Facebook Goes After New Market With Live Streaming Audio Service

Updated from 1:21 p.m. with additional information and analysis.

Facebook (FB) users can now tune into radio-like broadcasts that span everything from book readings to interviews using the social networking site's new Live Audio feature. 

Live Audio comes as Facebook continues to build out its toolkit of live streaming features, including Live 360, the immersive video broadcasting platform that it started rolling out last week. In November, Facebook's Instagram also launched a live broadcasting feature. 

"We know that sometimes publishers want to tell a story on Facebook with words and not video," Facebook wrote in a blog post late yesterday. "Just as with live video on Facebook, listeners can discover live audio content in News Feed, ask questions and leave reactions in real time during the broadcast, and easily share with their friends."

Facebook has been adding new services and features as a means of keeping users hooked on the social networking site. Last month, Facebook rolled out Instant Games, a feature that brings HTML5 games onto the platform and eliminates the need for users to download additional apps. 

Live Audio is likely another jab at increasing the time users spend on Facebook, said Jan Dawson, an analyst at market research firm Jackdaw Research. 

"Live Audio is basically radio, and so Facebook is acknowledging that people spend time listening to spoken word and other non-music content, and they may as well do it through Facebook," Dawson said by email. "So I don't see this as a direct competitive response, but rather just another attempt to soak up more of people's available time."

For now, only select groups can host Live Audio broadcasts, including BBC World Service, Harper Collins and British talk radio station LBC. The service will become available to all users beginning in 2017. 

The audio-only feature makes it easier for users to post content from areas that have a weak network signal. It also allows users to listen in on broadcasts while browsing other parts of Facebook, though Android users have the added capability of being able to close the Facebook app and continue listening to Live Audio posts.

Notifications of Live Audio posts will be sent to a Facebook Page's Live subscribers, according to Tech Crunch. The broadcasts can stream for as long as four hours.

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Live Audio is the latest round in Facebook's battle with Twitter (TWTR) over live streaming capabilities. The microblogging company last week launched its own live broadcasting feature that's powered by Periscope, Twitter's separate live-broadcasting app. 

Twitter said it doesn't plan to kill off Periscope, but recent numbers indicate that the app is slowly losing steam. This year, Periscope dropped from No. 23 to No. 490 in the ranks of popular apps in the U.S., according to analytics site App Annie.

Both platforms have explored using live video as a means of partnering with professional content creators. Facebook's Live Audio service appears to be an extension of those efforts. 

It's unclear if Facebook will pay publishers to use Live Audio, but it has paid publishers and celebrities to use its livestreaming video service, signing about 140 contracts that totaling more than $50 million. Actors Kevin Hart and Michael Phelps,  BuzzFeed, the  New York Times and CNN are among the group of companies who have been paid by Facebook to stream live video content. 

Last week, National Geographic partnered with Facebook to broadcast the first 360 Live video. It's also unclear if that was a paid partnership between the two companies. 

Twitter in September announced a $10 million deal with the NFL, giving it the rights to livestream Thursday Night Football games. That same month, the company partnered with financial news startup Cheddar to broadcast two live news shows on Twitter.

Live Audio could serve as an additional source of ad revenue for Facebook because the site could insert audio ads during live broadcasts, Dawson said. Total advertising revenue grew 63% year-over-year to $6.24 billion in Facebook's most recent earnings report.

Radio comprises a "surprisingly high" chunk of ad spend today, Dawson said. Plus, podcasts have created new avenues for audio advertising in recent years, he explained.

"But it's probably pretty small potatoes in the grand scheme of things for Facebook," Dawson added. 

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