Social’s on/off relationship with sound 

A few years ago, the stat that 85% of video is viewed with sound off circulated like wildfire. Brands rushed to create social content featuring easy-to-digest feature text and captions with simple, royalty-free music plinking and plunking in the background for ambience only. Now fast-forward to 2021, and sound-on experience is making a comeback to such an extent it’s becoming integral to content.

The increasing popularity of podcasts in the last year demonstrates the power of storytelling through sound. Not only that, but audio-only, invite-only social networking app Clubhouse is set to become the next big thing – think podcasting on steroids. The reasons behind this surge, in my opinion, are driven not only by the pandemic, increased boredom and spare time, but also by the improvements in hardware. Smart speakers and intelligent, intuitive wireless headphone options such as AirPods and Pixel Buds make it easier to integrate sound-on content into an everyday routine. We now live in a world where you can line up your favourite podcast as quickly as you can say ‘OK Google, Play “My Favourite Murder” on Spotify’.

TikTok is also responsible for making a sound-on experience more popular over the last couple of years. The platform has made it easier for individual components of content to go viral. You don’t need to rely on the perfect blend of video, audio and context to come together and create a viral moment – your TikTok sound may be all that’s needed to become a viral trend.

Take my favourite early 2000s indie band, the Wombats. They were last relevant when NME still sold magazines in WHSmiths, and yet have recently surged in popularity for their song ‘Greek Tragedy’ (released in 2015). An unofficial remix went viral within the TikTok community, likely influenced by TikTok’s sweetheart Charli D’amelio, and to date the remix has been used in over 430,000 videos. This might sound vapid, but ‘Greek Tragedy’ has peaked on Spotify, and the band have reacted by officially releasing the remix (likely raking in some streaming revenue in the process).

In fact, TikTok viral songs have such a large influence on the music industry that Spotify now promotes ‘TikTok playlists’, and many artists have found fame and fortune from their own TikTok viral moment, including Lil Nas X and Drake. TikTok have obviously taken note, as they continue to expand their music licensing agreements, with Facebook following suit

Sounds and songs are increasingly vital to help maximise reach, engagement and ‘virality’ of social content. In fact, some TikTok users will include trending music tracks silently underneath their content in an attempt to hack the algorithm and further extend their reach. Unfortunately, brands will find it hard to jump on the bandwagon and harness this same potential. Licensing agreements on both TikTok and Facebook do not extend to brands, who unfortunately will need to make do with a back catalogue of royalty-free options. Brands can’t inject themselves into trends that rely on a particular music track, and their attempts to adopt a similar-sounding, royalty-free version will likely come across as fake and forced to the TikTok community.

So how are brands fighting back? In 2020, ASOS launched a campaign using a bespoke music track for their ‘#AySauce’ TikTok challenge. As part of the challenge, users shared ASOS outfits using the bespoke AySauce music track, which in turn became a popular TikTok sound, with the user getting the added benefit of an increased reach for their content. The challenge, and track, quickly gained popularity due to a clever combination of TikTok influencer partnerships and prominent ad spots. It will be interesting to see how many brands opt to create bespoke sound to get around music licensing barriers and whether sound designers and musicians will find an increased demand for their services.

Luckily, TikTok sound isn’t just limited to licensed music. It also includes audio snips that have been created by individual users, and songs/music samples that don’t necessarily fall within a licensing agreement – so there is some hope that brands can occasionally join the party.

Despite sound-on experiences gaining in popularity, it’s a given that content should be as accessible as possible. That means all the learnings and optimisations created for a sound-off experience shouldn’t be forgotten. Making content accessible for sound-off scenarios ensures you don’t hamper your reach by excluding certain audiences. It’s important to note that accessibility doesn’t just cater towards those who are hard of hearing or deaf. On-the-go users who have forgotten their headphones, or parents scrolling through Instagram whilst trying to get their baby to sleep, are far more likely to engage with content that has been sound-off optimised.

Not only that, brands should also be actively putting pressure on social media platforms to implement better accessibility tools. In the case of sound, Instagram has recently rolled out automatic captioning on IGTV. However, users are still pushing for this functionality within Stories, and often have to resort to third-party apps that provide automatic closed captioning as a compromise. If brands are exploring podcasting, it’s important to consider transcription as part of the process, to ensure that content is accessible. It’s for this reason many TikTokers are already proactively captioning and transcribing their own content.

My ultimate advice to brands is to start thinking about the impact of sound on your storytelling and begin building relationships and networks that can support you. This could be podcasting, looking out for relevant sound-based TikTok trends, or even collaborating with sound designers and musicians to curate your own trend. Just remember, for all the noise around optimising sound-on experiences, it’s important to balance it with ensuring content remains successful in a sound-off scenario.

Related articles