When bombs went off at the Boston Marathon last year, the public was desperate for details. For the creators of the hugely popular radio app TuneIn, it took a tragedy—and the subsequent traffic spike—to expose one of the service's most glaring flaws: There was no way to share audio. Today, that changes.
TuneIn, which offers access to over 100,000 radio stations and 4 million podcasts, is getting a complete makeover to address some of its biggest pain points. The app is essentially going from a simple audio search engine to a social network on par with Facebook or Twitter.
"One of the pain points we certainly realized was that we’ve gotten to 50 million monthly active users and we’ve never had a single viral feature," says CEO of TuneIn John Donham. "Maybe it’s time we figure out what that looks like so users can share with other users what they’re finding on the service."
The redesign will take all its existing users and their saved favorites and transform them into followers and items to follow. The goal is to try and take 50 million passive users and transform them into engaged ones. But how does that work? More importantly, can a company with this many users pull it off?
Previously, TuneIn was a very one-dimensional experience. Users had to navigate a list of categories or enter a query into a search box to find something of interest. But as Google has shown with its persistence of Google+, even if users are continually using your search box, that doesn’t mean they’re as engaged as they can be.
"What we came to realize was that the way the web works today is lot more like a network model, so instead of having to search and browse for things, you build a list of content that you associate yourself with," says Donham.
Now after the redesign, the first experience a TuneIn user sees is a feed that continually changes and shows things about who and what you follow. Again, a very standard network model used by tons of sites and services, but one that completely transforms what the app used to be.
What about those passionate users who liked things the way they were? How do you overhaul a product and not alienate longtime fans?
Donham says, "We wanted to make sure we retained what was special about how we got so far, while still opening up the possibility to do so much more. Reaching that balance has been one of our greatest challenges. Users will be happy to know that while we have added new features, we have also kept all existing features of the product."
Beyond just users, the change also affects the broadcasters.
"What they [broadcasters] came to realize was that their audience on TuneIn was already larger than their audience on Facebook or Twitter, which is true for 95% of our content partners," says Donham.
"We realized that no one is filling this need," Donham continues. "Facebook is a network of all your friends and what they’re doing. Twitter is a network of all the brands or media sites you want to follow. Both of those things build feeds for that type of content, but there’s no one who is solving the audio network problem. We didn’t realize it, but we’re [now] already the world’s largest audio network."
iHeartRadio, in comparison, is still heavily focused on a more one-dimensional experience that revolves around replacing the antenna with a data connection. On the flip side, you have social apps built from the ground up that focus on music like SoundTracking—which wanted to do for music what Instagram did for photography—that can’t quite get a mainstream following interested in only sharing music.
Another competitor, Stitcher's radio app also puts a feed front and center, but on the social side, it uses Facebook Connect to bring in sharing and user profiles. It's a small distinction, but instead of being able to share audio with any other user, you would need to know them on Facebook.
If TuneIn can launch this redesign without alienating any users, it will have have found a way to make the audio network a viable product category.
To get that social network feel, TuneIn was trying to land somewhere in the middle of what Facebook, Twitter, and other players were doing, though it may have ended up a little too similar.
"We saw Twitter’s new design for the first time just like everyone else did, just a few weeks ago and we thought ‘We’re gonna look a lot like that,’" says Donham. "Obviously the development time for something like this is many many months so we had already picked what that design was going to look like. We actually found it reassuring that Twitter’s look is so similar, it felt kind of validating and reassuring that we were on that path."
The design decisions also help to pivot users from a strictly listening method of interaction to one that encourages browsing and extended use. Everything from the ability to have profile and background pictures too seeing follower counts and individual likes.
Following up after our initial conversation, whether the redesign of TuneIn had anything to do with exposing more possibilities for revenue Donham simply answered, "no."
There will be a lot more opportunities for revenue, however, with brands previously absent from the service, they can now create their own radio stations and retain 100% of the voice and interstitial ads.
The live feed is also a critical part of looking like a network. It's a common element users are familiar with, but it presented TuneIn with a challenge. Unlike a person's Facebook or Twitter feed which doesn't expire, TuneIn is displaying songs that may have expired by the time they're clicked on. You'll notice live, expiring, content refreshes pretty quick to try and avoid disappointment.
One of the ways TuneIn is trying to get smart about what content it shows users is integrating a learning algorithm. The new explore tab is a mix of human curation and machine learning which will try to keep unexpected content fresh.
While the live feed is stuff a person has subscribed to, or followed, the explore section will take the information from those follows and try to keep users engaged in that way.
A mix of seasonal and geographical information helps identify a lot of what gets exposed. So you shouldn’t expect to find much college football content in this off-season, rather as Donham points out during our conversation, there will be more things related to NHL as the play-offs are currently going on.
Also, if a user hasn’t clicked on a certain category of shows or music, the algorithm learns to move on and start showing other categories more prominently.
Beyond some mass revolt and loud public outcry how will TuneIn know it’s been able to transform its service?
"The primary goal of almost every content platform is discovery," Donham says. "We’re going to be focused on whether or not users discover more things they care about as a result of the new experience."
[Image: Flickr user James Drury]