The Four Golden Rules of Sound

Sound can make or break a business

Whenever sound is deployed in a commercial space, I recommend that it should always be created in accordance with the following four Golden Rules of commercial sound.

1. Make it optional
The backlash against piped music (with consumer groups like PipeDown to the fore) is partly fuelled by the resentment that arises from being given no choice. Research shows that people’s irritation with noise increases dramatically when they have no control over the sound source. It follows that we must try to give people a choice about any sound we inflict on them.

On the web, this means starting with sound off and offering it as an option (with an omnipresent control to toggle sound on/off). Obviously it’s more difficult to make sound optional in a physical space – though not impossible. A range of rooms or spaces with different soundscapes is one practical solution, as educational establishments with silent reading rooms have long understood. If we can’t offer soundscape options that way, the next best thing is to target sound as carefully as possible, so that we upset the smallest number of people. For spaces with a very tight demographic and psychographic user profile, this is not too difficult. Some shops, bars, clubs and restaurants know exactly who their customers are and what they like; in many cases the sound (usually music) acts as a filter, attracting the ‘right’ people and warning the ‘wrong’ ones to go elsewhere because this is not for them. Buddha Bar and Abercrombie & Fitch are two good examples.

This approach can work in more generalist spaces if music is used as part of an overall zoning policy. For example in a large mall there might be zones for younger and older customers, and sound or music could be a form of signposting to help nudge people in the right direction.

The problems arise for generalist spaces that can’t or won’t operate this kind of zoning. One person’s signal is another person’s noise, and nowhere is this truer than with broadcast sound in public. Whatever you play in a mass-market space, you will upset someone. I strongly suggest two actions. First, err on the side of caution: it’s better to inject no sound that the wrong sound. There is nothing at all wrong with the sound of people shopping! Second, research carefully before you deploy. Do not assume that your customers will naturally love smooth jazz and r&b classics, because they just might loathe them. Use focus groups to ascertain attitudes, and create pilot sites where you run proper quantitative tests that measure the effect of the soundscape on people’s behaviour (see Golden Rule 4).

2. Make it congruent
Music is not the only (or even the best) type of sound to deploy in commercial spaces. After all, it is made with the strong intention of being listened to, so when it’s played in the background there is a conflict of interest. The visual equivalent would be covering every inch of your walls with works of art.

Intention is very important with sound, so start with silence. It’s a much-underrated sound, and it may just be your ideal soundscape. One step up from silence is generative sound. These soundscapes are made with the intention of being aural wallpaper, so they may create a more harmonious environment than music. Our own Ambifier™ system delivers exactly this kind of sound. Only with good reason (such as the filtering mentioned above) should you go to the next level and choose music, at which point please seek professional advice to style it and deliver it legally. Whatever you do, try to avoid repetition, for the sanity of your staff if no other reason. Three CDs in a shop for a year is a recipe for stress. A playlist should contain at least double the volume required for the time to be filled, ideally three times, so that you won’t hear a song twice in any time slot, whether it’s a full day or your two-hour peak time evening segment. Please, please do invest in a sound delivery system that matches the quality of the rest of your branding. Don’t leave loudspeaker and amplifier choice to IT, M&E or facilities people! Your sound delivery system is a vital part of your brand experience. Take an interest; choose quality; and avoid hotspots by creating good coverage with decent speakers – which means avoiding systems that have a separate subwoofer. That may work at home, but in a commercial space it create nasty variation in the sound, including pools of strong bass for anyone unlucky enough to be standing under the woofer.

Once you’ve defined what sound would work best for your brand and worked out the most effective way for its application, you will have no trouble in making sure that all the sound you inject into your spaces resonates with your own organisation, brand, products, values, image, practices and so on. The first test of congruency (aka appropriateness) is to ask: is this sound right for us? You should be able to close your eyes in any branded space and know where you are.

The second, of course, is to ask: is this sound right for its context? This is where we consider environment (including acoustics, noise sources and intrusive noise); the people in the space (psychographics, demographics, tastes and fashions); the function of the space (for example if conversation or thinking are key, music is probably not the best choice). Whatever we design must fit all of these factors. Often that means changing the sound through the day. At The Sound Agency we generally recommend a converging strategy: playing calming sound when places are busy, and stimulating sound when they are emptier. If you can afford autogain to automatically maintain the perfect headroom over ambient noise levels, use it. Inappropriate volume is one of the commonest sins with commercial sound, and it loses sales.

3. Make it valuable
There are far too many commercial spaces playing music because they do it next door. I suspect that the world would sound rather different if they all asked the question: how can our sound add value to our customers?

Sound can be hugely valuable. It can warn us of danger (smoke alarms); it can inform us of events or of opportunities (radio news; in-store announcements of special offers); it can reduce the boredom of mundane tasks (music in factories); it can entertain, move and inspire us (music in films); it can guide us (zoning; travel announcements); most of all, it’s our primary connection with other humans (conversation).

When designing your soundscape, start by going into the space, closing your eyes and listening. Ask yourself, how can our sound add value to our customers? That question may lead you to start by removing some noisemakers or installing acoustic treatments to reduce reverberation time and create a calmer ambience.

Once you’re happy the environment is optimal, ask: what extra sound will add value to our customers? If you can’t answer, silence is golden. And remember, perking up bored staff is not a reason to inflict pumping music on your customers, who may need just the opposite. That’s why it’s usually a bad idea to let you staff play their own choice of music: their interests are very different from those of the customers. Fast music entrains people to move more quickly – and leave more quickly. If you do believe that music is the solution, follow the tips above to make sure you get music that’s congruent as well as effective and valuable.
4. Test it and test it again
When it comes to measuring the effects of sound, it’s what people do that matters, not what they say. This is particularly true when the sound in question is music, because everybody has an opinion about music. In designing soundscapes, we can use both qualitative and quantitative research. Focus groups of customers (or, for larger audiences, customer segments) help us understand what sounds they like, and what they dislike. Auditory ‘mood boards’ and specific sounds and music tracks can be used as stimulus material. Then we can survey large samples with traditional questions or small samples with neurological and physiological measures to check the psycho-physiological effects (what psychologists call ‘affect’). In large group research, the questions should be focused on measuring what we’re actually interested in – for example brand affinity, emotional state, general satisfaction or purchasing intentions – and not on what people think about the sound. What people say they like and how they behave due to sound are two very different things. Once we have designed a soundscape or playlist, we can test the effects by alternating our proposed soundscape with no sound, or the old soundscape, again by measuring the differences in KPIs such as sales, dwell time, footfall, brand affinity and customer satisfaction, not asking people if they like it.

 These rules might appear obvious, but it is surprising how many businesses fail to observe them in their application of sound, damaging their brands and revenues in the process.

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