Sound: The invisible power

Susan Poole, CSO at ZAK, discusses the recurring theme of sound from this year’s SXSW festival and how agencies can harness its power.

Sound. It’s all around us. Yet, with the increasing dominance of screens in our world, sound has taken a back seat to visual. It’s certainly not front and centre of attention for most agencies. The focus is on TV, AV, social, digital, experiential, etc. the list goes on. These visual-led forms of communication are easier to sell, easier to put in a presentation and easier to show off on the agency website. But sound is the invisible powerhouse of the future.

Why? At this year’s SXSW in Austin TX there were a number of themes that kept repeating: AI, Bots, Machine Learning, Voice, VR and AR. But what do they have in common? Sound. They are all laying the foundations for the invisible power of sound.

Let’s look at this in two ways: voice and audio.


The leaps and bounds made in the development of AI are creating a tech revolution. Conversational UIs, such as Siri or Alexa mean that we are changing how we communicate with computers. We can now communicate through speech in a way that is more natural to us as humans (even if there is still a way to go to get to fully conversational dialogue). The future for voice is not just conversing in natural dialogue, but also developments that mean that in the near future they will be able to understand and express emotion. This rise in conversational UIs has been driven by a combination of app fatigue, AI technology, Cloud computing, as well as Christmas gifting. Alexa sales rocketed over the Christmas period, and all voice-first devices are expected to rocket to 33m.

But it’s not just devices in homes and phones that are driving this, it is also the number of skills (apps) that are now available; current estimates put it as over 7,000 on Alexa and growing rapidly. Skills are a rich territory for brands, yet surprisingly not many are experimenting with them yet. This is one way that agencies can tap into the power of sound for brands. It isn’t about running ‘ads’, but finding a role for the brand and delivering on it. That role should be appropriate for the brand and location — either in home (Alexa) or on the go (Siri). This is a way to create emotional connection and build a rich relationship with a captive audience. Brands that get in first to experiment will reap the rewards.


VR developments on display at SXSW were outstanding. The experiences were visually impressive and most conversations focused around the visual achievements. But for me the experiences were fundamentally more personal than any VR I’d experienced in the past, and sound was a key part of that. Traditionally, sound design is often an afterthought, yet I suggest that with VR it is more important than ever. The power of sound lies in its subconscious ability to create a powerful emotional response. This is something agencies need to focus on to truly deliver on the immersive experiences that developments in VR promise.

Across the disparate themes are SXSW the power of sound is what has excited me the most. The dominance of AI, machine learning and VR all bring greater importance for sound, be that voice or audio. We all know that effectiveness lies in creating a powerful emotional response and sound is a growing tool in our armory.

Let’s all focus on harnessing its invisible power.

To hear additional insights from SXSW — including themes of artificial intelligence, voice as interface and mixed reality all underpinned by the coming 5G revolution — catch one of the sessions with the IPA’s Consultant Head of Media and Emerging Tech Nigel Gwilliam that are taking place around the country over the next month. Further details here:

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