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Soundings: sites and sound…does music matter?

Sites and Sound – Andrew Peggie revisits the corporate web environment. Does music matter? – Michael Spencer argues the case. Sound Strategies News – Feature in new publication ‘International Communications Strategy’ \ New developments in analysis of commercials

Sites and sound

A year and a half ago, Sound Strategies carried out some unique research into the use of sound on corporate websites. Eighteen months is a veritable epoch in internet time, so we when we revisited a small sample of sites recently, we expected some radical developments.

We were a little disappointed.

Our sample focused on corporate landing pages – certainly not the sector one would expect to find cutting edge functionality. We visited the top ten corporate sites ranked by the Bowen Craggs 2009 Financial Times Index of website effectiveness, plus a number of others on the same list of 75.

This is an audio-free zone. However, what we did find was a significantly increased use of video and flash animation. The former requiring an opt-in click direct from the landing page and the latter often triggered by rolling over a menu, but offering silent image changes only.

Corporate sites have to provide certain common information features and they tend to be organised in similar ways, so the potential for creative development beyond the landing page can be restricted. However, what became quickly evident was how many landing pages themselves had been transformed into a more customer-friendly environment, their focus subtly shifting from the assumed traditional visitor profile (investor, job-seeker, media, client) to a broader, more divergent demographic. The top ten corporates are all evidently maximising the PR benefits of their landing pages.

While raw audio (music, voice or functionality sounds) is still taboo as a spontaneous element in a web-page, exploitation of other web functions is proliferating. All the sites made extensive use of social networking links (Digg, Delicious, Twitter, etc.). And many also exploited remote platforms such as YouTube and iTunes. Flash animation, in the form of scrolling images is now a feature of many landing pages, often incorporating up-to-the-minute topicality. (General Electric’s site had images of the recent solar eclipse from across the Far East, on the day it occurred.)

But audio inevitably depended on an opt-in click, usually in the form of a video or podcast. And it still ends up very much as the poor relation of in the media menagerie. Podcasts, however, are developing an increasingly professional approach, with specialist presenters and reasonable audio quality. Moreover, both podcasts and webcasts of corporate events such financial reports and AGMs are increasingly being offered as an alternative to pdf documentation. In some cases, one can sign up to access a future meeting, conference or company statement via a web-streaming facility.

In-house videos are becoming a staple element of the corporate site. These short documentary style films usually feature new research or product development case studies, or they focus on the day to day work of various employees. They all employ off-the-shelf, non-synchronised generic backing music to provide merely an undifferentiated audio ‘carpet’ for the voice-overs or interviews.

And what of the much-touted sonic branding? In the top ten listed sites, not a single company is using music in a strategic way, either as part of the site content or as a brand identifier.

Sites consulted (+ BC FT overall rating):

Andrew Peggie


Does music matter?

Apparently not, if our brief look at top-rated corporate websites is anything to go by. Although corporate sites in general seem to have finally embraced the website possibilities beyond those of a digital paper depository, aesthetic impact still takes a back seat compared to basic functionality and the filing system mentality still dictates great swathes of the corporate website campus.

In spite of the multi-national profile of most of the top-listed companies, there does appear to be a cultural dimension to this. Chinese company sites are almost entirely text-based, with few images, let alone other elements. USA sites often tend towards visual overload. French companies will take a playfully ironic approach to the whole business (check out the EDF site for a clever approach to energy and the environment). And no prizes for guessing the nationality of the company which has a penchant for computer-generated speech (Siemens).

We have to ask ourselves if lack of exploitation of all the media available on the internet is a failing, an oversight, or a deliberate choice. There is certainly no reason why the web environment should be uniform throughout and it would be reasonable to accept that, apart from speech, audio would not normally be a feature in corporate website territories.

It is also the case that more and more companies are commissioning ‘home videos’ for use on their websites (and presumably internal communications). A cross between PR puffs, motivational spiels and recruitment enticements, they are a quite different breed from TV/cinema directed commercials, often with a (deliberate?) amateurish approach, using ad lib interviews with staff and holiday video style editing. Alternatively, they feature often rather stiffly formal interviews with executives in static corporate office settings.

There is no doubt that, by and large, these ‘run-of-the-mill’ type videos perform their intended functions well enough and as a way of capturing the everyday life of a diverse and widespread organisation their low-ish production values reflect the blog-type nature of the material. It is not always appropriate to apply feature film production values to diary-style content.

Indeed, over-producing an in-house PR video can sometimes count against the intended impact, as in a previous Shell video which dramatised one of its development projects.

But getting the tone, mood and style of any video just right is an art in itself. Run-of-the-mill material will usually have an ephemeral and localised impact only (like the two minutes one spends looking through recent holiday snaps before they are consigned to the back of the drawer). Over-produced ‘epics’ risk opening up the organisation to ridicule and lack of self-awareness – the opposite of the usual intention.

The few times when content, execution and purpose achieve a synergy, often the result is much greater than the sum of the parts and the benefits accrue well beyond the original intention. ArcelorMittal achieves this with its corporate video; EDF’s clever vox-pop flash animations also resonate.

So, yes, not only music, but all the artistic elements of a video matter, if the aim is to achieve something other than a newspaper-type throwaway. We cannot expect this kind of expertise to be naturally accessible within a corporate, but one equally important aspect they should be able to address is the strategic function of video.

It seems, trawling through the websites, that many companies have simply said: ‘We need a few videos for the website…’ Only rarely did we detect a strategic approach where someone appeared to have asked: ‘What do we need to achieve in terms of comms, PR, brand awareness and information providing? Is video the best medium for this? If so, what kind of video, which approach?’ The answer might still be: ‘We need a magazine-type throwaway to show to employees at a conference.’ But having made such a strategic choice, then the chances of getting a product which is both fit for purpose, and differentiated and memorable are much higher.

Michael Spencer


Sound Strategies News

  1. Sound Strategies Managing Director, Michael Spencer, is featured in a new publication for the corporate communications sector, International Communications Strategy (Kogan Page). The authors, Silvia Cambié and Yang-May Ooi, are already receiving plaudits for their contribution to the debate about cross-cultural communications and the book has been nominated for an FT Goldman Sachs award.

  2. In association with the market research company BrainJuicer, we are trialling a of a new method of analysis to gauge the emotional connections between commercials and consumers. Initial results look extremely promising.

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