Your favorite guitar riff. Your parent’s voices. The NBC chimes. The “swish” of a basketball going through a net. The sound of rainfall. These are all sounds that went through my head when I started thinking about the idea of audio marketing. No matter what statistics, studies, or expert opinions exist (and we will get into those) there is something fundamental about the human connection to particularly memorable sounds, and how they can elicit feelings of nostalgia, a sense of excitement, or the comfort of familiarity.
Sound is an interesting sense because unlike sight, it is something that you perceive somewhat passively. It doesn’t require the same level of attentiveness that seeing something does, and you don’t have to turn your head or direct your vision onto an object to hear it. For most people, auditory perception just kind of happens, and you react accordingly.
Here’s a fun little exercise: think of the 4 or 5 most memorable sounds to you personally. What sounds come to mind, and what do those sounds mean to you? Got them? Ok. Now keep those in the back of your mind while you keep reading.
What the Hell Does This Have to Do With Marketing?
So what does this whole spiel have to do with marketing? Right now, we’re in a bit of a moment as marketers where we’re being bombarded with all sorts of information on the burgeoning and inevitably dominant space of audio marketing. In short, this sort of new-but-not-that-new philosophy surrounding audio marketing and audio branding can be boiled down into 3 main components.
Sonic branding, or sonic logos, or audio branding, or jingles; whatever you want to call it, this is one of the oldest audio marketing plays in the book. John F. Kennedy’s campaign used it in the run-up to the 1960 presidential election:
Apple famously used it as a startup sound for their Mac computers (until it was eliminated in 2016):
Just last year, Mastercard spent a whopping $15 million dollars on this:
And for good reason: studies have shown that they work. Sonic branding can stick in your brain just like your favorite song can, and just like that song elicits an emotional response or a specific memory, so too can a sonic brand.
Sonic branding can also be found in some places that you might not expect. Think about when you make the dreaded call to a company’s customer service line; when you make that call, there’s almost always an automated system to siphon you into the correct waiting pool based on the issue you’re having. These are called, “phone trees”, and when you hear a good one, usually it stands out. Easy navigation, clear direction, and a voice that isn’t so robotic that it turns you off immediately are all the elements of a good phone tree, and all of that is connected to good sonic branding.
Last for this portion we’ll talk about the most thrilling sonic branding of all: background noise. Yes this the most thrilling and exciting piece of sonic branding, no you cannot convince me otherwise. This basically boils down to the sounds that you hear in the background of grocery stores, banks, or when you get on public transport. The New York City subway has the famous (or infamous, depending on your perspective) “Stand clear of the closing doors please” with it’s proceeding chirp:
Having lived in New York for a few years and taken the subway countless times, this phrase and that chirp are embedded into my brain, probably forever. It’s pleasant, effective, and sticks in your mind–and that’s great sonic branding.
Now take a minute and think about when you walk into a grocery store. Back in the ’70s, it used to sound something like this:
Frankly, it slaps.
Nowadays, almost every grocery store has pivoted to using broadly familiar older pop hits ranging from the 50’s to the 90’s to put people in a comfortable, safe mindset, making them more likely to buy. This isn’t just speculation; music has been a subject of encouraging people to buy for decades in psychology and continues to be studied in an attempt to find what music works best, even drilling down into what makes people buy more red meat versus more vegetables. Intersperse that music with a pleasant promo for the grocery store, and you’re talking about a customer experience catered to make you feel comfortable while also reminding you to make purchases, communicated through sound almost unconsciously. Once again, that’s great, smart sonic branding.
Podcasts. If your friend or your co-worker doesn’t have one, they used to have, want to have, or are planning to have one. So yea, it can be easy to have a little bit of podcast fatigue. But don’t underestimate the versatile ways that a podcast can present an opportunity for a brand. Spotify certainly isn’t: they recently acquired the Joe Rogan Podcast for reportedly $100 million dollars, and earlier this year paid somewhere between $140 million and $196 million to acquire The Ringer, a prominent sports media company with a roster of popular podcasts under its belt. Why? To put it simply, these podcasts all have large followings with millions of listeners, and large followings mean opportunity for ad revenue. For marketing purposes, podcasts can have the potential to reach customers in 2 ways:
- Podcast Advertising- Regular listeners trust the hosts of the podcasts that they listen to. They’re engaged, which is why they tune in weekly and sometimes multiple times a week. That engagement is something that marketers can use: their brand is sponsored by a trusted, reliable source. Ad reads on podcasts have a personal touch that can’t quite be matched on other platforms, and with Spotify pushing to make more information available to advertisers in the very near future, there’s no doubt that the efficacy of advertising on podcasts will only increase, and soon.
- Branded Podcasts- On its face, a branded podcast might seem like a fool’s errand. Why would anyone want to listen to a podcast that ultimately is just trying to sell them a product or service? The only problem with that theory is…they work. People are hungry for interesting content, and even if that content comes from a brand, the truth is that it really doesn’t matter.
That doesn’t mean that your brand needs a branded podcast, or that you should go all-in the first idea that you have. What it does mean is that if you think you have a good idea, you shouldn’t be shy to give it a shot. These things have a history of capturing the interest of listeners, as long as they are presenting a compelling topic or concept, and are honest about they are. As Matt Lieber of Gimlet Media says in the Times article above, “If a brand wants to make a commercial that’s 20 minutes long, it will fail.”
The last piece of the audio marketing puzzle that we’ll be tackling here is certainly the newest to the game: voice apps. As new as they may seem, they’re already a part of many of our lives in some way, shape, or form. As of 2019, voice ranked 2nd behind only mobile browsers for general web searches, with voice also being heavily utilized for directions while driving, making a phone call, sending a text, checking the weather, and playing music. In other words, people are using voice applications for a lot of things, and this has only been growing:
So what does this explosion in voice technology mean for marketing? Two key points:
- Content needs to be voice optimized. If people are frequently using voice for general search queries (and they are), any content that you develop will need to be able to fit into that medium. This doesn’t mean you need to blow up the way that you typically create content, but you’ll want to be extra-vigilant to make sure the content you are creating is communicated as clearly and concisely as possible.
- Make sure your business listings are in good shape to function properly on voice apps. Voice apps are still mostly used for things like directions, so having your business information listed correctly on services like Yelp, Google My Business, and Bing Places is incredibly important for voice functionality on voice apps like Siri, Cortana, Alexa, and Google Assistant. If you’re not sure how to do that, this guide can help.
So, where did you end up with your 4 or 5 memorable sounds? Was it a familiar voice? A song? A ring tone? Was it…Alexa herself? You might’ve even found yourself hearing your favorite podcaster when I started babbling on about podcasts in the middle part up there. But back to those sounds…you’ll probably never forget them, right? Good. That’s exactly what makes audio marketing work.