Audio is Here to Stay

Voice is on the up and up.  This may not come as a surprise to most of us – especially at Isobar where we’re working with clients to help them find unique ways to leverage the medium (most recently with Missing Link).  That said, it’s even bigger than we might have imagined and the opportunities seem limitless. In a two hour NPR sponsored session, The Power of Audio, leaders in the space took the stage to discuss where we are, where we’re going and what brands should be thinking about when it comes to audio.

To kick things off, Tom Webster, SVP, Strategy & Marketing at Edison Research, shared some of Edison’s most compelling research on the topic at hand.  While audio has always been a big part of everyone’s lives — the average American listens to approximately four hours of audio a day – the landscape has changed in the past few years.  

In 2014, 51% of the time we spend listening to audio was to FM/AM radio and around 11% of the time was reserved for streaming.  Now, five years later, 16% of our audio consumption goes to streaming and 44% to AM/FM radio. In addition, to pretty much no one’s surprise, podcasting increased their “share of ear” as well.  In the past few years, podcasting has become a mainstream medium – it’s estimated that 90 million people listen to podcasts per month (and that number is only growing).

The podcast audience is a very interesting audience, Tom points out, noting that if you are a podcast listener, podcasts are most likely your number one form of audio.  We are currently experiencing “a renaissance of the spoken word audio.” And, of interest to the brands in the audience, podcast listeners are very likely to consider the brands that are advertised on podcasts.  Later in the session, Pranav Yadav CEO, Neuro-Insight, US Inc., emphasizes this point, expanding on it to note that when the sponsored message comes in the context of the show, listeners find it 23% more memorable than other forms of advertising.

Tom ended his portion of the larger session with a bit about the prevalence of smart speakers – the “smart speaker revolution” as he put it.  They are becoming more and more ubiquitous and people aren’t just buying one – they are buying multiple. 30% of smart speaker owners are buying them to cut down on screen time and 69% of smart speaker owners are using them every single day.  

Building off of the first session, Bret Kinsella Founder & CEO,, took the stage to talk about brand strategies in audio.  To start, he shared a point we all can agree with: “microphones are everywhere and when they are everywhere a lot of different things can and will happen.  It changes the way people think about interacting with technology.” And, frankly, it should. Which means brands need to rethink their strategies. 63% of people believe having marketing in the voice sector is “very important,” while only 1/3 of marketers will execute a voice strategy in the next year.  

A shift in thinking needs to be made – the same way that one was made from ‘click’ to ‘touch,’ one needs to be made from ‘touch’ to ‘voice.’  However, unlike the first two, voice is not ‘device dependent,’ which is incredibly important when you think about building your strategy.

One other incredibly important thing brands need to be thinking about is the new shift from consumer decision to ‘assistant decision.’  in the past, consumers made the choice about where they shopped, where they went to for their information, etc. Now, consumers are asking voice assistants questions, leaving the brand decision up to them.  So, how do you make sure your brand shows up? How do you make sure your brand is positioned correctly? Should you be controlling the messaging about your brand in those instances? These are all new things brand marketers need to be thinking about when it comes to their voice strategy – and the time is upon us.

To continue building off the first two talks, a panel was brought to the stage to talk about actual brand audio strategies.  Panelists included:

  • Gina Garrubbo President & CEO, National Public Media
  • Audrey Arbeeny Founder/CEO/Executive Producer, Audiobrain
  • Sabrina Caluori EVP, Digital, HBO
  • Abbey Klaassen NY President, 360i
  • Rob Walker Global Director, Creative Solutions, Spotify

While we’ve seen and heard about many of the buzz worthy voice activations from brands (like 360i/HBO’s Westworld skill), this panel dove into two areas that aren’t as widely discussed: sonic branding and true audio strategies, not AI strategies. 

Let’s start with Audrey who talked about the importance of sonic branding.  If you don’t know what that is, don’t worry, you’re not alone. Sonic branding is the strategic and creative development that takes place to arrive at an authentic and consistent sound for brands.  Audrey’s company works with brands to set a foundation and deploy it consistently wherever the consumer is seeing the brand – there are no one-offs. Many brands don’t inherently understand their sonic attributes, but it’s important to have a sonic brand that feels unique to the brand – something that sounds like the brand.

Of course, this is something that many brands have yet to do.  Rob from Spotify faces these challenges at Spotify. Brands coming to them wanting to find an audio representation of their brand that is true to who they are.  This can be difficult when it comes to specific brands that are generally very visual. He told a quick anecdote about their work with Snickers – a brand that didn’t have a real audio strategy before their Spotify work.  When a visual brand comes to Rob and his team, they start with what is true about the brand and with the good ideas that already exist. In the case of Spotify it was their, “You’re Not You When You’re Hungry Work.” To translate that to audio, they targeted customers who switched between two drastically different types of music – i.e. pop to heavy metal.  They were then served a tongue in cheek ad about why they may have switched the music so extremely.  

Rob also talked about how the center of every audio strategy that Spotify works on is the customer.  Spotify, in general, is incredibly “listener-focused,” from their “Daily Mix” to their “Discover Weekly,” etc., it’s really all about the end user.  This does not differ with their audio strategy. That said, something that audio strategies need to take into account, that traditional digital/ad strategies do not, is context.  You do not know where the user will be – it’s not just sitting in front of a TV screen – audio is very flexible which adds an entirely new element to brand strategies. 

HBO and our sister agency, 360i, spent some time talking about their Cannes Grand Prix winning work, The Maze, as well.  The voice skill has truly captured the attention of the industry and Westworld fans. For HBO, a brand that prides itself on high quality story telling, it was essential that the voice skill had that same level of storytelling.  The reason they looked to leverage AI in the first place was because it was so relevant to the show itself – Westworld is really a show about technology and humanity, so it felt authentic to engage their most loyal fans through artificial intelligence.  In 12 weeks, 360i, the HBO marketing team, Westworld’s Showrunner and the numerous voice actors, worked tirelessly to bring the premium experience to life. Sabrina made it clear, though, that brands should really only look to do these types of experiences if it makes sense.

Just because it is important for your brand to to have an audio element (whether it be a podcast, voice skill, etc.), it won’t be impactful if you don’t really think through why you are entering the space and make sure the sonic branding, the idea and the execution are authentic.

In that same vein, Pranav talked about truly memorable audio experiences.  Using neuroscience to uncover unconscious reactions is something we’re incredibly familiar with (check out more on our Marketing Intelligence practice for background), but Pranav shared some truly fascinating insights with its relation to audio.  One particularly impactful point was around an ad for The Expendables. His company tracked reactions to the video ad and the audio ad. While it may seem that the video ad would be more immersive and have a greater impact, it was actually the opposite.  They found that the consumers’ imagination, left to its own devices with just the audio, had a much bigger impact. While this was just one study, it showed the potential for audio marketing and that what we think to be true, isn’t always.

Overall, it was an incredible two hours of thoughtful, insightful content and we’re excited to continue to watch the space and see how brands innovate.