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Dreams and Strange Sonic Fruits

Dreams and Strange Sonic Fruits
“If facts don’t work, sing to them”
— Advertising Adage

In the post 1985, The Year I Started Listening we explored the two core aspects of sonic communication. The passive process of hearing and the active process of listening. In the post Why It’s Good To Talk, Trust, Think And Feel we explored the role of spoken language in sonic communication and particularly why - It’s not what you say, it’s the way you say it - is considered a universal truth. I began that with the inspiration of Martin Luther King’s I have a dream speech which has influenced people ever since and was studied by Barack Obama before the creation of his Yes we can anthem. Why do certain speeches and phrases resonate so much? Simplistically it’s the emotion behind the words, but linguistically it’s how that emotion manifests itself through the way we change volume, pitch, intonation and rhythm. The more emotional we say something, the more musical it sounds. It is this link between voice and music we’re going to explore, voice is music and music is voice.

From 1982 until 1987 every Monday to Friday school term evening I sang evensong in Tewkesbury Abbey. We would also rehearse for an hour in the morning. Music played a big part in my life and education. There are three musical elements to an evensong, the Psalms, the Magnificat / Nunc Dimittis, and the Anthem. The Psalms were tedious, they were chants sung back and forth between Decani and Cantoris, the two sides of the choir. They were often long, boring and hypnotic to sing as a young boy, but relaxing to listen to now. The Magnificat / Nunc Dimittis are canticles and were more interesting to sing, basically they were the same lyrics each night but to different melodies. The part we always enjoyed singing was the Anthem, these would sometimes include such classics as Zadok the Priest... No... Think Champions League, and would also mark the end of the service, Hallelujah! That’s how we felt as young choristers and I suspect the release of endorphins was the intention for congregations over the many centuries.

 
While technology creates opportunities, it’s creativity that creates value
— Sir John Hegarty
 

Sound is difficult to ignore, it’s immersive, affects us regardless of where attention is focused and is able to manipulate a group of peoples’ collective emotions. The church, being perhaps the oldest organised communication experts out there, understood life was hard beyond their gilded walls, so designed services to stimulate the senses to generate emotional elation, from the mundane to joy, from the drudgery of daily life to beauty and splendour, from chants to champions league, from godlessness to godliness.

We instinctively and subconsciously add musical elements to our voices because we’ve implicitly learnt the tiny changes in volume, pitch, intonation and rhythm that enable us to understand the emotional state of the person in front of us, and convey our emotional state to them. However, I hadn’t heard a demonstration of quite how musical we sound when we speak, until I heard ‘sometimes behave so strangely’, the Speech to Song Illusion from the perceptual and cognitive psychologist, Diana Deutsch. I first came across it in this excellent Radio Lab Podcast.

The importance of sound in communicating emotions is perhaps why music and storytelling are so fundamental to human culture. Speech and song are so intrinsically linked because what is story telling if it isn’t adding emotional context to a set of actions and outcomes, more emotion, more musical it sounds. The greatest storytellers from Shakespeare to the Beatles have focused on the pillars of human emotion - love, power, fate, revenge, society, dreams. Legendary adman, Sir John Hegarty was recently quoted as stating, ‘While technology creates opportunities, it’s creativity that creates value’, and creativity in advertising is all about emotional storytelling. Interestingly this idea has been elegantly demonstrated in Google’s Oscar nominated virtual reality short film ‘Pearl’, a story that uses music as it’s central theme.

 
 

So when you have something to say, think about the way you say it, think about the emotion you want to convey and the way it comes across musically and if that fails to make an impression, sing. Some phrases just stick and you can’t read them without hearing the specifics of volume, pitch, intonation and rhythm in the way they they were originally delivered, from ‘I have a dream’ to ‘you talking to me?’ or ‘show me the money!’ or even, ‘I’m luv’in It’. The American Film Institute’s 100 years, one hundred movies quotes has ‘Frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn’ from Gone with the Wind in the number one spot, a film with a link to perhaps the greatest example of music storytelling of all time and significantly predates Dr King’s speech. I’ll let a far more accomplished writer than me explain the story of Billie Holiday's Strange Fruit, I recommend you listen to the song while you read. A brilliant example of cognitive dissonance through music’s ability to subconsciously seduce while simultaneously, consciously shock and persuade.

 
 

The Sound of Personalisation

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The world is personal

Personalisation is everywhere. Emails, web pages, social feeds, music recommendations, Coke bottles.  And for the most part we accept that brands and companies can talk to us like they know us.

Some brands have more ‘permission’ than others – like Starbucks. We are used to walking into their stores and giving our name (though we may be a little more wary when it comes to PPI claims companies or government agencies).

In fact, our minds are tuned to react more favourably to messages that appear to be for us. We like familiarity and familiar people, so marketing that looks like it’s for us is instinctively more attractive (as long as it’s not delivered in a threatening or creepy way).

This is borne out in the performance of personalised campaigns. The conversion rate on a personalised email campaign for a UK retailer was 8% compared with just 1% on a less targeted campaign; an outdoor clothing retailer used weather-related imagery and changed the product selection based on the current weather and got a 5x uplift in CTR; and, an email campaign that used personalisation beat every KPI record: The number of active customers increased by 20% and open rates were up by 75%.

Dynamic Creative

To deliver these personal, context-aware messages and ads, we use “Dynamic Creative” tools.  Instead of delivering one generalised creative treatment to everyone, these tools deliver customised creative treatments to specific audiences (individuals or groups) that are more likely to be relevant to them.

This is normally done by creating a template, and using data about the recipient (viewer, listener, user) to fill it in. The killer feature of Dynamic Creative is the ability to do this at speed and at scale, efficiently creating millions of versions of ads.

Below is a Dynamic Creative display advert for Vodafone, where the text, language, background picture and product offer are selected dynamically based on where the viewer of the ad is located and whether they are an iPhone or Android user.

Picture credit:  Sizmek .

Picture credit: Sizmek.

Where’s Audio in all of this?

Until recently, marketeers have not been able to use audio as a platform for personalisation. Broadcast audio (radio by another name) cannot be personalised due to its one-to-many nature. But digital audio (audio delivered to a connected device) can be. Given that over 65% of all listening to digital audio is on headphones it is a brilliantly personal medium: right into people’s brains with singular messages, not like a webpage where there can be many different commercial messages in view at once. Sound has infinitely more power than text because it is how we express and receive the majority of our personal, emotional information throughout our lives.

This is why I founded A Million Ads: to create a technology solution and – importantly – develop the creative know-how to deliver effective personalisation and dynamic creative for digital audio.

Imagine the audio ads that you hear on your favourite music streaming, internet radio or podcast service being personalised with data about you, such as your name, age, location, favourite music, weather where you are… and changing the actual audio that you hear based on this. We can do this in real time as the ad is played for every user.

And it works: effectiveness and engagement increase significantly as a result. We recently conducted a 2,000 participant survey of digital audio listeners in the UK and demonstrated a 52% uplift in recall and a 49% uplift in engagement in comparison to regular, non-personalised campaigns.

Responsible personalisation

With the ability to talk one-to-one at scale comes responsibility: shouting someone’s name in every advert is going to burn very quickly. Plus robotic voices or edits that are not perfect will be spotted a mile off and kill the credibility of the format. At A Million Ads we take this responsibility very seriously and endeavour to set the standard for personalisation, not only with regards to technology and creative execution, but also appropriate and audience-friendly use of data and overall respect for privacy.

If you are an advertiser or agency currently using digital audio and want to add the personal touch to your campaigns, give me a shout.