• Michael Spencer

Soundings: enough or too much…drowning in sonic gloop…enticing convergent surfers

Enough or too much – Michael Spencer compares audio in broadcast media and the internet. Broadcast music drowning in sonic gloop –  why creating the perfect soundtrack doesn’t always help (AP). How music on the web entices convergent surfers – audio on a website can be a real asset (AP).


Enough or too much

I doubt if there’s a brand manager or creative director in the world who would say: ‘Let’s not use music for marketing this product. It’s a waste of money.’ Agreeing that music is a useful marketing tool is the easy part; quantifying its value and what it contributes to success is much harder. Could music also be acting as a turn-off? Probably ‘yes’, if we consider not just quality but also quantity.

The problem is two-fold. First, directors tend to act sheep-like when commissioning music: there seems to be an aversion to originality. Second, there’s too much of it. If we heard only one news broadcast a month, or if we heard the enticing new product video only in the splendour of a preview studio, then the musical elements would begin to come into focus. Out there in the unmediated real world audio fatigue is setting in.

When music is reduced to an indicative signal – news, sport, shopping, holidays, crime drama – it’s actually having the opposite effect to that intended. It’s telling people to give less attention, since there’s nothing unusual going on. Using music to flag up crude, predictable emotional responses or to signal what we already know from the context is indeed a waste of money.

On the other hand, the web seems to be a better bet for getting sound to do the job it’s meant to do.

Preliminary findings of Sound Strategies’ website research suggest that audio – anything from symphonic sound to a podcast of the last company AGM – encourages visitors to spend more time on the site. It also gives the site a more human dimension. Good news for both marketing and PR departments.

Michael Spencer Managing Director


Broadcast music drowning in sonic gloop

How to get inside the heads of people listening to music? How to understand what the music is doing to them? How to discover what music has which effect? ‘Sonic semiotics’ and ‘the neuro-physiology of musical perception’ are becoming the hip study areas of choice where such questions are grappled with.

The approach, naturally, is to identify different elements and study each in isolation. But what happens in the real world? We hear everything in a torrent of music, dialogue, sound effects, jingles and idents. Broadcasters and content providers have a fear of silence bordering on the pathological.

The carefully controlled audio context of a movie, documentary or commercial gets swallowed by a deluge of audio gloop pouring from the TV, radio, room next door or traffic outside. As a result, everything becomes reduced to a generalised mush of low information content, inducing superficial emotional responses. It is fast food for the ear.

The temptation – by advertising agencies in particular – is to shout louder by increasing the tempo, the audio compression factor (reducing the dynamic range and making everything the same level of loudness) or by eliminating fade-ins and fade-outs. But perhaps the law of diminishing returns is starting to kick in. If everyone is behaving the same way, how do we tell one from another? Why bother? The fear of not being noticed can ironically produce the opposite effect.

Another symptom of this fear is when music content is reduced to crude ‘denotative signifiers’ (in the jargon of semiotics) such as a bland techno-pulse, a predictable harmonic ‘wash’ or a Jaws-like low bass tone. The homogenisation of music causes listeners’ instinctive, subconscious processing to erode. People are simply not switching on, let alone switching off.

Audio is also the victim of one of the enduring paradoxes of advertising: how to be the commonly accepted product of choice whilst also appearing to stand out from the crowd?

Using music only as a mechanism for the former is working against creativity and risk-taking. In 2006 two papers were presented at separate ESOMAR conferences, one by Sound Strategies, exploring the role of music in brand promotion. It was proposed by both that although ‘music is still viewed by many in marketing communications as a tool solely to enhance likeability and focus attention. This unduly reductive view of music as a blunt instrument of salience … perpetuates a view of music as an added something that can be tacked on the end of advertising’. Yet still this same thinking around the incorporation of music appears to predominate.

What is the answer? Part of it is implicated in a response by Rick Altman, Professor of Cinema and Comparative Literature at the University of Iowa: ‘Music is half of audio-visual production and only 5% of its budget’. But, while creative musicians might rejoice at the prospect of more bucks for their bangs, throwing money at music won’t deal with the sonic gloop problem. For that, the only realistic solution is to encourage, educate and provoke those with strategic responsibilities in media content generation and brand management to embrace a much broader, deeper and more sophisticated approach to the use of audio.

How to do that? Watch this space.

Andrew Peggie


How music on the web entices convergent surfers

By way of contrast, the worldwide corporate web is a relatively silent universe. Many would prefer that it remains that way. Sound Strategies dipped a tentative ear into the web’s audio pool and came up with some intriguing initial impressions. For one thing, websites are managed environments within which any audio content can be (though this doesn’t always happen) placed with a degree of contextual control not afforded those who use the broadcast media (see above). Advertising features, by means of video and flash animation, can be longer and can be accessed on the viewer’s command, rather than the broadcaster’s schedule. The facility for multiple repeats is a theoretical (though perhaps rarely exercised) reality.

But the real creative benefit of a website resides in the potential for developing a unified strategy: a theoretical opportunity to manage all aspects of design, presentation and execution of content. ‘Theoretical’ because it was apparent that uploaded video and audio content had often been created independently of the web design itself, leading to a clash of style, focus and impact.

Sound Strategies listened to over 450 sites, mainly corporate or global brands. Just under half had an audio presence of some sort. And only 12% had audio that could have been created as part of the web design. Merely discovering the audio was often a tortuous journey in itself.

Surfing in this way produced a curious (though in retrospect, understandable) outcome. The feeling of relief on hearing something became palpable. Rather like a kindly curator starting a conversation from behind a mountain of archive documentation. The emotive impact of sound has been well documented elsewhere. Not only was that effect confirmed but some interesting consequences emerged. The most immediate effect of audio – any audio, from a whiz-bang homepage animation to an obscurely located podcast – was one of humanising the site.

It was most strongly evident on the sites not normally associated with Web2.0-type media: financial institutions, industrial manufacturers, corporate holding companies. By ‘talking’ to us via the website, the company came alive, and any underlying PR message had a discernibly positive effect thanks to the audio content.

Moreover, audio had a strong retentive effect: we spent longer on the site as a result. Good news for product marketing sites. Beyond that, a more subtle effect emerged. In order to simulate the usage of a typical visitor, we approached many sites with a pre-conceived agenda – the need to find the answer to a specific question, such as recruitment possibilities, or product costs, or board members. This model we called the ‘convergent user’. On the other hand, visitors could be interested in a generic product but be unsure about which model to buy, or they may simply be window shopping. This model we called the ‘divergent user’ – someone who is curious but not necessarily engaged.

Audio elements were particularly effective with divergent usage. They prolonged the site visit, provoked increased exploration and promoted engagement. So far, so predictable. But what was more surprising was the ease with which well integrated audio converted a convergent user to a divergent one, enticing the single-minded searcher into more serendipitous surfing.

The stress here is on ‘well integrated’. This phenomenon was most apparent in the dozen or so sites which had taken the trouble to make their audio elements work within the whole. There were plenty of sites where poorly conceived and planned audio had the opposite effect. The memorability remained, but attached to a negative experience.

Andrew Peggie

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