Small, inadvertent bugs or features can be a big deal. Photo filters on Burbn gave birth to Instagram. Those of you a little older may remember the levels on Space Invaders getting faster as you progressed. That was a bug that became a defining feature of that game and many others that followed.
I’ve been spending a lot of time thinking and writing about messaging apps/mobile social networks — how they’re growing , where they’re going and most importantly, how people are using them, and it strikes me that there’s a tiny feature in there that’s gaining ground rapidly, slightly under the radar for now, but not for long.
Push to talk is everywhere — in WeChat, WhatsApp, Voxer, and Viber. It’s growing massively. Viber now see more voice messages being sent every day than pictures. Apple are getting in on it — making voice messaging one of the features they’re highlighting in their Watch marketing. There’s a growing recognition that simple walkie-talkie style voice messaging hits a huge sweet spot for almost every type of audience.
The use cases are fascinating. Frank Wu wrote a great piece a while back about WeChat. To me, this was the most interesting paragraph:
it isn’t just text messaging that is helping to drive WeChat’s user retention. I was pretty surprised by how popular the walkie talkie (push-to-talk) feature is for communication, which I believe stems from how difficult it is to enter Chinese characters on a phone. It’s not uncommon to see people walking down the street or on the subway, speaking in quick 2 to 3 second bursts on their WeChat accounts. Instead of calling one another, a lot of Chinese people choose to use these walkie talkie conversations, giving them the benefits of asynchronous communication coupled with the power of voice.
In India, Mobile Vaani is an audio social network and Q&A platform that allows people to ask questions, share weather reports, chat or just sing and recite poetry.
HearMeOut is an Israeli app that allows people to share 42 second audio updates with their network. Waved is an app that takes some inspiration from TapTalk and gives you the ability to send an audio message to your connections with just one tap. ChitChat is another one that’s on the same road in terms of design and functionality.
It’s a simple user behaviour that Apple and all of these apps have recognised. Audio is easy to record and simple to listen to. There’s none of the friction that comes with having to set up a camera or look passably human in a video. To me, it’s only a matter of time before one of the companies above or someone else starts to do something simple but effective with the gigantic available audience.
Here’s an example. I’m a sports fan who likes going to games in the flesh or watching them in bars. The big thing that you miss out on in both cases is the pre and post game interviews with the coach and/or team members. Imagine getting a one or two minute message from Messi or the Barcelona coach after the final whistle of a game with their reaction (both are already on WeChat and Line respectively). Same goes for pre-game, midweek and more.
It’s easy to see how this could grow. Podcasting is already coming back into vogue — think of this as the 140 character equivalent. Short, snappy interviews, updates and pieces of opinion. Just push, talk and deliver. With the right subscriptions, it almost becomes a hyper personal micro talk radio station for you. Snippets of the news you’re interested in from the journalists you like, opinion from the pundits you love (or hate), interviews and clips from the celebrities or teams you’re a fan of and much more besides.
When it happens, and this will happen, expect to see premium versions, cross platform varieties sponsored by brands as well as exclusives on specific platforms as a brand and loyalty building exercise. Kakao and Line are already using local celebrities to help them grow in Asian markets. The name of the game for all of the big messaging apps in 2014 is growing their audience and developing ways of retaining users in the face of dozens of identical platforms. This will offer them a way to do that.
There are barriers to this happening immediately. In almost every app, there’s an arbitrary limit on the number of people who can be part of a voice or text group chat. As they start to open up to an increasing number of companies, individuals and brands, that will change. Brands can already pay Kakao for premium accounts. There’s no reason to suspect that won’t extend to other platforms and other types of users.
Current limitations aside, the fact that WeChat is already doing premium content deals with celebrities is enough of a signal. What they do, others will copy or iterate upon. Given how big the push-to-talk function is becoming within these apps, I can’t believe that we won’t see the platform owners, existing content owners or some as-yet-unknown startup using it as a serious, valid channel for content this year.
If you’re interested in making that happen, let me know. I want to fund and work on this idea.