• Michael Spencer

Soundings: joining the dots…push me, pull you…home on the web

Joining the dots – Sound Strategies clocks up full 12 months of Soundings issues, so what have we learned? Push me, pull you – Michael Spencer reports on how Japanese sensitivity to nature is reflected in their approach to sound in public spaces. At home on the web? – Andrew Peggie considers how to cut through the complexity of internet-based consumer research and just think of a website as a second home. Sound Strategies news – presentations for BrainJuicer and Google.


Joining the dots

Sound Strategies’ work takes place in both the real and the virtual environments, and our early investigations seemed to suggest that the two areas had different issues to deal with, requiring separate approaches and specific expertise. As the two following articles in this month’s newsletter imply, however, there is in fact much common ground between reality and virtuality when it comes to thinking aurally.

In fact, the way sound is being used in virtual space is really only a less-evolved version of what happens in real life. And since current modes of dissemination are de facto the same in both, even technical issues, such as those concerning sound quality, noise management and functionality very quickly overlap.

The more we investigate, the more we find we are able to join the dots. So, after a year’s worth of Soundings, perhaps it is time to map out where some of these dot-joining journeys have taken us – and which dots we would like to follow in the coming year.

The emerging ‘super-highway’ dot link is undoubtedly the topic of context. Audio perception; the use of music for persuasive purpose or for leisure; the management of noise; speech and oral communication – all these aspects of the ways that sound functions in everyday life cannot be dissociated from our other perceptive faculties: sight, smell, taste, touch, etc. And it only becomes really interesting (and much more subtle) when we look at perception in totality.

So the ‘strategy’ part of our name is becoming ever more significant when engaging with consultations, even though initial approaches to us are often about a more specific issue.

What we are finding, both in public space aural environments such as retail outlets, transaction foyers, shopping malls and leisure spaces, and online interfaces such as landing pages, marketing sites and product information pages, is that the use of sound (and the management of its unwanted counterparts) is frequently being compromised by a lack of strategic awareness. Marketing and corporate communications executives are on the receiving end of large amounts of research information about the efficacy of specific kinds of music in specific environments with specific demographics, but have no way of knowing how to take strategic decisions about aural communication across an entire corporate platform.

And those are just the people who have achieved a state of conscious incompetence – at least they are aware that there are issues here. Probably a greater proportion of senior managers are still in the primordial state of unconscious incompetence. They are not even aware that managing the audio environment can be critical to business efficiency.

So one of Soundings’ missions in its second year is to maximise the conversion of unconscious incompetents to conscious competents through examining how the aural environment impacts across the full range of business operations, including internal and external communications, public and online interfaces, marketing, media, PR and sales.

Not only that, but we also need to examine sound in relation to the affective and information potential of the other senses. It is not enough just to pipe some undifferentiated background music into a banking foyer for example, if its effect has not been judged against the décor, colour schemes, room acoustics, usage patterns and intrusive noise from the high street.

So don’t expect us just to talk to you about playlists…

Andrew Peggie

Push me, pull you.

Earlier this year there was considerable agreement in the marketing press about the need to make the online experience more enticing than proselytising; in advertising parlance, more ‘pull’ than ‘push’. We made comment about this in the July edition of Campaign and in particular how the web-based audio elements of a brand could be less ‘shouty’. My recent trip to Japan suggests that there may be a case for applying this same principle to real-world retail spaces.

I visited the impressive Omotesando Hills shopping complex; part of a Bond Street/Fifth Avenue area in Tokyo designed by the ex-boxer turned architect Tadao Ando. As one walks down the slow incline of its internal triangular walkway through the eleven floors clad with honeyed stone, one becomes aware of the high quality sound track, both in content and reproduction, issuing through its central void. Sometimes interspersed with more contemporary tracks, again carefully chosen, the specially created ambient sound world augments the shopping experience in a way which encourages people to linger as they drift between the retail outlets that line the walkway.

The retail units sometimes have their individual playback systems but upon entering or exiting, the transition from one audio world to another was seamless. Contrast this with some of the more brutalising sonic environments one comes across on, say, Oxford Street, London.

