Every Thursday, several of us here at Cognito have taken to the virtual stage, hosting a moderated discussion on the social media platform du jour. While Cognito’s PR Power Hour might lack the cachet of say, appearances by British Chancellor Rishi Sunak or Tesla Founder Elon Musk, we are proud to be one of the first financial communications companies to have a regular presence on the application.
Five sessions in, we thought it worthwhile to share some of our impressions of the platform, hopefully with an eye towards helping out our fellow communicators wondering if Clubhouse makes sense as part of the overall marketing plan. While we aren’t soothsayers, there are definitely some positive aspects to the platform that give it a leg up over previous competitors.
A fuzzy line between the stage and the audience. On Microsoft Teams or in the webinar mode of Zoom, there’s a strict delineation between those that are ‘speaking’ and those that are in the audience. With Clubhouse, it’s easy for anyone to ask to join the stage or to invite people up to speak. It meant that when our discussion one week turned to the relationships between governments and asset managers, we were quickly able to hear a few words from a regulator who joined the audience.
Simple controls. The early months of virtual events were filled with nervous rehearsals and live events filled with drop outs and people stuck in wait rooms. Clubhouse is simple and intuitive enough that’s easy for a moderator to guide a discussion while also controlling the stage and turning people on and off mute. It’s bad news for outsourced event companies, but is far more reliable that other ‘enterprise’ grade platforms.
Better conversation. After some experimentation, we chose a weekly format that involved the main speakers discussing a topic that caught their eye in the last week. This produced wide ranging discussions, from the evolving role of influencers to stories in politics and finance. Some speakers would take forward discussions, others introduced new topics. It allowed for a faster paced and hopefully more spontaneous discussion that many traditional formats. We also included a lightning round where people could include their PR fails and successes of the week, blurring the line between a webinar and something you might normally see in a podcast.
At the same time, we also saw some reasons for skepticism. While we drew high quality relevant people, it was clear that many people who showed up to our sessions were curious about Clubhouse itself. Few people returned for a second week, even as we kept our discussions at the same time. These exposed some weaknesses of the platform.
Poor discoverability. Clubhouse has grown faster than its ability to meaningfully curate content. When joining you are asked to pick several interests and shown several friends and influencers to potentially follow. From there Clubhouse creates a schedule of available programming. It’s far from enough. Advertising and venture capital are “interests”, but not PR or private equity. In practice we’ve heard people mostly joining conversations either at random or through programming that’s done on other applications such as Twitter and LinkedIn.
iOS only – and false selectivity. Clubhouse conversations aren’t available for everyone. At first invitations were quite limited, which meant some people who might have been interested weren’t bothered to get on. Every new user needs to be sponsored by an existing one, which can lead to chains and cliques of people on the platform. And if you don’t have an Apple device – forget it. Clubhouse remains strangely an Android-free zone.
Privacy concerns – Clubhouse occupies a strange liminal space between public and private forum. Recordings aren’t supposed to be made and there are no digital records of the conversations, but the transient nature of people coming and going from rooms mean it can be hard to tell who exactly was there – and if they pass on information. Assume information gets out - a German regional governor had to apologise for rude comments about Merkel. Musk’s remarks were heavily quoted and any public company should consider Clubhouse is public. This certainly is cause to keep executives and communications folks nervous about proprietary information getting out in a conversation that seems private. Our advice is – treat every conversation, private or not, as if the material could wind up in the next week’s news.
The picture is mixed. We’re about to start client events on Clubhouse, which will be a real test about what’s good and bad about the platform. Both the application and the process of being on it are still very much in a ‘beta’ phase. This includes our own Cognito efforts on the platform.
We’re currently in the middle of a two week break, but will continue with sessions on ESG and monitoring/insights on the 8 and 15 of April at 5 p.m. London/noon New York time. After that, what we do will be guided by market demand and what seems to work. (You can find out about future sessions by becoming a follower of our Cognito Club by clicking this link on an iPhone, IPad or Macbook.)
While we don’t know the exact way we will be using Clubhouse in six months or a year, we are happy it exists. By arriving so suddenly, so unexpectedly, it has shattered certain expectations about what is and is not possible in digital events. Even if the platform doesn't wind up being the major focus on financial conversations, we see innovations born on Clubhouse being widely adapted elsewhere, whether in straight-up ‘clones’ like Twitter’s Streams or just as features on already existing platforms. We are a better industry for having Clubhouse inside it.
Jon Schubin is a director in Cognito’s London office