gaming, music, content creation and so on. Indeed, many of these consciously restrict the number of users in each Stage channel to maintain that closed, intimate vibe. Campaigns or activations that pull on expertise or exclusivity triggers might still want to use live social audio in their approach. Smaller, exclusive audiences also offer a significant appeal for people seeking safe spaces online, in particular younger users.

So, within certain communities, live audio platforms are still relevant. It’s not mainstream, and it’s not a slam dunk on every marketing plan by a long way, but to believe it’s dead is to overlook the importance of some of the smaller but important players in the social media landscape.

Rather than writing off formats wholesale, marketers should instead focus on the direction in which the next swells of interest are likely to go. Working out how to maintain fluidity so that their brand’s marketing investments move with the audience in the short term would be a safer move than trying to bet on what will and will not still be in existence this time next year.