Listen up! You may be producing audio sooner than you think

Posted on February 18, 2014 7:03 pm by | Content | Audio | Marketing | Social Media

Audio is surging on the social webAudio never really took off on the Web. Not the way images and video have.

It hasn’t been as bad as some people would have you believe. Podcasting is alive and well, for example, but its uptake has never come anywhere near the success of video. And have you noticed that the default for Vine videos is audio off?

Audio’s online stagnation is attributable to any number of factors, many of which were articulated brilliantly in a Digg Original by Stan Alcorn titled, Is This Thing On? Alcorn bases his long, thoughtful piece on the premise that audio just doesn’t go viral. He quotes radio and podcast producer Nate DiMeo, who said, “If you posted the most incredible story — literally, the most incredible story that has ever been told since people have had the ability to tell stories—it will never, ever get as many hits as a video of a cat with a moustache.”

Audio Obstacles

The fact that you can listen to audio while do something else is one of audio’s key benefits. Every other form of computer-mediated communication requires your full attention, whether you’re reading an article or watching that mustached-cat video. Audio, however, you can consume while driving, working out, walking the dog, or doing the dishes.

Yet the fact that you’re able to listen while engaged in a separate activity is also one of audio’s key drawbacks. If you’re loving the video on the screen, it’s easy to share it. If you’re listening to a podcast while you’re out for a run, you’ve already moved on by the time you get back to a computer or mobile device where you could share it.

A surprising number of podcasts don’t include show notes or transcripts. Since audio isn’t searchable, the absence of text means this content, great as it may be, will remain hidden from search engines, rendering them non-existent to a potential audience.

And these are just a few of the obstacles audio has encountered in the rich, multimedia online world.

Yet despite these problems, audio continues to find a following. Rather than attracting a surge of users, as new tools like Vine and Instagram have, podcasting’s growth has been organic from the beginning. But, as Christopher S. Penn noted in an update to a 6-year-old Future of Podcasting post, some 32 million Americans listen to podcasts.

Even more exciting, though, is the sudden interest in potentially new uses of audio.

An Audible Doodle

If you searched Google on Valentine’s Day, you no doubt saw the Google Doodle atop the page. Six Sweethearts—the Valentine’s Day candies bearing messages like “Be Mine” and “Kiss Me”—dance onto the screen to replace the Google logo. Hovering over them reveals a play button that starts an audio explanation: Clicking each heart brings you a true story of love.

Google's audio-centric Valentine's Day doodle

Ira Glass, host of NPR’s This American Life, managed the process of obtaining the clips (three appeared in longer forms on his show); they play as animations accompany the words on the selected Sweetheart. While that adds a video component, you certainly don’t need to watch the animations in order to appreciate the stories. As Glass said, “Valentine’s Day is a day for love and these stories are a labor of love.”

An Audio Experiment

NPR Digital Services is an obvious place to look for experimentation with audio. One of the first over-the-air radio networks to offer up content as podcasts, NPR later started producing original material, like the music-focused All Songs Considered.

NPR's audio experimentThe Digital Services group has been intrigued by the idea of making audio viral. After mulling over the reasons audio doesn’t go viral, they tried packaging some short clips with web-friendly elements that would boost the potential for sharing, such as an enticing headline and an image. At the bottom of the package, they included a link to the longer piece from which the clip was excerpted “for listeners who want to dive deeper,” according to a post about the experiment.

Soundcloud—one of the better tools for making audio sharable—was employed as the player, in this case, the clip was played more than 6,200 times, with 98 percent of the visitors coming from social media. “People clicked on these headlines, came from social media, shared the posts and listened to the audio at high rates,” the article concludes. The team is just getting started with its effort to “examine how audio can work better on the social web.”

One of the other advantages of using Soundcloud is that it contains the same suite of sharing tools you’ll find on YouTube. Using the embed code, for example, produces this (from another package produced for WLRN):

Wikipedia in Your Ears

Wikipedia, the online collaborative encyclopedia, has seen the light (or heard the sound), launching a project recently to archive the voices of famous people and attaching these 10-second clips to the related bio page. Wikipedia’s Voice Introduction Project is getting an assist from the BBC, which is making its archival audio available to Wikipedia through an open license.