This is not to say that a journey through the different shopping areas of Tokyo presents such a universally well-graded audio experience. There seems, however, to be a difference in the way the Japanese approach the use of sound, which links to their awareness of nature. Sound is used in the hot summer months to elicit a sense of cooling with the sounds of trickling water and bamboo chimes. There are also resonances with the natural world in the sounds of their traditional instruments, such as the shakuhachi (a bamboo recorder). And silence plays a special role in the spiritual profundity of the Zen rock garden in Ryoan-ji Temple (Kyoto).

The Japanese approach can also accommodate the childlike qualities of the ‘Biiiiigu Biigu Biigu Big …Caamera’ (Bic Camera!) jingle as one enters this immense electronic emporium, as well as a mixture of Bill Evans and Renaissance music flowing from one of the seedy-looking below-ground night clubs. And despite the Japanese being some of the most prolific mobile phone users on the planet, it is rare to hear one of those oh-so-irritating ring tones in public spaces. Perhaps a reflection of the strong Japanese tradition of respect for other people’s personal space.

Compare such aural sensitivity to giving way to other people in a crowded city with the pushy assertiveness of competitive sound tracks played in the retail spaces of other countries, where constant, high volume techno-beats played over poor quality audio equipment must inevitably negate any positive marketing effects the music playback might have. And judging by the number of people who enter retail spaces in the West with iPods firmly in place, acting as their personal audio barrier, it is surely time to rethink the sound-world of the retail space in much more strategic terms.

Michael Spencer

At home on the web?

In real life it is usually pretty straightforward to distinguish between a bank, a garage or a clothing store, for instance, or indeed between a bedroom, a dining room and a lobby. On the web it is a different matter. As a frequent web traveller, I often find myself asking: what is the purpose of this site, exactly? And since there are no physical dimensions in cyberspace, one can find oneself instantly transported from a corporate office block to a corner shop, a living room, a shopping mall, a stadium, university, cinema or newsagent. Human nature compels us to think and act differently in each of these environments, and this appears to apply to visitor behaviour on the web as much as it does so in real life.

Web 2.0 interactive and mixed-media developments are greatly increasing both the flexibility and ambiguity of websites, and whereas owners and designers obviously relish the challenges of inventing ever-more-intricate functionality, they seem to be ignoring the more subtle challenges of tone, mood and ‘flow’ which are important contributors to the visitor experience, which both enhance and control their attitudes and behaviours towards the content and functionality.

In sum, there is an artistic dimension to creating a site which is rapidly evolving from a purely visual/textual design issue to a dynamic, ‘performance’ one. And while there is increasing research evidence on the effects of individual elements such as colour and music on consumer behaviour or mood, even defining and describing the overall ‘personality’ of a website presents a level of complexity beyond the capabilities of current scientific investigation, as authors Falk, Sockel and Warren admit in the introduction to their paper on atmospherics in the virtual world in a recent issue of the Journal of Website Promotion:

Retailers have dozens of different characteristics that can be manipulated. These “manipulatable” objects provide the look and feel of the store. However the immensity of the unique combinatorial elements (numbers way beyond the trillions) precludes this process from being directly studied holistically. As a result, an accepted and unifying definitive atmospheric model has not yet been developed. Complicating the issue is that the realm of impact is no longer limited to the physical world. In the dozen plus years since the introduction of commercialism to the internet (1994) the nature of atmospherics has only been limitedly addressed…

In the face of such overwhelming numbers of variables, one way of satisfying the business and marketing worlds’ needs for measurable qualities would be to approach web design with a much stronger focus on the intended nature and function of the site. Is it a coffee shop, archive store, directory or discount warehouse? Clarity of purpose in theory should lead to clarity of function, preferably via well-briefed artist-designers with true multi-media skills (not just graphic artists who happen to like music, for example).

And perhaps we should be looking again at the subtext of internet language. What if the term ‘homepage’ meant exactly that – a virtual living room or reception room? What elements of a corporate ‘home’ should feature on such a webpage? What would a product marketing ‘home’ look and sound like? What impression would you want to give to visitors to your home? What mood would you like to promote? Do you want your guests to stay or depart quickly? Do you offer ‘refreshments’? Instead of treating cyber-visitors as fish to be caught, why not treat them as welcome guests?

Andrew Peggie

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