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Why sound will matter even more in 2021

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Now let the music keep our spirits high...

Jackson Browne, 1974

I won’t linger on the typical refrain about what a crazy year 2020 was. But it is part of my job to reflect on where our market fit into all that craziness and to think about how what we learned this year could move our industry forward in a fruitful way for everyone.

From a sheer business standpoint, audio, arguably more than any other channel or format (and with expectations obviously adjusted for the pandemic), thrived in 2020. Driven by podcasting and voice, perpetually anchored by radio, and constantly innovating technologically, sound proved its power everywhere. Think of some of the highlights:

  • Spotify continues to double down on podcastingpurchasing Megaphone for $235 million.
  • Agencies express similar enthusiasm, with, for example, Omnicom committing (relatively) big dollars upfront to Spotify podcasts.
  • SiriusXM makes sure it’s solidly in the game, buying Stitcher. 
  • The Insurance sector massively boosts its network radio spend, with, for example, Progressive devoting 44% more budget than in the year prior.
  • Different kinds of market players enhance their audio capabilities, as, for example, Shutterstock buys AI music platform Amper.

We count ourselves among those proof points as well, as we received new investment from forward-thinking VCs who understand both the power of audio and that meaningful data underpins all of the above. 

Maybe, more importantly, sound continually proved its ability to move people and comfort them through troubled times. 

A favorite song’s power to pull you through needs no quantifiable support -- we’ve all called on it, no doubt more this year than ever before. But when we think more about the above Jackson Browne lyric, we understand that “music” can be about more than song alone. Voice, for example, as we all know, has tremendous power to drive emotion. In its purest form, that can come from hearing from an old friend. The business application is, of course, less significant in the grand scheme of things but powerful in its own context. And the marketing world is getting better at leveraging that power both effectively and responsibly. 

Rishad Tobaccowala, whom I interviewed last week for The Sonic Truth podcast (episode to air just after the new year), dropped more wisdom on the subject in one conversation than I think I’ve ever heard. We’ll save most of it for the episode, but one tidbit: building on the adage “music takes you where you want to go,” he added, “voice takes you to whom you want to go.” Nothing connects with and moves people like the right voice.

Taking it closer to the business application, Rishad continued: “People talk about the need to personalize at scale...voice allows you to scale intimacy.” There were plenty of signs this year that companies got it. Take Amazon, for example, which started enabling brands to create custom voices on Alexa. Why? Because they know that brands could, as described in Business Insider, “...experiment with voice emotion, resonance, and personability — data which in turn could develop Alexa's abilities to engage with consumers.”

Related, looking more broadly at tone, I think about our own Audio Logo Index, which came out in May. In a special supplement to this year’s book, we looked at how certain brands -- Liberty Mutual, State Farm, Home Depot, and others -- demonstrated how much they understood this power. While their classic audio signatures were as omnipresent as ever through the year, when it came to advertising during the pandemic, they knew that tempering things -- altering those legendary audio brands, softening voices, and more -- would strike that right tone with consumers. The data supported the strategy: all of those modified ads were among the highest-scoring on the Veritonic platform. 

2020 reemphasized how the right sound makes a huge difference to people. 2021, which is happily already shaping up to be a way better year (think vaccines), is when that realization turns more to activation. We know the amazing potential of audio to move people, and the table has been (and continues to be) set to make that happen. Whether it comes from brands jumping more firmly into voice commerce or investing more deeply in audio marketing, we are, as always, ready to play our part by ensuring that every decision, grounded in data, comes with total confidence that they’re moving people the right way.

Click Here to See and hear the 10 Brands That Got Audio Right in 2020.