The Impact of Voice & Sound : the audio web is still in the 90s
The audio internet, whether that’s voice-activated devices powered by machine learning AI or journalistic podcasts, is at an equivalent stage of development as the World Wide Web in the mid-90s. This was the point that resonated most sonorously with panellists at a World Media Group Briefing this week entitled The Impact of Voice & Sound.
It was an assertion starkly illustrated by Brenda Salinas, who works on news partnerships at Google. Salinas showed the audience an image of The Washington Post‘s homepage in 1996 — primitive and clumsy by today’s design standards. “I think in terms of the audio internet, this is where we are,” she said. “It’s a very nascent technology but it has a lot of potential.”
Salinas’s point was echoed by Nate Lanxon, technology editor at Bloomberg, who talked about how in the mid-90s, meta-tagging helped make online content searchable, but in a very rudimentary way. “That’s where we’re at with podcasts today,” he said.
But while there was a consensus that audio technology is fledgling, there was also enthusiasm about the opportunities it already provided. Sebastian Tomich, global head of advertising at The New York Times, explained how award-winning journalism had been augmented by an embrace of audio. The newspaper’s The Daily podcast is often the number two ranking podcast in the world.
The publisher has also been experimenting with more unusual ways that audio can complement print journalism. This saw it create an “audiozine”, a sonic magazine that introduced listeners to sounds they would never experience in real life, sending listeners on an audio voyage featuring, among other things, laughing rats.
Event chair Clancy Childs, chief product and technology officer at Dow Jones Professional Information, explained that the “amount of audio-friendly content is multiplying minute by minute” and asked: what are the implications for publishers and brands?
For Jeremy Pounder, futures director at Mindshare, the launch of Amazon Echo in the UK, “represented a quite fundamental break in how people interact with tech”. “We felt that voice and talking to something with a seemingly human voice speaking back, it was a new type of interaction that we’ve not seen in society before,” he added.
Experiments conducted alongside research firm Neuro-Insight saw Mindshare discover that sound outperforms text in terms of “cognitive load” on someone’s brain. “When voice works well, it’s a very streamlined way to achieve a task. With text, there’s more going on, with the brain having to work out what’s the important information it’s looking for.”
But there are ethical concerns too. “One of the biggest is that voice might reinforce gender stereotypes,” he said. Such as that 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?”
The session also looked into how music could play a part in a customer’s experience of a brand. Hamish Goulding, head of global brand strategy and creative at HSBC, explained how the bank’s journey into creating a sonic brand saw it recruit the talents of musician Jean-Michel Jarre.
Jarre produced seven tracks, from a string-led orchestral movement and synth-driven alternative, to a mnemonic jingle. The creation of a sound palette has been applied at HSBC’s physical events, in branches to identify when a cashier is ready, in ads, in content and even as a more palatable form of lift music.
“Don’t try to be international, try to be universal,” was Jarre’s advice to HSBC.
Yet audio technology is still lacking universal appeal, with some panellists expressing doubts, mostly hinged on its infancy.
Bloomberg’s Lanxon questioned the genuine usefulness of voice-activated tech as it stands, arguing it is “reminiscent of telephone message trees, because you still have to wait for polite responses before you can comment”.
HSBC’s Goulding had more sobering concerns over security and the intrusiveness of voice-activated devices, calling for greater rigour in voice identification, “so you know which customer is which”.
But Mindshare’s Pounder outlined a major challenge for publishers and worries around the sheer might of the tech giants —”the trade-off, the distribution of content to the biggest audience possible and the loss of control”. “I guess the issue for many publishers is that it’s difficult to get people to come to you directly unless you’re a brand of a certain scale,” he said.
Photo: L-R Clancy Childs, Hamish Goulding, Jeremy Pounder, Nate Lanxon, Brenda Salinas, Sebastian Tomich