Real-time conversation app Clubhouse has had an incredibly fast start. There are reasons to question its long-term staying power. But as the example of Apple shows, there are also reason to question those reasons.
For anyone not aware of the social conversation’s app brief but remarkable history to date, Clubhouse was launched in April 2020 on the iPhone only. It’s marketing has been helped along by creating the lure of exclusivity (one cannot simply sign up; you have to be invited by a current user) and people like Elon Musk and Bill Gates popping up in Clubhouse rooms.
As of late March 2020, the iPhone app had been downloaded more than three million times. An Android version is in the works.
For content creators, Clubhouse provides a forum where you can set up a “room,” invite people (and other Clubhouse users can decide to join in), and have a conversation. Audience members can “raise their hands” to be invited to speak.
For content consumers, Clubhouse offers an incredible variety of discussion topics to listen and join in on. Rooms are often hosted by industry experts and even celebrities such as author Malcolm Gladwell, Kevin O’Leary of Shark Tank, Aston Kutcher, Wiz Khalifa, Kevin Hart, Drake, Chris Rock, and Oprah.
Once you’re able to score an invite, you may want to check out the excellent tutorial on how to get started on Clubhouse from Social Media Examiner (if you don’t mind the obnoxious pop-ups).
Three Reasons Clubhouse May Crash and Burn
The company is currently “in talks to raise funding from investors in a round valuing the business at about $4 billion,” according to Bloomberg. That would be four times what the company was valued at just four months ago.
Is it worth it? Can the online radio show app perform at a level that justifies that astronomical valuation? Possibly. But here are three reasons for skepticism.
It’s ephemeral. One thing all of the most popular social networks (Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, even Pinterest and TikTok) have in common in the asynchronous nature of their content. You can post whenever you like, and view content from creators whenever you like (yes, there are “live” features on most of these networks, but they account for a small share of use).
People are busy. They want to watch, listen, and read when it’s convenient for them. But as Mark Schaefer has pointed out, content on Clubhouse is “happening right now and never again. If you’re not there, you miss a conversation forever.”
Unlike a podcast that’s recorded live, or most webinars, there’s no option to access a Clubhouse discussion after the fact, on your schedule. Nothing is recorded. You snooze, you lose.
Real-time attention is exhausting. There’s a reason Zoom fatigue has become a common term, but you never hear of “texting fatigue,” or “Slack fatigue,” or even (as much of a pain as it can be) “email fatigue.”
Granted, Clubhouse is audio only, so there’s no need to comb your hair before jumping on. But it still requires in-the-moment concentration, a scare commodity during the workday amidst endless distractions. Written communication isn’t noisy and doesn’t always require an immediate response.
It’s demanding of our time. As with Zoom fatigue, there’s a reason why it’s not uncommon to hear people say “that meeting could have been an email”—but virtually no one ever says the reverse.
People value autonomy, the simply right to have some control over how they spend their time. Meetings are an effective tactic for collaborative work, when they are truly necessary and properly managed. Clubhouse discussions are the same; they need to provide real value, consistently, for people to view it as worthwhile to devote their attention to them during a specific block of time.
Three Reasons Clubhouse May Soar
Unlike Vimeo (a pale imitation of YouTube), Plaxo (a failed knockoff of LinkedIn), TikTok (the Chinese spyware reincarnation of Vine), or Parler (a mirror image of the worst aspects of Twitter), ClubHouse really is something new on the social media scene. Given the Apple tagline “Think Different,” it’s no surprise Clubhouse launched first as an iPhone app.
Here are three broad similarities to Apple’s strategy that may serve Clubhouse well.
Breaking the rules can work. Apple did everything “wrong” (according to the then-conventional wisdom) in its early days. It was a closed, proprietary system released at a time when open systems were all the rage.
That meant only Apple could build Apple computers (as well as many peripherals), while dozens of manufacturers were cranking out PCs (not just IBM but also HP, Packard Bell, Compaq, Dell, Gateway, and myriad white label assemblers).
That in turn meant there was less third-party software development for Apple boxes. And Apples were more expensive. Both of which contributed to corporate America largely shunning Apple products for two decades (except in the graphic design departments).
But instead of those quirks leading to failure, Apple instead built a fanatically devoted cult following, particularly in the design world. Its high prices funded development of new ventures and products which propelled growth.
Similarly, Clubhouse is breaking all the established “rules” of social networks. It’s (as noted above) all real time; content can’t be saved and consumed later. There’s no way (yet) for brands to build a presence there. There’s no advertising. It’s not open; new users need an invitation from an existing user in order to join.
It may not matter. Clubhouse may never have three billion users like Facebook, or even 300 million like Twitter. But it may not need to, if instead develops a passionate, engaged, and influential member base.
Small doesn’t mean weak. Apple was supposed to be crushed by larger rivals, particularly after Microsoft developed Windows. Clearly, that didn’t happen.
Similarly, Clubhouse is already being targeted by bigger players. Microsoft is looking to acquire Discord, the audio-focused chat platform popular with gamers, which already has more than 140 million users.
In addition, Facebook (with Messenger Rooms) and Twitter (with Spaces) are developing their own audio-based alternatives to Clubhouse, counting on their large existing user bases to help them get traction.
But a big part of the reason Apple succeeded in the PC era was precisely that it wasn’t IBM (later played off of in the Mac-vs-PC commercials). It’s hard to say how Discord will fare under Microsoft’s ownership.
Facebook long ago lost its cool factor. And if Spaces becomes simply a place to vent political hate verbally rather than via 280-character tweets, it will devolve into an echo chamber for trolls.
None of which is to say Clubhouse won’t eventually be marginalized by today’s online giants. Just that it’s certainly not inevitable.
It’s only the beginning. When Apple’s business relied on its odd little beige boxes (the original Apple, Apple II, Apple IIe, the disastrous Lisa, the original Mac—which are now prized by collectors), there was no way to foresee that the company’s revenue would eventually be dominated by iPhone sales, or the substantial contributions of the Apple Watch and Apple TV.
Along those same lines, there’s no way to know where Clubhouse is headed. Will it monetize the platform using conventional ads? Use in-content promotion as is common on talk radio? Sponsorships? Influencer partnerships? Will it expand its format, perhaps providing select content on an “on-demand” as well as live basis?
It will be interesting to watch.
In Other Words…
For her recent Search Engine Watch article, Marissa Pick (no relation) gathered insights from several social media influencers about how brands may be able to use Clubhouse for online community building. Their quotes generally reflected a similar cautious optimism. Among the best lines:
“Time is the primary challenge for many thought leaders, a major consideration is whether we want to dedicate the effort to build a following on another platform. This is especially true for B2B leaders with an active social graph on LinkedIn and/or Twitter already. Clubhouse is centered firmly on creators, not brands, at least for now.” — Margaret Mollloy
“Brands cannot use Clubhouse the way they have used other platforms. There’s no automating…outsourcing…editing…(or) photoshopping it…That being said, brands, even B2B brands, CAN use Clubhouse. They just need to facilitate conversations instead of dominating them.” — Rob Durant
Despite its fast start, Clubhouse faces a variety of challenges to long-term success—some from the competitive response, others of its own making. The parallels with the early days of Apple may turn out not to mean much. But they are definitely worth pondering.