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InContext / An inside look at the business of digital content

Social audio brings NPR new, engaged audiences—and much more

March 10, 2022 | By Jessica Patterson – Independent Media Reporter @jesspatterson

Social audio, which came to prominence with the now eerily-quiet Clubhouse, took off during the pandemic. A slew of competitors has emerged during the past 24 months. And just this week, Amazon joined the market with Amp. The company’s pitch is that the new audio app allows users to become live radio DJs, curate playlists, and talk to listeners and guests.

NPR is no stranger to live radio. The Washington-based non-profit media organization hosts two flagship news broadcasts: Morning Edition and All Things Considered. And, in 2020, more people than ever before were consuming NPR content through their website, radio, apps, live streaming, and smart devices, according to Nieman Lab, which pinned its audience around 57 million.

For Matt Adams, engagement editor + social audio at NPR, moving into social audio spaces made sense because it allowed them to meet audiences where they are. Audio also clearly plays to the strengths of their radio roots—but offers added benefits. And, unlike live video, which may take a while to set up or look a certain way, Adams explained, social audio can be set up in minutes. “This is like, get on your Twitter app. You start it. And then you’re just in a conversation. It’s very quick and easy.”

NPR has been doing Twitter Spaces for a year. Adams says that its first Spaces was with the Code Switch team about their fellowship. “I thought it would be a great way to get people who are interested in applying to that fellowship to ask questions and get answers for it,” he said.

And from there, Adams started to experiment. What’s Next: An NPR Conversation Series ran two or three Spaces every day for a week. NPR and member stations would invite their audiences to join on various topics including kids and COVID, climate change, The Supreme Court, and Indigenous community coverage. 

Get feedback

Social audio is a great tool for digital content companies to connect with and expand audiences. Adams says it clearly offers a quick and easy way to talk to their social audience. “What I think is cool is it’s we’re not speaking at them; we’re speaking with them. We can bring them on stage and get their questions and thoughts.”

One of the Spaces that worked really well in the What’s Next series, Adams says, was a conversation about the housing market. “There was a lot of back and forth about, how do you buy a house now? Why is the housing market so wild out there? How do you figure it out?” Adams said.

Find new audiences

While engaging with current fans is important, a big goal for a lot of digital content companies is to attract new and younger audiences. Adams believes social audio offers a way to do just that. In fact, over the last year, Twitter Spaces has introduced new audiences to NPR. 

One way is through audience referrals. As companies invite speakers to social audio spaces, their followers are notified that there’s a Space happening. When NPR Weekend Edition host Scott Simon interviewed Matthew McConaughey, they did it on Spaces. And that brought Matthew McConaugheys fans to NPR’s Space. “They might not follow NPR, they might not even listen to NPR, they might just be there because they’re Matthew McConaughey fans,” Adams said. “But maybe we pick up some new followers… and that’s key.”

“It’s a great way to just interact with people that you might not be able to interact with otherwise. I think that’s very cool.”

Find new content

Adams said that NPR’s social audio spaces have also sparked content and story ideas from the audience. “Sometimes they’ve said, ‘I think you should be thinking about this or doing that. The host’s like, ‘it’s a good idea. We should think about that or add that to our coverage.’”

NPR has opted to record some of their social audio spaces and later make them downloadable—or even broadcast them on air. They have also transcribed their Twitter Spaces into stories that get page views also grow audiences. All of these tactics allow them to better leverage what might be a one time live-only event in a variety of ways, and to reach broader audiences.

Where Adams has seen social audio really work is for trending topics. They can quickly produce Twitter Spaces to discuss current events and issues, like Ukraine, Russia, or the State of the Union Address.

Listen and learn

As Amazon jumps on the bandwagon this month, it’s clear that social audio isn’t going away soon. And, with potential options to monetize it in the future – from in-app tipping features, to sponsorship, to tickets for premium events – it might become a revenue stream as well.

Social audio offers Zoom-weary audiences the intimacy of podcasts but also the ability to participate in discussions, be brought up on the stage and ask questions directly to speakers in real time.

It is interesting the way in which live social audio experiences mirror live radio, but also how they differ. Unlike pre-recorded segments or podcasts, live offers real time audience engagement. But, as the name would imply, social takes it even further. Audience members can “see” each other. They are able to react even if they don’t speak up. And they feel easily empowered to engage. For younger audiences, who may have never listened to terrestrial or even satellite radio, this new format offers the ease and comfort of social media. But for all audiences, engagement and interaction can clearly reach a new level altogether.

Adams saw this firsthand when NPR hosted a Twitter Space based on a story about college students’ experience during the pandemic. Adams asked the reporter to bring her sources into a Space for a discussion. “And then all of the college students in the audience were joining and then jumping up to talk about what was happening at their school and what they were going through,” he said.  “There was just this big conversation between the sources and the audience, and we were just directing traffic. It was awesome. It was not what you would do on the radio.”

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