Breaking the sound barrier online

More and more websites are relying on sound to get our attention - but will it have the desired effect?

Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Audio use online is steadily increasing - more and more sites now employ it in some form, ranging from background music and sound effects to podcasts and video. The problem is, most of us still think websites should be seen and not heard – so in most cases online sound tends to be offensive, rather than compelling. If you’ve ever been left red-faced by a loud webpage blaring out in the middle of the office, you’ll know exactly what we mean.

But according to Michael Spencer, the CEO of consultancy Sound Strategies, this isn’t a sign that online audio is a lost cause. It’s just that most companies still haven’t worked out how to do it well. Since most people have an auditory element to the way they absorb information, cleverly-used sound on a largely visual medium can have a huge (and lasting) emotional impact.

‘Used effectively, it humanises a website,’ says Spencer. This can help turn ‘convergent’ users (those who come to the site to read a particular page) into ‘divergent’ users (who go off and read lots of pages). ‘But if it’s badly-used it can have the opposite effect – it can drive people away’.

At the moment, the bad still outweighs the good. Sound Strategies did a survey of almost 500 sites; over half had some kind of audio element, but apparently only about a dozen actually did it well – including some surprising companies like Arcelor Mittal and Goldman Sachs (and if you’re wondering how you can assess something so apparently subjective, the consultancy has developed a tool that assesses web audio against a set of objective criteria).

According to Spencer, the key is to think hard about how the sound you use relates to your brand. Most companies tend to lump a current hit or some nondescript techno-ambient number on their site and hope for the best – when actually it bears no relation to their carefully-crafted brand values. Sometimes, he says, less is more: the key is not to add more sound, but to make sure that the sound you have is better-considered.

But it’s not just background music we’re talking about here. Sound can also be used as a navigation aid, to identify certain sections of the site, or even in promotional video. In fact, it could even be employed offline in your office, to create a distinct workspace for a particular team ‘It’s not just about tunes on websites, it’s a much bigger issue,’ says Spencer. 'The ramifications are huge.'

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