John Updike's Wikipedia bio, including 10-second audio clipWhy not video? According to project lead Andy Mabbett, who appeared on NPR’s All Things Considered, “We use video on Wikipedia as well but by using audio, it’s a very small task of the person recording their voice for us. They can do it in the morning when they are in their dressing gown and curlers. Some people are shy of appearing in front of a camera, but it’s also a small file to transmit over the Internet. It’s a lot cheaper to download the audio over the video.”

Mabbett adds that voice “is a very personal thing. If you think about the people in your own life, you know their voice the moment you hear it, as much as or sometimes even more than a photograph.”

Wikipedia audio clips are also embeddable; here’s an example, a 10-second clip of author John Updike (the screenshot at right shows where the player is located in the article):

The Sound a Brand Makes

Audio has long been used to create a connection to brands. Consider the three-note tone that signaled an NBC show was about to begin, or the Intel theme. According to audio branding expert Colleen Fahey and marketing professor Laurence Minsky, writing in The Harvard Business Review blog, “There’s one powerful branding tool that has been generally overlooked—or perhaps undervalued—by most marketers: sound.” The strategic use of audio, they say, can differentiate a product or service, improve recall, establish preference, build trust, and increase sales.

“Cognitive studies show that relevant sounds and musical cues can truly influence people in ways marketers want,” Minsky and Fahey write. “Congruent sound cues can increase the speed of a visual search for products (a key for success in both online and retail settings), as well as improve the perceived taste of food and wine.”

The pair recount the experience of SNCF, the French national railway, which launched an audio branding initiative in2005, creating “an audio DNA with the coal of communicating their leadership with the comfort and caring that distinguished the brand.”

(I would have simply embedded this clip if the player had included an embedding option; alas, I could only share it on Twitter, Facebook and Linked In, or download it.)

The DNA was included in everything from videos to railway station public address announcements to the tail end of TV commercials. It has evolved over the years but has always retained the same basic DNA, which has made it valuable to SNCF. 92 percent of French listeners correctly identified SCNF when the sound was played for them, and 88% could name that brand in two notes.“And perhaps more significantly,” Fahey and Minsky note, “71% of them now see the brand as being ‘attractive’ or ‘very attractive,’ and SNCF has experienced an 18% increase in the perception of leadership.”

(Incidentally, my podcast co-host Neville Hobson reported on this story on the February 10 episode of The Hobson and Holtz Report.

Is audio part of your future?

These experiments in audio—which have shown significant promise—suggest that communicators should take audio more seriously than they have in the past.

I’m bullish on audio; that’s why Neville and I are expanding our nine-year-old podcast into a network with a broad collection of shows and hosts covering a spectrum of communication-related topics.

I’m also launching an experiment with a new app, Instaradio, that lets you live-stream audio from your phone. Within the app, you can find and follow people recording interesting stuff. (I’m already following @coffeegeek with his discussions on topics like the importance of a good grinder and single-origin espresso.) You can also share your recordings via Facebook and Twitter. You can keep an eye you can keep an eye out for my brief and hopefully pithy observations on Facebook and Twitter. The first of these is here. (I do wish Instaradio included an embed code for the clips you record.

The potential for audio online has never been greater, and the opportunities to find creative applications are expanding as new tools are introduced and experiments like NPR’s uncover new means of getting the audio into the ears of your audience. As you think through the various content marketing approaches you can take to a message, shouldn’t you be considering the audio angle along with everything else? Given the power of audio—which certainly proved useful to SNCF—what are you waiting for?



  • 1.Hi, Shel, Very thoughtful and comprehensive article. Sorry the HBR blg didn't provide an embed code for SNCF files. I'll be glad to transfer you the real files if you send an email to my personal address below. It's also possible to hear some of the SNCF music (though not the evolution) at the Sixieme Son site's portfolio. Best of luck with your new Instaradio app.

    Colleen Fahey | April 2014 | Chicago

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