The other day I saw a screenshot of a Zoomer’s phone and was kind of blown away. Texting is so old school to these kids, it’s all about sending voice memos to each other now. Snap, Insta, iMessage, even WhatsApp. Text and emojis leave too much room for ambiguity, I was informed. Better to let friends and families hear it straight from the horse’s mouth.
Is this yet another audio renaissance? And what happened to the audio renaissance that happened years ago, when Amazon, Google and Apple introduced voice-enabled assistants and deployed them everywhere? Weren’t conversational commerce and ambient computing supposed to be major things by now?
Here we find Gartner’s Hype Cycle of Emerging Technologies particularly useful. After a brief burst of interest around a new and “disruptive” technology the bubble bursts, interest fades, and people wonder what all the fuss was about. But — and this is important — while we’re looking around for the next big thing, that tech enjoys slow but steady market adoption. Before we know it, there’s a whole lot of disruption going on.
That’s where we are today. Already we see that audio has infiltrated the workplace in significant ways (think Slack’s Huddles, Google Meet, etc.), largely due to the pandemic. But audio isn’t going to stay at the office, when there’s a $20 trillion consumer market that’s perpetually game for new things. Everything in the future will have an audio component, especially commerce.
More Audio than Ever Before
Back in 2020, people started talking about the “audio renaissance.” It was the year that Clubhouse, Stereo and Spoon emerged, pushing text-based communications aside in favor of voice. Traffic exploded.
But Americans were already deep into an audio renaissance, thanks to podcasts. Eighty million Americans listen to podcasts each week, and they attract an incredibly diverse audience. It’s big business, too. In 2020, the global podcasting market was valued at $11.46 billion (with a B), and it’s growing at 31% each year. And it’s not the typical “NPR”-style sponsors, either.
Podcasts today get a sizable chunk of the news organizations budget (think of them as their direct-to-consumer play), as well as the brand marketer’s. Today just about every brand has an audio strategy, whether that’s advertising on a relevant podcast or offering voice-based customer care via a chat agent. While Bill Gates and other charitable trusts continue to underwrite audio journalism, a new breed of advertiser is helping pump cash into independent podcasts. Tech startups, and especially venture-backed DTC (direct-to-consumer) brands like Manscaped, are spending hundreds of millions on consumer audio ads.
So what’s next?
Crowdsourced Customer Experience will be Audio
There’s been a real renaissance in the customer experience. Brands once fiercely protected how their names and images were used, but we see that easing somewhat (just look at the fun they have on TikTok).
Brands are happy to let their customers influence their prospects’ experiences with their brands. This seems like a radical departure from the past but it has actually been evolving slowly over time, first with customer testimonials, followed by onsite product reviews, now with customer-to-customer Q&A sections on product pages themselves. Testimonials have morphed to crowdsourced customer experiences.
It’s only a matter of time before voice dominates those product Q&A discussions. Brands won’t hesitate to create more experiential ways for customers and prospects to connect with each other in Clubhouse-like lobbies or waiting rooms. Why? Because it’s human nature for customers to share their experiences with a product. If I see someone in a store holding a piece of musical equipment I’m familiar with, you can believe I’ll share my opinion.
These kinds of serendipitous interactions have been missing in online commerce, and audio is uniquely suited to fill that gap. As it happens, companies like Space are stepping up.
So are companies that have traditionally focused on one-way audio, like Spotify. About a year ago, Spotify launched Greenroom, a social audio app that allows up to 1,000 people to interact with one another.
Commerce Seeps into Audio
Spotify is also on the leading edge of another trend I see as inevitable: commerce will seep into audio companies. Last October, Spotify announced a partnership with Shopify so that artists can sell the merch from their Spotify profiles. Poolsuite, the site for 1980s vacation music, also offers merch, but it’s taking it one step further with artists collaborations and its NFT.
Meanwhile, Spotify sort of broke the internet when it announced Spotify Wrapped, which is a data product disguised as a customized playlist of the listener’s past year. It doesn’t just create viral moments to share with friends, it also launches new genres. You can thank Wrapped for the explosion of Sea Shanties in 2021. It’s a classic example of a brand using the data it has on its customers to introduce new products. Amazon has since joined in with its “year in review” for music and videos, and many others will follow.
Audio Experiences Feed the Commerce Experience
There’s something pretty special about audio, which a friend of mine pointed out about the dating app Hinge. Hinge introduced a feature that allows users to upload and send audio files, and it has become a new venue for performance art. Some people do impressions, others draw pictures out of waveforms, and still others are absurdists.
Hinge and Spotify Wrapped are relevant for a very specific feature: All of these experiences outside of commerce set the stage for what consumers will expect in a commerce experience. Why read a written review when you can hear a customer in his or her own words?
In the past I think we’ve over-indexed on video. Endless Zoom calls over the past two years have exhausted us. Audio is less about performance art and more genuine connection then video managed to be. The future of audio is commerce-centric, employee-centric, community-centric. It’s the future of everything.