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I hear web pages

This article appeared as a ‘Futures’ column in Marketing magazine, Canada’s version of Advertising Age, in September 2002. In the years since then, online use of audio has become more sophisticated, but there is still precious little use of good, creative audio.

Come close. Closer. No, much closer. I need to whisper something in your ear.

“I hear web pages.”

They call out, crying for someone to really tell their story. Lost in the teeming, muted crowd, web pages yearn to be heard.

Despite all the advances we’ve made in browser technology and bandwidth, the vast majority of web sites stand silently, with no aural character helping define the brands they represent. Some sites have been abused in this area, screaming and shrieking with a cacophony of irrelevant noise. Most are voiceless messengers, muzzled by their creators. Very few even attempt to use the incredible human sense of hearing. Fortunately, that’s starting to change. Good use of audio on the web is increasing exponentially and marketing professionals need to listen.

How valuable is audio in communication?

  • “Frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn.”
  • “Oh, the humanity!”
  • “We shall never surrender.”
  • “I have a dream.”
  • “That’s one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind.”

You probably remember those voices even more vividly than the images that go with them. The inflections, the nuances that burned those quotes into the hearts of millions around the world touched each of us emotionally. Music too has an unmistakable impact. Think of the haunting melody of Lara’s theme. Or farmer Tevye heartily crooning “if I were a rich man.” How many can still correctly chant all the lyrics to the jingle “two all beef patties…”? Ask around. You’ll be surprised.

Motion pictures have long understood the power of sound as a communication tool. So it’s no wonder that movie web sites are among those using audio exceptionally well. Visit the high-bandwidth Pearl Harbor web site and view the video clip of survivor Richard Fisk (or watch it on the DVD). Listen to the score swell in the background as he chokes up describing what he felt. If you aren’t deeply moved then perhaps your skepticism quotient is over-developed.

Web sites are bending audio to experience in a number of effective ways.

Some provide a subtle background of emotional support for the branding message. An early version of the Toronto Eaton Centre shopping mall’s web site featured a very soft yet surprisingly powerful background loop of shoppers in a mall. Though little more than shuffling feet and murmured voices, it set a dramatic foundation for the brand. This approach is the most difficult to produce as it can become an irritant. Done right, people enjoy it even in quiet office settings.

Another use of online audio is through clips or soundtracks such as jingles, radio-style commercials, or introductory scores. These must be used carefully and need an outlet valve, the ability to control volume or turn off the audio. People won’t spend any time interacting with your brand if your commercial loudly intrudes into their quiet working space. Many sites are taking their cues for handling this audio technique from the motion picture industry. Also effective are brand-related online games, complete with sound effects. Splashworks.com has an entire line of games that can be customized to match your brand personality.

Although web audio is a relatively new frontier, it won’t end with computer-based web browsers. As wireless technologies grow, we’ll see expanded use of audio in marketing. After all, the phone was designed as an aural interaction medium. People expect to use it for voice communication. High-bandwidth handheld access will bring the ability to hear the weather forecast instead of viewing it on screen, along with a brief radio commercial by the sponsor. Voice-to-text translation of your menu commands will let you simply talk into your phone as menu choices are given verbally. Eventually we may carry on live two-way marketing conversations through our computers. Won’t that open up new advertising possibilities? Imagine a customized online game show where the audience — gathered before an interactive television set — shouts answers to trivia questions directly related to your brand.

Web pages are starting to talk. They need your help knowing what to say.

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George Pytlik

George Pytlik has been involved in the advertising industry for over 30 years and designed his first website when the Internet was one year old. He was an internationally recognized speaker on advertising and branding and served on a number of communication committees at various times throughout his career, as well as writing a regular column for Marketing magazine.

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