Hear and Now

More and more sound-savvy entrepreneurs are realizing that silence isn't always golden when it comes to their Web sites.
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5 min read

This story appears in the April 2002 issue of Entrepreneur. Subscribe »

Shh. If you listen closely to the Net today, you can hear quirky noises, spoken instructions and background music. What's going on here?

Web sites are getting loud. Entrepreneurs have realized that adding audio is a relatively easy and inexpensive way to keep visitors more engaged with site content and to encourage them to come back for more.

In fact, three-fifths of the Web's top 75 sites feature audio, according to recent data from Jupiter Media Metrix. Jupiter also revealed the most popular uses of sound on the Web today: product/corporate description (73 percent), promotional information (27 percent), ambiance music (23 percent) and navigation instructions (7 percent). And although audio elements were once reserved for music-oriented destinations, a wider range of sites is now becoming interested in the idea.

In 2001, about
of kids asked mom and dad to buy stuff they'd seen on the Net, compared to 40% in 1998.
SOURCE: SpectraCom Inc.

Why are Web merchants turning up the volume-especially now, in a down economy? Entrepreneurs and experts say that adding audio to a site not only cultivates customer loyalty, but also creates an experience much like the one they'd expect in an actual store. Audio also helps customers cut through the clutter of text and graphics. Prerecorded messages-such as checkout directions or key privacy policies-tell customers how to find special products or how to complete a sale. And because more users have speedy Net access, the demand for souped-up Web pages is increasing.

Meanwhile, a growing number of Web users have broadband access, which enables a much faster Net connection. According to a November 2001 Nielsen/NetRatings study, the number of at-home broadband users in the United States is about 22 million, setting an all-time high. The study also revealed that one out of every five surfers accessed the Net through a broadband connection, reaching a record 20 percent of 106 million active Internet users.

"Now that more people have access to faster Internet connections," says T.S. Kelly, director and principal analyst of Nielsen/NetRatings in New York City, "sound can be a wonderful enhancement to many Web sites, including e-commerce sites."

Sound Bytes

One company that creatively uses sound is Voxxy Inc. (www.voxxy.com), an online network in Hermosa Beach, California, for girls aged 13 to 18. Co-founded in 1999 by president Kristi Kaylor, 29, the company posted revenues of less than $1 million last year.

"We wanted to create a dynamic online environment for our audience, and sound elements helped us to accomplish this," Kaylor says. "Audio really increases your ability to connect with your users. It's powerful and personable, and it allows users to become more interested in your site." Since last year, visitors to the Voxxy.com site have been treated to whiz-bang sounds that assist in navigation. These creative audio elements have actually helped in boosting monthly visitor totals from 70,000 in early 2001 to 150,000 today.

Kaylor attributes the success of these audio elements to her Web development partner, Backbone Technology Inc. in Vancouver, British Columbia. Backbone hosts Voxxy's site and is also responsible for adding the audio elements, which were developed by outside sound producers Dewey Reid and Allie Willis.

When it comes to adding audio, outsourcing is usually the best way to go. Most Web developers today can help you add basic audio elements, like bells and whistles, to your site. Some may even offer more robust audio content, such as a recorded script read by actors. Just be aware that production work without professional help may not sound as good as your customers expect.

According to Backbone CEO Marc Charalambous, Web audio hosting costs vary depending on traffic. They can be free or included in regular monthly Web fees, or they may cost tens of thousands of dollars. "Background sounds will not change your hosting requirements or overhead requirements at all," he says. "But if it gets into something dynamic, development will cost more."

A one-time dynamic project, for example, carries a starting price tag of $1,000. A site like Voxxy.com, according to Charalambous, can cost anywhere from $25,000 to $100,000 to build, and the sound would just be an element of the production.

Noises Off

Although adding audio has many benefits, there are still some strikes against the concept. For instance, according to Charalambous, the original version of Voxxy.com had even more interactive sounds. Besides the sound of a revving car engine, it also included a ringing phone and party chatter when girls entered a chat room on the site, as well as a heavy guitar riff in another section. These sounds were put on hold because most visitors were using dial-up modems that just couldn't handle the transfer of data.

"There are still limitations that exist when trying to deliver TV-like content to an audience that does not have the connectivity yet," says Charalambous. This year, however, he'd like to add the elements again, because most modems can now handle it.

Of course, certain audio elements-and the time it takes to download the large audio files-may annoy some Web visitors, especially those trying to find what they're looking for in a snap. Says Charalambous, "If you can manage to sneak music in without making it a hindrance, then excellent."

Before adding audio to your site, make sure you know what you're trying to accomplish. More important, get to know your audience, because they may or may not care about audio elements.

Melissa Campanelli is a marketing and technology writer in Brooklyn, New York.

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