Tuesday, July 15, 2008

The Sonification of Everything

The World Wide Web is many things: TV, Movie Theater, Magazine, Library, and Retail Center.

When I go to YouTube or some other media site I expect to be entertained with images and sound.

But just as often (and maybe more often), my attention is already focused on another sound source. I'm either surfing in front of the TV, or I'm engaged in some online work-related activity. In both of those instances, I'm annoyed when I open a site only to find that it's 'sonified'. That's because a sonified site either interferes with the sound assets of the physical space where I'm actually seated (be it the TV, the working environment, the environmental music provided by a retail space, etc) or another sound source emitted from my own computer, such as navigation sounds and music assets playing from iTunes, Internet Radio or another open web page.

No surprise then that I'm also beginning to feel the same way about the sound branding and music choices foisted on me when I'm put on hold during a phone call. That means in order to put a call into your customer service center –already an inconvenience– I also have to turn my music off so that it doesn't interfere with your music. Gee, how else can I accommodate your needs?

Likewise, I appreciate the choice of listening to music at a gym (via my own personal music player or the music the gym itself plays) or plugging into a TV while jogging on a treadmill. But I hate it when several people on several different aerobic machines, each having forgotten to bring ear buds, insist on turning the volume of their individual sets up. And it's always someone who thinks everybody else wants to watch whatever it is that amuses them. A fitness center is not a library, but should it present itself as a platform for media anarchy? Do we really need ten different televisions tuned to ten different stations blasting away while a techno track shouts down on us from the ceiling? Is that what we're all paying hundreds or thousands of dollars a year for?

Sometimes when I'm making a call from a client's office, or a coffee shop, I don't have control over my immediate environment: I've got music on hold in one ear; broadcast music from a TV or Radio in the other; random passing conversations floating by my face; ringtones exploding up with Top 40 tunes and wacky sound EFX from every corner of the room; and obnoxious singing animations suddenly trying to get me to click through a Pop-Under on the ol' laptop.

It's as if the whole world has stopped singing 'Do Re Mi' and started chanting 'Me', 'Me', 'Me'!

Don't even get me started on the topic of traditional noise pollution –car alarms, nearby airports, sirens, jackhammers and garbage trucks at 3 AM in the morning, or lawnmowers at 6AM on a Sunday. For the time being, I'd just like to temper the relatively low level audio cacophony resulting from someone somewhere acting on the belief that every moment of silence is 'an opportunity for sound'. Sure, a reduction in urban noise would be nice, but the management of personal and branded sound emissions in an increasingly multimedia packaged environment is also becoming necessary.

In some cases a sonified website or music-on-hold is entirely appropriate: If you're a music house or a lifestyle company, or otherwise in the business of Sound, Information or Entertainment, and you don't have music, news or some other amusement on-hold, then I'm going to wonder what's wrong with your lot.

But for everyone else, particularly in the b2b space, I would suggest you consider whether more sound actually means better communication. Maybe, before you commission a hip audio agent to create a branded playlist in order to fulfill your 360 degree sonic branding 'strategy', you should first ask yourself if your marketing dollars would be put to better use speeding up the solution process, rather than trying to turn every incoming complaint or communique into an entertainment experience.

Look, whatever I bought from you is broken or not working at the moment, or I'm too lazy too read the manual. Or I just need someone to sign off on an order or deal memo so we can get back to work. So trust me when I tell you, that Ray Coniff extended Norwegian metal remix is not helping at the moment. Even if everyone in account services thinks the hip DJ who made it captures the sound of your brand perfectly.

Instead, perhaps a singular simple sound, cycling just often enough to let customers know that they're still connected, will suffice.

Several options come immediately to mind:

A) Deftly designed (even customized) Comfort Noise
B) A one or two second Tonal ID.
C) An informative (and responsive?) Branded Vocal.
D) A dedicated Phone ID, being constructed according to a design similar to a traditional station identification or call sign.

The difference between the Tonal ID and the Phone ID being the degree of information used in the construct of the element. A Tonal ID provides minimal branding, whereas the Phone ID might be composed as a fully arranged sonic logo.

Even if combined with a brief promotion, any of the above options would still prove suitably respectful (and effective) than a streaming playlist.

I'm absolutely not against using playlists to package an environment, especially not in special venues where amusement or sound is intended to play a role in defining experience. But –whenever possible– I am interested in minimizing the clash of audio titans.

As multimedia sources multiply in public environments, the potential for overlap, intelligibility and distortion increase, thereby undermining marketing strategies, diminishing entertainment effects, and even negating utility for identification (as in the case of custom cell phone tones and tunes).

If you're in marketing, whatever your sonic objectives, I put forward that one must include in the discussion an account for your customer's potential and pre-exisiting acoustic ecology (the device, space or platform by which they communicate to you) or personal soundtrack (audio players, mobile usage, streaming audio, etc). Can you resist forcing your customer to delay their communication needs in order for you to fulfill your own? Is it possible to accommodate both?

Hey, maybe your brand IS all about anarchy. In that case feel free to contribute to the ever growing noise jam. But don't be surprised when like penicillin resistant bacteria, your customers suddenly become immune –and deaf– to the sound of your voice and your brand.

* * *

Click any link below to read all the articles in the six-part July 2008 UNBRANDED series detailing the relationship between Effective Sonic Branding and Black Noise (Silence):


That is the Question.

Part 1: Non Branding For The Best Branders
Part 2: Sonic Branding or Silent Branding?
Part 3: Websites and Sonic Branding
Part 4: The Sonification of Everything
Part 5: Silence Please, for the Soundtracks of Our Lives
Part 6: Black Noise Branding

No comments: