Clubhouse's craft

The execution behind the hype

No doubt, you've read a lot about Clubhouse in the past weeks. Still, most of it is just hype and not a lot about the craft that went into making it a successful product. Even if you dislike it, Clubhouse as a product works. And it works not because it is built using groundbreaking ideas. Quite the contrary, it works precisely because it leverages many existing, well-established behaviors, UX concepts, and growth tactics―all in a way that feels fresh. 

What's old is new

Every new social product starts with a big, hairy problem. Without people using it, there's no value in it, and without value, it's hard to attract people to use it. Luckily if you're Clubhouse, you have a solid playbook to begin with... and boy did they use that playbook! First off, conversations are valuable only when they are both interesting and relevant to you, the user. So, how do you engineer this relevance when there aren't many people using the product and lots of topics to talk about? By heavily constraining your network. Finding a way to create pockets of relevance. And this tactic is far from new: Facebook launched in Harvard and grew from university to university, Uber is famous for their city-by-city growth playbook, Etsy started by selling only a handful of product categories, just to name a few. The key thing here is that starting small isn't exactly to reduce complexity or ship the product faster. The goal is to reach relevance faster

In Clubhouse's case, the constraints placed in the network weren't geographic or thematic. Here, the network was constrained by tribes. It blossomed first with a typical startup tribe, very keen to talk about venture capital, memes, bitcoin, San Francisco, and above all, Elon Musk.  Within a given tribe, interests are widely shared across many topics, people know who the authorities are, and conversations are relevant.

It's important to dwell on this "tribalism" for a minute, just to explain how this was engineered by their product, and not just a result of luck or marketing. Starting from acquisition and the fact that it happens through invitations, which naturally favors existing (close) relationships that exist in the real world. But Clubhouse goes beyond that, as invites are severely limited and framed with a conspicuous "You'll get the credit for the invite on their profile!" signalling these invites are part of your reputation. You better not embarrass yourself in front of your tribe. So, the goal here is clearly not just growth, and not just exclusivity. Clubhouse plays with people's ingrained tribal behaviors in order to reach relevance faster in the network. There's a clear trade-off between that and diversity of people and ideas, but it's easy to see why they've picked the former over the latter given their growth strategy.

Another building block for this new network is also quite old: Twitter. Use an existing network to build your own! This seems to be happening more often, by the way, as we find ways to transfer value stored on Twitter's interest graph onto other products.  The basics here are connecting Twitter accounts to produce recommendations and forge user connections, but Clubhouse is also benefiting from stealing attention from Twitter. Often you will see people who have an audience on Twitter talk about going live on Clubhouse, and their audience feels compelled to  follow them onto this new network. This works wonders for user acquisition ("What's this Clubhouse thing?", they ask) but more importantly it can work repeatedly, even when everyone is already on Clubhouse. This is a very real transfer of attention and network effects from one network to another. If you're Twitter and your currency is attention, you're not exactly happy seeing this happen. 

A small tangent here: I'm still very bullish on Twitter in particular, given how valuable their interest graph has proven to be in building up many interesting products like Substack and Clubhouse to name a few. In this piece published here in our Kitchen, Joey DeBruin discusses more about Twitter and their role in curation and discovery. But if they can capture this value for themselves―instead of just letting others ride on it―remains to be seen. 

Finally, on to a classic growth hacking crowd-pleaser: using your phone's contacts for user acquisition. This is a very controversial tactic, and there's a lot to consider here in terms of privacy and ethics that I won't go into. You can read Will Oremu's piece on privacy implications and the latter part of Ben Thompson's Clubhouse's Inevitability for some of that discussion. 

Once again, Clubhouse has put a twist on that old tactic. When looking at your invite screen, there's a list of suggestions for you to invite: people pulled from your contacts, but ranked by those with more "connections" already on Clubhouse. We can reverse-engineer what they're optimizing for with this, especially knowing their strategy of growing tribes. First off, those people already well connected on Clubhouse are much more likely to accept the invite, either by social conformity or by common interests. More importantly, they're more likely to participate, and ultimately stick around, given that their tribe is more likely to be formed in the network. This means they can find and enjoy more relevant conversations from the start, reaching that "a-ha moment" quicker. This tactic also benefits engagement for those already on Clubhouse: when someone joins and that someone is connected to lots of people, that single new user has the potential to deliver value (and lots of notifications!) to a lot of users in the app. This is a nifty growth loop. 

How to build a FOMO machine

Now that tribes have hopefully been acquired and onboarded, they can cozy up their corners and let the chatter flourish. Yet, Clubhouse has another hurdle to clear: all this good stuff needs to happen live. People need to be there, at the right time. Unlike the other traditional social networks, Clubhouse is synchronous in nature, and being present at the right time is necessary to get value from it. It has profound implications on product design and how to keep the network humming. It requires baking schedule coordination deeply into the experience.

Clubhouse has come up with a few different ways to achieve this, some are obvious, others not so much. For starters, even though serendipity is an attractive concept, it is less useful if what you want is to build a repeatable engagement loop. You want to facilitate the coordination as much as possible. Clubhouse relies heavily on two main triggers to coordinate people and get them in the room: scheduling and (a metric ton of) push notifications. And fueling these two, a lot of FOMO. This last ingredient is one that gets talked about a lot,  and I'm unsure whether it was intentionally designed or emerged from the live nature of Clubhouse, mixed with its tribal approach. Picture yourself, my fellow tribalist homo sapiens, feeling like your tribe is all together, engaging in exhilarating conversations… and you're not in the room?

