Patience required with an Audio Internet

Patience required with an audio internet ecosystem ‘stuck in the 90s’

Alex Brownsell
Source: Event Reports, The Impact of Voice & Sound, March 2019
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Executives from Google, The New York Times, Mindshare and HSBC discuss how audio advertising is likely to develop in the coming years.

The audio internet remains “nascent” and should be approached by brands in a spirit of experimentation, much like the written web in the 1990s. Voice brand interactions offer double the emotional engagement to those situations where a consumer has typed the brand name. Faced with “brand decay”, advertisers like HSBC are investing in “sound identities” to help them “cut across” to distracted customers. Publishers are in the midst of a podcast “gold rush”, but, ultimately, the digital platforms are likely to “seize control” of the podcast ad market.

The World Wide Web has come a long way since the early days of dodgy dial-up connections and rudimentary search engines. It was a point that Brenda Salinas, a Google executive, was at pains to make when she offered a demonstration of The Washington Post’s impossibly archaic website as it had looked at its inception in 1996.

Speaking at the World Media Group Briefing on ‘The Impact of Voice & Sound’ (London, March 2019), Salinas – who works on news partnerships for Google – emphasised that the industry is at a similarly embryonic stage of development when it comes to audio and voice.

“As far as the audio internet, this is where we are: we are in 1996. It is a very nascent technology and we think it has a bunch of potential, but there are a lot of unanswered questions. Even the most creative among us are still not sure which way this is going to go,” said Salinas.

Whether it be voice-activated devices powered by machine learning AI or journalistic podcasts, marketers are increasingly excited by the potential to establish a sonic connection with consumers. As event chair Clancy Childs, chief product and technology officer at Dow Jones Professional Information, commented, the “amount of audio-friendly content is multiplying minute by minute”.

Sonic discovery
Brands are in an experimental phase. HSBC recently embarked on its own voyage of sonic discovery with the recruitment of French electronic music pioneer Jean-Michel Jarre, with the aim of creating a “sound identity” to run across channels and consumer touchpoints. It followed an audit of the bank’s marketing performance which Hamish Goulding, HSBC’s Head of Global Brand Strategy and Creative, described as a “scary moment” for the organisation.

“Two and a half years ago, we had a look at how our brand was turning up across channels and found an unbelievable sense of brand decay across our ecosystem. A lot of that was because we were cutting costs and taking our eye off the ball. But it was mostly because of the proliferation of new channels,” said Goulding.

With media channels fragmenting, and consumer attention under threat, audio branding offered an opportunity to “cut across” to distracted customers, he added.

It is easy to see why marketers are turning to audio. Presenting the findings of a Mindshare study carried out in partnership with Neuro-Insight, Jeremy Pounder, the agency’s Futures Director, argued that the launch of products like Amazon’s Alexa represented a “fundamental break” from how consumers had interacted with technology in the past.

According to Pounder, voice interactions “ease the cognitive load” for consumers, and offer a “simple, streamlined way to take on information”. Consumers stating a brand’s name aloud experience double the level of emotional response compared to when they type it. “We think the act of talking to a brand is very powerful for marketers,” he added.

Podcast ‘gold rush’
Alongside innovations in voice, some brands view the podcast market as another means to stand out from the crowd and to reach consumers in a more intimate – and less cluttered – setting.

Yet the infancy of the audio advertising market in general, and podcasting in particular, was highlighted by Nate Lanxon, Technology Editor at Bloomberg. What, for example, does the audio equivalent of a link sound like? Lanxon pointed out that podcast listeners – as well as advertisers – must rely on descriptions written by other people to ascertain if content suits their needs.

Lanxon likened it to the wild west days in the 90s, when coders could manipulate early search engines Infoseek and AltaVista with a deceptive use of metatags. “It was so easy to manipulate [and] that is kind of how we are with podcasts right now. Nobody is analysing the content or doing sentiment analysis on that podcast. We’re still super-reliant on old manual ways of discovering,” he said.

Until the use of AI-powered automatic transcription technology becomes more commonplace to ensure podcasts are both machine- and human-readable (something Salinas claimed is within touching distance for Google), listeners will be stuck with a trial and error approach to discovering content.

This immaturity is likely to have severe consequences for media owners, according to Sebastian Tomich, Global Head of Advertising at The New York Times. He argued that the industry is approaching the point of “peak podcast”, with platforms in a “gold rush” to release podcast products and recruit talent.

The New York Times has enjoyed significant success with its ‘The Daily’ podcast, an “eight-figure” commercial property attracting over 40 million downloads a month. The brand will soon extend to TV, with a spin-off television show called ‘The Weekly’ set to debut on Fox. And Tomich described himself as “bullish” about the podcast ad market’s prospects in 2019.

However, he warned attendees to “beware” any narrative that podcasts will save the publishing business, given the likelihood that digital platforms will one day “seize control” of advertising, just as they have with online display, search and video media. “Auctioning off spoken keywords will be the most lucrative advertising opportunity ever,” he added.

Ethical concerns
As the audio internet progresses through the ‘90s’ and approaches its own metaphorical Millennium on the path to greater maturity, a number of ethical concerns must first be addressed.
If financial brands such as HSBC are to offer voice-activated banking services, they must first ensure that watertight security protocols are in place. Greater rigour in voice identification is required, said Goulding, “so you know which customer is which”.

Voice marketing may also be approaching a crossroads where brands will need to choose between user experience and purpose-driven considerations, argued Pounder. Mindshare’s research with Neuro-Insight has revealed that, while men and women both expressed an overall preference for female voices, the technology tends to reinforce gender stereotypes.

Both genders responded more positively to processing information imparted by someone of the same sex, while older men tend to prefer the AI voice of young women, reflecting an increasingly outmoded, patriarchal attitude. “Do brands want to tap into that or take a more progressive stance and challenge some of those stereotypes?” asked Pounder.

A great deal of patience is required, then, before the audio internet catches up with the expectations of users and advertisers alike – and brands may have a few tricky decisions to make along the way.

About the author
Alex Brownsell
Senior Editor – Media,
WARC alex.brownsell@warc.com

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