Comment And Annotate Media Using VoiceThread For Richer Communication

The VoiceThread platform allows users to add video or audio comments on a piece of media. Founded in 2006 and completely bootstrapped, the Durham-based startup was added to Scot Wingo's Triangle Tweener list this year.

For years, two modes of collaboration and communication have continued to reign supreme in business communication: meetings and email. People like email because they can think about their response for minutes, or even days, before responding. Yet there is still a time and place for live meetings, which provide the human interaction and rapid back-and-forth that email lacks.

Durham-based VoiceThread is for all those times when you want to keep the human interaction of meetings, but give people time to wait for their “aha!” moment so they can make more thoughtful contributions. Founded by Steve Muth, VoiceThread’s platform allows a team to take a piece of media—like an image, video or document—and add comments to it via a voice and screen recording and annotations.

Users create a new VoiceThread by signing into their account on the VoiceThread website or app, and share it with others via a URL link (which can be private or public). People can add comments whenever they want; there’s no scheduling required. To do so, users hit “record” at a key frame and everything they say and do on their screen—like moving to a Powerpoint or moving between key frames—will be contained in that recording so people watching it afterwards are essentially watching a screencast of someone’s screen, Muth said. 

“It’s a communication collaboration tool where you can have the same number of people commenting on a piece of media as a live meeting,” Muth said, “But it tends to be more thoughtful, shorter and a better use of everyone’s time because people don’t need to blather on and can self-edit and re-record a comment as many times as they want.”

Revolutionizing education

Since its founding in 2006, about 500 K-12 educational institutions across the country have integrated VoiceThread into their curriculum to make learning more engaging for students. Foreign language teachers have used it to have students practice their speaking by narrating a piece of media, and kindergarten teachers have likewise used it for their students to narrate their artwork. 

The VoiceThread website has past examples and tutorials on a myriad of other ways it has been used for education, as well as links to thousands of articles that have been published by users and outside parties on VoiceThread’s impact as an educational tool. For instance, one study found that teachers who had students record their presentations via VoiceThread instead of doing them live had higher quality presentations and higher quality peer-to-peer interaction because it allows presenters to practice many times before settling on a recording, and it gives time for students to make thoughtful critiques of other students’ work. 

The amount of research conducted by third parties on VoiceThread’s use in education is unusual for a company of their size, which currently has around 10-20 employees, Muth said.

Higher-education institutions across the country are also using VoiceThread, including Yale, Georgetown, and Cornell. Locally, UNC-Chapel Hill became a customer in 2009, along with Duke and Wake Forest, Muth said. Like K-12 teachers, professors are using VoiceThread for many applications: student presentations, no-schedule office hours, feedback on student work or papers, and interactive lectures.

“What we’re trying to do is help people have really amazing, small classroom, rich conversations that replicate a seminar, because that experience is what people pay for and expect when they go to a prestigious institution,” Muth said.

In addition to its revolutionary approach to the educational field, VoiceThread is also an effective communication and collaboration tool in the business world, especially in visual and projects-based industries whose meetings typically include discussion on a piece of media, like marketing. Muth said it’s already replaced half of his own company’s meetings. Once, over the span of two weeks, his team was able to collaborate on and design a marketing flyer together without scheduling a single live meeting, he said. 

“Behind the scenes, people probably spent around four to five hours on their own designing and re-recording their comments, but the total amount of actual talking in VoiceThread comments was only 46 minutes, and that kind of efficiency is just crazy,” Muth said. 

VoiceThread is also particularly useful anytime an expert needs help visualizing and explaining something to a non-expert. Architects and radiologists, for instance, commonly circle and point to things when explaining something in-person to a client. 

Under the radar, but making a big splash

VoiceThread’s tool is revolutionary not only because it engenders richer conversations and asynchronous collaboration, but because it is one of the most accessible educational tools in the world. 

There are five different ways for people to comment: audio recording, using a phone to call in, uploading another form of media, typing out a comment, or filming using a webcam. In addition, people who use screen readers for online content can use VoiceThread Universal, and closed captions can be added to any media.

“That means there’s a lot of different communities who are able to use VoiceThread in a lot of different ways,” Muth said. “We’re trying to be the most broadly usable and accessible communications tool for people who don’t have another way, like those who are deaf or hard of hearing, are vision-impaired, or have ADD, ADHD, or dyslexia.”

VoiceThread has stayed relatively under the radar because it’s been bootstrapped since its inception, though it’s starting to get noticed more and more. Earlier this year, serial entrepreneur Scot Wingo added VoiceThread to his Triangle Tweener list for startups with at least $1M in annual revenue and/or 10+ employees.

Getting customers to try a new and unknown product is always a struggle when a business is starting out, but Muth said their freemium model has been instrumental in getting them to the point they’re at now, with over 300,000 average monthly users, growing at a monthly rate of 20-30% and no need for outside financing.

“We feel very lucky,” Muth said. “We’re not under any pressure and we’re able to think long term. So we’re constantly refactoring our back-end code in ways that a venture capitalist would never allow because they want you to hit growth targets, whereas we don’t really care as long as we’re profitable and have happy customers.”