Tech Talk: Can audio go viral?

column-techtalk-image-hires-750x420After I posted an item about some online experiments with audio, a reader observed that Suburban Haiku would appreciate the piece. Suburban Haiku is penned by Peyton Price, a self-described “denizen of the suburbs for more than 10 years” and author of both the book Suburban Haiku and the blog of the same name.

The blog has risen to popularity based in part on the fact that Price doesn’t just share the text of her “hilarious and heartfelt” poems on the site. She performs them and posts the audio online, using the drop-dead-easy audio tool SoundCloud. Here’s an example, dealing with the possibility of a snow day:

That particular haiku has had 164 plays—not exactly on the same scale as the 2007 viral hit “Charlie Bit My Finger,” but Price’s inventive use of the haiku format, her pitch-perfect readings, the SoundCloud format (which includes the ability to include a thumbnail image with each clip) and the blog platform with its commenting option, combine to make Suburban Haiku easy to get sucked into, and easy to share.

Based on its merits, audio should long ago have cemented its place among online formats.

For those who work in the social Web, audio has long been a perplexing subject. Based on its merits, audio should long ago have cemented its place among online formats. Among its virtues, audio doesn’t require you to be riveted to your monitor. You can listen with your eyes closed. You can do something else while you’re listening. Audio is, in fact, the only online format that doesn’t require you to give 100 percent of your attention to your screen.

But, as a comprehensive and well-researched article from Digg—titled “Is This Thing On?”—points out, it’s hard to point to an instance of anything purely audio going viral.

Not that audio doesn’t have a place. Podcasting continues to grow, both in terms of the number of shows and the number of listeners. And the SoundCloud has become a favorite tool for musicians to share their work, with the hopes that the easy sharing options will lead listeners to pass the music along to others.

But there are inherent difficulties with audio:

  • Videos that go viral are almost always just 2–3 minutes, “while the best audio storytelling [is] usually longer,” according to Reddit founder Alexis Ohanian, who is quoted in the Digg piece.
  • Since one of audio’s key attributes is the ability to listen on a portable device while engaged in some other activity—driving comes to mind—you’re usually not in a position to share it when you hear something that makes you think, “Wow, that’s great, I should share that.”
  • Audio isn’t searchable, so if someone tells you they just heard a great clip, finding it with a search engine can be challenging. (Video isn’t searchable, either, but the standard tools for sharing video, like YouTube, ask you to include descriptions and tags that are. There’s no real equivalent for sharing audio.)
  • Video is packaged to share, whereas most audio is presented either in a Flash player or an HTML5 format. You can download it, but you can’t really share it.

As a result, as Nate DiMeo writes on transom.org, “Audio never goes viral. If you posted the most incredible story—literally, the most incredible story that has ever been told since people have had the ability to tell stories, it will never, ever get as many hits as a video of a cat with a moustache.”

Think about it: When was the last time you saw an audio clip in your Facebook newsfeed? Even when I take to Facebook to promote the latest episode of my podcast, For Immediate Release, I can share the show’s logo and a link to the episode, but not the audio file itself.

Audio’s true believers have not given up, though. SoundCloud is an example of a format designed to overcome the obstacles to online virality. In recent months, the company has improved visuals, search and messaging, according to the audio-centric site, Radio Survivor. Given the immense power of images on the social Web, packaging sound with a compelling image is an intriguing approach to getting people to listen.

(The example above was created by Matthew Lasar, who wrote the Radio Survivor update on SoundCloud, demonstrating how easy it is to create an image-supported audio clip; that’s him playing a minute and a half of Bach.)

SoundCloud’s new messaging system does let you send a message along with a track to other SoundCloud users. In fact, SoundCloud is an integral part of several audio experiments aimed at pushing clips into the viralsphere (yes, I just made that word up). The Digital Services group at National Public Radio (NPR) in the U.S. has been packaging short clips from longer audio content, turning them into content units that include a headline; buttons for sharing the clips on Facebook, Twitter, and Google+; and a link to the full piece. One such package, featuring the sound of an erupting volcano, had “more than 6,200 plays. And 98 percent of the visitors came from social media,” says NPR Digital Services news specialist Eric Athas in the article “Viral Audio: Experiments in Making Sound Spread.

“Audio never goes viral. If you posted the most incredible story—literally, the most incredible story that has ever been told since people have had the ability to tell stories, it will never, ever get as many hits as a video of a cat with a moustache.”

Podcasters have also taken to SoundCloud, some with particularly impressive success. Ear Biscuits, a weekly podcast featuring conversations with content creators who are “making their mark in new media,” routinely racks up 50,000 listens. These episodes are the opposite of the 2–3-minute cat videos that soar to popularity on YouTube. A typical show runs more than an hour.

Other organizations seeking to distribute audio online are achieving equally impressive results with SoundCloud. UNICEF Radio, for example—which focuses on children’s health, education, equality and protection—garners 10 to 20,000 listens for its shows.

Not every successful use of audio involves SoundCloud, though. The artists who produce the Google Doodles worked with the host of NPR’s This American Life, Ira Glass, to produce audio clips that were built into this year’s U.S. Valentine’s Day doodle.

A project underway at Wikipedia is adding short clips to its biography articles, giving readers the chance to hear the voices of people like novelist John Updike.

This sudden new focus on social audio is leading to the introduction of new tools. Instaradio debuted in February, with a focus on live broadcasting. Controlled (and consumed) on smartphones, the app lets amateurs (or companies) “instantly reach their existing audience without having to build one on a new network,” according to a report on TechCrunch. Users can broadcast any audio file on their device to existing social networks like Twitter and Facebook.

All of which should lead any communicator to wonder if they are underusing audio in their current communication mix. Audio is easier to produce than video, consumes less bandwidth, occupies less server space, and is rising in popularity, so it might be time to revisit its potential for your communications. Who knows? This time next year, including audio with your Facebook page post could be as important to earning a place in your fans’ newsfeeds as an image or video.

Shel Holtz

Shel Holtz

ABC, IABC Fellow
Shel Holtz is principal of Holtz Communication + Technology in Concord, California. Follow him on Twitter: @shelholtz.

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