Why marketers are flocking to Clubhouse to tout their expertise—and brands
Leave it to marketers to jump on the latest social fad to promote their expertise and their brands at the same time. In the past week, marketing leaders have joined the invite-only audio app to lead often-spontaneous talks on everything from the Super Bowl 5-second Reddit ad to best practices on social tracking, content marketing and productivity hacks, often using LinkedIn to announce their plans. Along with using the app as a soapbox for their skills, marketers are strategizing ways their brands can benefit from the Clubhouse hype.
This past Friday, Fernando Machado, global chief marketing officer at Restaurant Brands International—parent company to Burger King, Tim Hortons and Popeyes—joined RBI CEO José Cil to lead a Clubhouse first: A discussion around the company’s fourth-quarter earnings, reported the day before. Called “Open Kitchen,” the talk touched on the earnings, the company’s sustainability efforts and Burger King’s new loyalty program.
The theme of the hour-long talk pales in comparison to some of the livelier chats on the app (cosmic poetry anyone?). Still, more than 100 people tuned in to listen and ask questions—and why wouldn’t they? There seems to be an audience for everything. “If we open up to our investors and business media every 3 months for financial results, why not do the same with other people who might be interested (from marketing folks to consumers)?” wrote Machado on LinkedIn.
The RBI chat is one of the first examples of a brand creatively using Clubhouse, but industry experts say to expect more—and soon. “It felt like a very authentic, approachable, honest and transparent way to communicate,” says Machado. “It was unscripted, and people had the chance to ask questions and interact. Felt like a fun live radio talk show.”
Behind the boom
It’s no surprise marketers are being drawn to Clubhouse. The app, described by some as the “newest form of social media,” merges the expertise aspect of LinkedIn with the appeal of podcasts. The app, still in beta for iOS only, is all audio—there are no photos, comments or live videos where a participant might have to explain, say, his inadvertent use of a cat filter. The idea is that people can come together to network or glean insights from leaders in the industry like they would at a business happy hour, minus the work attire. Users can either host their own talks or join “rooms” and listen in on live talks. Although there’s no ability to message users directly, there’s a room group chat feature and the option to join “clubs”—groups of people who are interested in the same topics. The free app does not show ads.
“You get access to some of the smartest thinkers and can learn from them,” says Julian Cole, strategy coach at Planning Dirty and previously the head of communications at BBDO Worldwide. Cole has hosted two live talks on the app from the perspective of a strategist. “That is what I have found most interesting about it, the people on there at the moment are the early adopters and so you are hearing how they think.”
Meanwhile, the app’s invite-only strategy feeds on the fear of missing out.
“FOMO is the ultimate hype marketing tool,” says Karsen Woods, director of brand development at toy company Superplastic. “I joined the app knowing people on there had something special about them that warranted an invite from the creators or other users. Your name is attached to that invite, so you want to invite people that you are confident will impact and contribute positively.”
Everyone who joins can invite their own friends, growing the user base through personal connections.
The San Francisco-based startup was founded by entrepreneurs Paul Davison and Rohan Seth in March 2020. Increasing appearances of celebrities including Oprah Winfrey, Mark Zuckerberg, Charlie Puth, Drake, Tiffany Haddish, Zendaya and even Vanilla Ice have brought different audience sectors onto the app. When Elon Musk hosted a chat with Robinhood CEO Vlad Enev following the GameStop trading stampede two weeks ago, he hit the 5,000-person limit of how many people could listen in to a room; secondary rooms had to be created for everyone to join in.
Founders and brand leaders in the public spotlight, such as Musk, who now has 1.1 million followers on Clubhouse, represent not only themselves but their brands. The app has a valuation of $1 billion and has raised $100 million in a funding round led by investor Andreessen Horowitz, according to Axios. Clubhouse did not respond to a request for comment.
Clubhouse’s global installs have climbed month-over-month since it launched, but its growth really began to accelerate at the end of January, according to app analytics firm Sensor Tower. In the three weeks from Jan. 25 to Feb. 14, the app saw six million global installs, a 400% boost from the three weeks prior when it was downloaded 1.2 million times.