From a user perspective, Clubhouse is clearly not geared towards your typical Twitter, TikTok or Instagram use cases, where people open the app without much of an intent, and let their attention be grabbed by whatever manages to make them a little less bored. Sure, this also exists on Clubhouse, but it's not what the product is designed for primarily. Here, users are flooding into the app either because they have an appointment (either as a host or audience) or because they've got pulled into it by a notification that something is happening right now. Those two triggers are incredibly powerful. 

For scheduling, a host can create an event with all the details you'd expect, like a topic, participants, and of course a date and time for the conversation to happen. Scheduled events are so important for Clubhouse that it occupies the top of your home screen, and it is pushed through your in-app notifications screen called Activity. The job to be done here is making absolutely sure you don't miss an event you might like when it goes live. Again, this is all pretty understandable even if a bit needy. If a great conversation happens and you're not around to listen in, the product has failed 100% to deliver its value. As usual, the actions a user can take on a scheduled event gives a glimpse into what Clubhouse wants them to do: amplify that event through sharing, tweet about it, and―perhaps more telling―add it to your personal calendar. 

All these coordination problems have also given Clubhouse license to crank up notifications to 11. As with any sort of notification, they are far more useful and valuable when their content is needed right now. Like knowing that the pizza you ordered is arriving, or Bitcoin's price falls below a level where you'd want to buy. Clubhouse has taken an old, mostly hated feature on mobile devices and turned it into a core part of their experience. I wouldn't be surprised if the vast majority of users have allowed Clubhouse to send them push notifications, which in 2021 is truly a remarkable thing to pull off. But why did people actually allow it? Sure, they can be "useful", but once again the answer is as old as it gets and is deeply rooted in our psyche: the fear of missing out, or the fear of being left out. Still, scheduling and coordinating people is such a pain point that users are taking matters in their own hands, for example deploying another ancient piece of tech: SMSs.

To Clubhouse's credit, their push notifications are designed with a very low friction call-to-action to "listen in" and with the urgency that a conversation is happening right now. Here, it's critical to look at the experience of entering a Clubhouse room and see it was designed to be as lightweight and quiet as possible. No sound, no warning. It's pretty much the opposite of entering a room in the middle of a conversation in real life. Entering and leaving a room quietly is a crucial design decision that allows people to react to push notifications without fear, and when they feel like there's no time to fully follow the conversation. Still, the most important of this design decision is that it eases the burden of synchronicity: there are no penalties if you're a few minutes late to a conversation, or want to leave a little early. It's a great example of building a product that caters to actual behavior, not an idealized version of human behavior―one where people are always on time. 

Conquering The Wild, Wild West 

I wrote in this very Kitchen about engineering cool in a new social network E.gg, another highly social product, where I also talked about an idea that status games can play out more freely early on in a social network. This applies to Clubhouse, too. We're still very much in that wild west territory, where creators (and people promoting their stuff) are trying to claim as much territory as they can. Once again, just good old human social behavior. 

What's different on Clubhouse is that it's the only (big) social product I can think of that gives out lots of brownie points to people curating, instead of creating content. We've recently kicked off the golden era of the creator, but so far most of the value has been going to the hands of creators in a very real sense: creators are people actively creating content. They dance on TikTok videos, present their own YouTube shows and write their own independent publications. Yet, on Clubhouse you can become very popular not for the content you create, but for the people you're able to get together in a room. A classic example is Aarthi Ramamurthy and Sriram Krishnan's "Good Time" show and how Krishnan in particular was able to amass incredibly quickly 3 times more followers on Clubhouse than on Twitter. 

Bringing this back to the theme of old versus new, we shouldn't be surprised that curators of social gatherings are so popular right now. It has happened in history more often than not. Curators have held a lot of power and have, to varying degrees, always been famous. From parties to radio and TV, from politics to companies. These are influencers in the most traditional sense, because they create and shape what an audience will see, or in this case, hear. In another old-world analogue, on Clubhouse you raise your hand to talk, and that curator will decide if you can talk. It's an entirely new digital product dynamic, but rooted in well established power dynamics and social norms. So, that curation power comes with a lot of responsibilities. First and foremost to ensure a diversity of voices and ideas can be heard, which will certainly be a challenge for a network built with social conformity at the heart of its growth strategy. 

It's interesting to see, then, how Clubhouse will continue to shape their product around this curator role. From their blog:

Creators are the lifeblood of Clubhouse, and we want to make sure that all of the amazing people who host conversations for others are getting recognized for their contributions. Over the next few months, we plan to launch our first tests to allow creators to get paid directly—through features like tipping, tickets or subscriptions.

As with every new social network that gains traction, the wild west phase is an ugly race to the bottom, with marketing and self-promotion spreading like cancer. As it stands, there aren't many ways to reward the good or punish the bad (apart from the basic sharing/following, and blocking), which could spell trouble for Clubhouse if moderators (curators) aren't incentivized in the right direction. Another key part of moderators earning for their work is who will actually pay the bill. As explained by Joey DeBruin in The Audience Grows The Creator, the thesis is that the audience is the one truly powerful force in the so-called creator economy, so allowing them to reward (effectively fund) quality moderators will let them play their role much more effectively. So, hopefully Clubhouse's revenue model for creators will be aligned with their audience, and by extension aligned with their core need to keep conversations in the platform relevant for users.

Hit me up with any questions or comments, and until next time!

-Rapha