Pump Up That Volume

Listen up: By adding audio, Web sites can attract more visitors

Kent Anderson loves the chatter of commerce: clerks advising customers, registers ringing up purchases, mood music over the intercom. When he shops online, he misses all the hubbub. But as president of Macys.com, Anderson is able to change that. Now, visitors to his site can click to hear about the latest promotions, listen to an explanation of electronic gift certificates, or get guidance on how to find just the right present for a loved one. Sound "keeps the site new and exciting," Anderson says.

E-commerce doesn't have to be quiet. Three-fifths of the Web's top destinations sport sound, from spoken instructions to quirky noises, according to researcher Jupiter Media Metrix. Half of these sites dish up music, and 64% feature voice clips--like America Online's (AOL ) trademark "You've got mail"--that give information about the company or its products. For Web merchants who haven't turned up the volume, here's some sound advice: As more users get speedy Net access, they'll demand ever-richer Web pages, including audio. "Sound is a wonderful enhancement to e-commerce," says analyst T.S. Kelly of research house Nielsen/NetRatings.

The Company Store has heard the news. Almost every page features a woman's voice explaining products, reminding you to look over your shopping cart before checking out, or reassuring skittish surfers about privacy policies. The idea, says marketing manager, Orestes Chinea, is to cut down on the amount of reading visitors do. The approach is paying off. The new audio capability, added in November, has contributed to revenues jumping about 15% so far this year compared with the same period last year, Chinea says.

Helpful hints from a soothing voice aren't the only means of sounding off. Voxxy.com, a site for teenage girls, treats visitors to whiz-bang sounds that help them navigate. You know you've found the chat room when you hear a ringing phone and cocktail party chatter. A heavy guitar riff announces the "rant" section. A revving car engine signals a browser's return to the home page. "The sound on the site really captures your attention," says Jennifer L. Main, a Los Angeles 10th grader who visits Voxxy.com often. Audio has been a key factor in helping Voxxy.com boost its monthly visitor total to 150,000 in April, up from 70,000 in February, says founder Kristi Kaylor. And special sound events, such as actress Jennifer Aniston opining on relationships and romance in a live Web talk show, have increased traffic by 400%.

Nifty noises add muscle to brand-building as well. Check out Twix.com, where candy was never so audibly cool. Move your mouse over the smiling guy and he raps the words "chewy caramel" to a techno beat. Scroll to the girl and the chant changes to "crunchy cookie." "It makes me think Twix way more than a banner ad would," says Michael M.T. Wean, a creative director for kids' Web sites and a frequent online shopper. The music mix is such a draw that unique visitors tripled between June, when sound was added, and January, says Scott Hudler, Twix brand communications manager.

There's one danger: All the clatter can bug some surfers. "I don't always want a salesperson interrupting my shopping," says Wynne Schiera, a tech manager at a Chicago-area children's library. Sure, she could just turn down her speakers, but savvy sites let shoppers click off the sound altogether--something both Macy's and The Company Store do. Given the traffic that sites with sound are attracting, though, most Netizens seem to like the chatter of commerce as much as Anderson does.

By Roger O. Crockett

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