Audio apps in general are thriving during the pandemic. Competitors' apps including Yalla, Hello Yo and YoYo also saw year-over-year global growth and Clubhouse is training the competition. Sensor Tower estimates that Yalla has 40 million global installs, followed by Hello Yo with 31 million, YoYo with 18 million and Clubhouse with nine million.
Getting in on the hype
Advertisers and marketers appear to be giving as many talks as they can to grow their followings, some on a weekly basis, knowing that it’s easier to grow presence in the early days of a social network. Professionals are also creating their own clubs. These include the Creative Executive Officers club with 88,000 followers, the Influencer Marketing Secrets club with 53,000 followers and the Black Women Marketers club with 18,000 followers. Since the app lets users share a Twitter and Instagram profile, it’s becoming a popular way for freelancers in the marketing and advertising space to gain business. Many are including their phone numbers to sign people up for their SMS news outreach.
Gil Eyal, founder of influencer platform HYPR, says those wishing to become influencers on Clubhouse are looking at more output and a larger time commitment than they would on TikTok, Instgram or Twitch. “The conversations are time-consuming, and leading one is extremely demanding. This is unlike Twitch, where a huge majority of streamers are streaming games they would be playing anyway,” says Eyal. “Clubhouse hosts need to drop everything and focus on leading their chat." Clubhouse is testing its own "Creator Pilot Program" with more than 40 influencers.
Even though Clubhouse’s emphasis is on individuals, it’s not going to stop brands from trying to create space for themselves. So far, few brands have created profiles, and several ad agencies are trying to determine how brands can embrace the app in an authentic way. Still, brands are staking their claim to app usernames. Chipotle Mexican Grill is at @cmgofficial and Barstool Sports is at @barstool_sports.
Gary Vaynerchuk, CEO of VaynerMedia and co-founder of Resy and Empathy Wines, has been bullish on the rise of the audio-only social space for several years. He has already hosted a number of talks on Clubhouse, where he has 598,000 followers. He says VaynerMedia, which works with companies including Unilever, PepsiCo, Kraft Heinz and Modelez International, is spending “an obnoxious amount of time strategizing brand involvement. We want to be fair to the app and not be a cheesy brand so we’re doing a lot of thoughtful strategy work.” Vaynerchuk envisions how brand spokespeople like Progressive’s Flo, a brewmaster at Budweiser or the head chocolatier at Godiva, could build a following by giving talks that would resonate with brand fans.
Jeff Yang, director of technology at agency On Board Experiential, sees how the audio app could benefit brands hosting events that could be held anywhere, especially during the pandemic. “Those who can’t attend in real life but still desire to be part of the conversation will tune in,” he says. “It’s very similar to following your favorite sports team—if you can’t watch the game on TV, you will happily just listen in.”
Not without frustrations
Clubhouse does not come without its frustrations. Marketers say the rooms can become dominated by moderators, and it can take a while for listeners "raising their hands" with questions to be called on. There’s a high frequency of mobile push alerts, as well as harassment, misinformation and privacy issues, according to the New York Times. This month, China banned the app after thousands of Chinese users flocked to it.
Unlike LinkedIn or Zoom, where conversations can be recorded, talks on Clubhouse disappear as soon as they’re over. That feature helps drive real-time engagement. But for users who want to build presence or grow a business, the lack of any measurement capability is a drawback. Vaynerchuk believes the app will eventually update its user interface with the option to record talks, at which point he might consider turning his podcast into a live Clubhouse talk to feed off a live audience. “I do better with that energy, but I would need them to get a better recording engine,” Vaynerchuk says.
With advertisers and marketers hosting talks every day, there’s the potential of derailing what makes the app attractive to start with. “I think it detracts a bit from having genuine conversations,” says Jeremy Eisengrein, account supervisor at Edelman. “I almost see it as LinkedIn on audio steroids.”
The largest issue Vaynerchuk sees on the app so far are so-called “experts” hosting talks and inviting questions—but failing to deliver. “Stay in your lane of actual expertise or passion,” he says. “Don’t fake it. Be authentic. If you’re just a fan, you can say you’re a fan, don’t say you’re an expert.”
Contributing: Jessica Wohl