Once called a pandemic fad, social audio may have staying power. Digital content companies continue to experiment with the format to engage and build audiences, get feedback, and figure out what topics work for them.
Since Clubhouse launched in March 2020, other social audio spaces have multiplied. These days, Twitter, Spotify, Discord, Reddit, Amazon, Facebook, Instagram and Linkedin all have versions of social audio.
Social audio spaces can be started by anyone. Celebrities and musicians use social audio to have virtual interactions with their fans. Sports reporters and football fans are hosting Twitter Spaces after college football games, to discuss people’s thoughts, to debate or commiserate.
We’ve spoken with The Washington Post, Axios, NPR and the Texas Tribune for a series of case studies that explore how these organizations approach social audio. Notably, all opted to use Twitter Spaces (though some experimented with Clubhouse in the early days of 2020). Through these conversations we discovered some of the use cases for social audio. We were also able to uncover some best practices and tips based upon these media organizations’ early forays on the platform.
Social audio use cases
Trending topics and current events
Matt Adams, engagement editor at NPR, has seen social audio really work for trending topics. He said NPR can quickly produce Twitter Spaces pop ups to discuss current events and issues, like Ukraine, Russia, or the State of the Union Address.
At Axios, Neal Rothschild, director of audience and growth, uses Twitter Spaces for major news discussions, product launches, or new initiatives within the company. “We do it around major events or a product launches. What we think is most impactful is you really need to make it about the topic that people care about,” Rothschild explains.
Large investigative pieces
While breaking news and trending topics are a terrific use of social audio, The Washington Post used the format to delve into the nuances of the Pandora Papers investigation, which involved a wealth of information and was a challenge to present given its scope and depth.
Michelle Jaconi, head of news talent strategy and development at The Washington Post, said social audio is good for things that are so complex that you need extra time, nuance, and care to explain. “The amount of nuance that you can go into in a platform in audio where you don’t have the set limitations of an article is wonderful.”
Concentrating on key issues that affect the everyday lives of their audiences is the focus of social audio for the Texas Tribune, according to Bobby Blanchard, director of audience. These include topics like voting issues and prepping for winter. “Answering reader questions and engaging with our audience is a key part of our service journalism work,” he said.
Benefits of social audio
It’s clear that social audio builds audience. In our case studies, Twitter Spaces’ cross-pollination feature allowed media companies to introduce a guest speaker’s following to their own and vice versa.
Rothschild told us, “if you’re doing a Twitter Spaces and you want to bring someone on as a guest and they have a huge following, you can have some cross-pollination and introduce your following to theirs. The potential is certainly there.”
As companies invite speakers to their Spaces, their followers are notified that there’s a Space happening. When NPR’s Weekend Edition host Scott Simon interviewed Matthew McConaughey, they did it on Spaces. Adams said, “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.”
Social audio is a tool to convene audiences of the curious, or those who become curious about trending hashtags, according to Jaconi at The Washington Post. “Every time we do one of these Spaces, our reporters get new followers. That shows that we’re building audience.”
Engagement and feedback
Social audio is also a great tool for companies to connect with their own audiences. In one of the Spaces NPR did about the housing market, Adams said they heard a lot of audience questions.
“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.
The value of social audio is that a company is not speaking at their audience, they’re speaking with them, live. Companies can bring their audience members on “stage” and get questions and thoughts. Social audio offers an authentic conversation.
“There’s cutting in and interrupting, with some give and take,” said NPR’s Rothschild, “And its not just, here’s me doing my rehearsed two-minute sound bite like they might be used to on TV or radio.”
Exposure and experience
Hosting a Twitter Space gives journalists another way to raise their profile and promote their work. It also offers a means to gain audio experience to broaden their skill set. Web and print journalists don’t generally have experience in audio formats, Rothschild pointed out.
“Some reporters are the type to go on MSNBC, CNN. Others are doing radio hits,” he said. “(Social audio) is definitely a nice option for reporters that don’t have as big of a public profile to have the opportunity to do live, on-air experience.”
