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What’s next for Houseparty, the social video app for the social distancing age?

The Drum 25 Mar 2020 06:49

‘Download Houseparty!’ is the ‘add me on Insta?’ of March 2020 – the social call to action of an international society living through isolation.

While Zoom has emerged as the video conferencing system du jour for the 9-5 crowd (as well as the ‘Zoomers’), Houseparty has claimed the happy hour – the time when people want to ‘do’ something social, and not just vent about their coronavirus boredom and anxiety through a webcam.

The app taps into the user’s contact book and allows for an immediate connection to friends online. Up to eight people can enter a video chat at one time, and when the “door” to a party is left unlocked, friends of friends can walk in and join the conversation.

The social spontaneity app (there's no need for meeting IDs or even a dialing tone) is augmented by its in-app games. Parties can play rounds of trivia or the word association challenge ‘Chips & Guac’, while users also have the ability to share their phone or desktop screens with the room.

“There's brilliant imperfection attached to the live connectivity – even the fact that you can like jump into other people's house parties,” says Lore Oxford, global head of cultural insights at We Are Social. “They've managed to create a really frictionless, boundaryless intimacy, which feels about as close to real life as it can be.”

Houseparty’s meteoric rise sounds like a Covid-19 tale of overnight success. But it isn’t.

Meerkat’s brief wave of popularity among the social media community was quickly eclipsed by the heftier launches of Twitter’s Periscope and Facebook Live, and by early 2016 developers told investors they were bowing out and building a new product.

Thus, Houseparty was born.

Facebook, which tried and failed to emulate the formula in Bonfire, looked to buy Houseparty in December 2018. It reportedly let the deal go over concerns regarding user privacy, having come through the worst of its Cambridge Analytica scandal that year.

“The joy of Houseparty [when it first launched] was the fact it was ephemeral content,” says Oxford. “But then Snapchat came along, Instagram Stories came along and Facebook Stories came along, and so there wasn’t really a need for new ephemeral content in our feeds for a while.

"And what's interesting is Houseparty has also grown popular in a wider social landscape where we're seeing an uptick in private Instagram profiles, WhatsApp and private, community-driven Facebook groups. I think Houseparty makes a lot of sense next to them, and gives me a feeling that it will still have longevity and use after [the coronavirus] has blown over.”

However, the brand announced earlier this month that its paid-for gaming add-ons – which the Financial Times reports are its main source of revenue – would be free for users for the foreseeable future. Meanwhile, The Drum understands the platform has paused sales activity on any new deals that drive revenue.

It’s this kind of natural integration that Houseparty has been looking to build into the app, rather than making room for ad space.

“Based on the current consumer experience, I don’t think that there will be much room for traditional ad formats on Houseparty as they would feel wildly intrusive,” he says. “If Houseparty is looking to develop ad products, the key for them would be to look for bespoke opportunities where an advertiser can enhance or expand what Houseparty is for consumers, similar to the Heads Up integration.

Alexandra Heide, associate director of communications strategy at Omelet, imagines an easy brand integration built into the trivia game that's already live in the app. This, she says, could look like a smaller, more personal version of the now-defunct HQ Trivia’s play with advertiser dollars.

There are a lot of barriers in the way, however, the first being the fact that users join through their phone number and not by creating a ‘page’ a la TikTok and Twitter.

But a brand could create buzz, even if the event itself only directly engaged seven other people.

“With the platform currently being free to use – and the current climate putting many marketing budgets on hold – this is a great option for marketing teams to experiment with the features and find ways to keep their audiences entertained in a time that the audiences need it more than ever.”

“Through screencaps or screen recording, this could generate a great deal of conversation for the brand, but on the other platforms that the content is shared on.”

Huynh predicts the “inevitable ‘borrowing’ of Houseparty’s core functionality by larger platforms” will occur in the next few months, ie when many users will still be stuck at home and desperate for new and novel ways to stay entertained and connected.

The biggest question social marketers are asking is whether Houseparty’s large audience will sustain once humanity is safe to interact IRL again. Esposito predicts “a huge drop in new users and daily active users” once social isolation is over, as people cherish real-life interactions in a way they’ve failed to for generations.

So, like many things today, the future of Houseparty is more or less impossible to predict.

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