“I think it’s important to many journalists — not all — to develop on-air skills. You never know when you might be invited onto a podcast or a radio hit or a TV hit, so getting reps in is valuable,” he said.
Another benefit to social audio for digital content companies is the idea that social audio creates content that can be repackaged as evergreen content or content for the future.
NPR records some of their social audio Spaces and later makes them downloadable—or even broadcasts them on air, according to Adams. NPR have also transcribed their Twitter Spaces into stories that get page views, which also grows 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.
Remember that audience members can join Twitter Spaces mid-stream. It’s possible those audience members have never met you before. Hosts should make a habit of re-introducing themselves mid-stream. This should include addressing new people joining the Space and telling them what they’re speaking about, their name, background, expertise, and the topic of discussion.
Blanchard said that they pepper in a lot of reminders for the moderator or host to do a fresh table setting of what the conversation is about midway through.
This means give your social audio Space a thread of everything you covered in that space. If you’re using social audio to discuss investigations, mention the methodology of your investigation, the complexity of doing the investigation, biographies of speakers or guests, in a thread. This assures that the listening experience isn’t just a one-off that happened in the Twitterverse. Instead it can be connected to other content, events, or used in the future.
But there’s a trick to hosting on Spaces. Like podcasts and radio, hearing the personal voice of a host is important. However, effective hosts find a careful balance between their voice, and hearing from multiple sources and the audience.
Mind the trolls
From a moderation standpoint, Blanchard pointed out that letting just anyone speak can become a minefield. If anyone can join the conversation, it opens up the possibility to trolls. It’s for this reason, that Texas Tribune Spaces events are scripted and audiences are asked to DM questions instead.
Planning and logistics
While just about anyone with a Twitter account can host a Space, social audio events require planning and logistics, just like an in-person event.
Blanchard said that, before each Twitter Space they do, they give everyone a chance to test their technology. They make sure they’re in a space with a good connection and have the equipment they need to record good audio.
“We always have a preference for actual microphones or wired headphones to Bluetooth or built-in laptop microphones. It ensures a higher level of audio, in our experience,” he said.
Is social audio right for you?
As publishers seek to appeal to new audiences, there are lessons to be learned from The Washington Post, Axios, NPR and the Texas Tribune’s early forays into Twitter Spaces. This audio platform suits discussions on breaking news, large investigations, service journalism and trending topics, issues or major events. The combination of the social component with the facility of audio makes it well suited to a range of topics, but particularly those that lend themselves to discussion.
While social audio may not be as polished as a podcast, it is being leveraged by media brands for a wide range of uses – and with much less daunting production requirements. For example, The New York Times started using Twitter Spaces in January 2022 to react to breaking news and host curated talks on arts and culture. The advantage of using Twitter Spaces was that The Times has over 50 million Twitter followers and the live social audio format could be easily integrated to existing workflows.
“We think that the Twitter Spaces can maybe be used as a way to appeal to audiences who don’t already subscribe to The Times and aren’t necessarily reading us a ton,” said Elaine Chen, the director of engagement on The Times’ Events team.
According to the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism’s Trends and Predictions report, 2022 is the year media companies’ efforts will go into podcasts and digital audio. “Consumption of digital audio has been growing — driven by offerings from Spotify, Amazon, smart speakers, smart phones, and a range of digital formats like audio articles, flash briefings and audio messages, along with live formats such as social audio.”
While podcasts may be the hot audio format of the moment, it’s clear from these organizations’ experiences that social audio provides a low-barrier way to engage audiences through audio. And, given the likelihood that media organizations (as well as their journalists and even their guests) already have significant numbers of followers on platforms offering social audio, listeners are easier to reach. At the same time, audience growth is built into the format. It’s clear that social audio offers media organizations a way to dip a toe into audio, give teams experience in producing for audio, and gauge the appeal of audio for their audiences.