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Oct 25, 2001
Case Study

Adding Site Audio to Engage Young Adult Shoppers

SUMMARY: While Flash animation, a music soundtrack, and voice-overs are generally a BAD idea for most Web sites because page load time matters more than bells and whistles, if you're trying to reach 18-25 year-olds rich media can make a big difference. Check out this new Case Study for useful notes on how one Manhattan realtor kept apartment rentals steady in a soft market by building a cooler Web site than its competitors. Includes a link to a plain HTML site version as well, so you can compare and contrast the difference Flash and audio make.

Every year thousands of college students and new graduates move to New York City from all over the world. It's infamously difficult to find an affordable apartment in Manhattan, so many of them surf the Net beforehand hoping to get lucky.

Jakobson Properties owns more than 2000 apartments in Manhattan, most of which are perfectly located and priced for this early-20-something demographic. The Company had a Web site up for a couple of years, but it was very plain "first generation" stuff -- a searchable apartment database, and thick paragraphs of text explaining rental contracts, etc. There were almost no visuals or graphics beyond the company logo. Even so, by Spring 2001, this basic site was getting more than a million visits a month.

Tom Jakobson figured that if his vanilla site was getting this high traffic, it stood to reason that competitor's sites were as well. He needed a way to stand out even further, and grow Jakobson as the brand name site for kids looking for their first apartment in New York.


Jakobson decided to hire TeamAudio to completely redo his site. He wanted something that would feel edgy and cool to appeal to this generation so graphics and Flash animation were a must. At the same time, the site also had to be warmly reassuring in order to sooth the fears kids might have about big city shark-like landlords. So, audio would be a key ingredient because it cuts straight to the emotional gut more quickly and effectively than text can.

These upgrades would require most visitors to have high bandwidth, or plenty of surfing time. Luckily, as Cathryn Ramin President of TeamAudio, says, "This is not a demographic that's interested in getting in and out fast. They have a lot of time, and they almost universally have high bandwidth at their university or at the office." She also figured that by improving ease-of-navigation, she'd save visitors enough time to make up for slightly slower page loads.

Before starting the redesign, Ramin spent a day hanging out in the waiting room of Jakobson's rental offices watching and listening to the typical kids who came in. She discovered that practically none of them had a New York accents. "If their voices were at all regional, it leaned a little towards a surferish sound, as opposed to New York or Midwestern."

At the same time, her site design team investigated the neighborhoods Jakobson's apartments are in, poking their noses into restaurants and shops, chatting with locals, taking plenty of snap shots with their digital cameras, and keeping an ear cocked for the typical street sounds. Then they flew back to their California-based studio to create the ultimate New York atmosphere online.

First Ramin spent two days crafting a script for the one-minute audio narration that would accompany the new welcome-to-the-site Flash tour visitors could take. Although she wrote the script on her computer, periodically she had various members of staff read it out loud while others listened. She says, "It's really like writing dialog for a film. You have to have a good ear for how people talk, and you have to make a decision about the persona of the narrator. It's creating a character."

To ensure kids would relate to this character, Ramin played with language and syntax. She explains, "You have to be very sensitive. The way you and I would put sentences together is not the way they put sentences together. For example, we would say, 'Are you going to the store?', but that market segment constructs its sentences with a question-like pause at the end, 'You're going to the store?'"

She chose the actor to record the narration with equal care. First she decided on a female voice, because females are perceived as warmer and safer -- which is how you want to feel in the big city. Ramin's production manager listened to recordingsof 70-80 actresses to find just the right voice. She was not only looking for that slightly surferish accent that kids would relate to, but also a "midrange" voice. Ramin explains, "You want a great mid-range voice that's not up and down all over the map so your engineers can compress it as effectively as possible to give you a decent file size." Which means site pages will load more quickly.

After all of this prep work, actually recording the narration with the right actor took less than an hour. Then the recording was precisely matched to each moment of Flash animation. Ramin says, "Some people just toss in a voiceover and have it boom across there, and it has nothing to do with what's happening on the screen. It feels very extraneous. It's not particularly reflective of the brand."

TeamAudio also created an original soundtrack for the rest of the site. Ramin says, "It gives the entire site a coherent feeling. The mistake people make with music is they bring in some blastingly loud loop that repeats and drives everyone insane. With this site there is a loop involved, but there are multiple loops so you are not aware of the looping effect. We also integrated the sounds of the city into the music, taxis honking, etc."

The site's new graphics match this audio. There are lots of snapshots of New York neighborhoods displayed in shades of atmospheric black, white and charcoal rather than picture postcard colors. It feels real, yet fun. Edgy, yet safe. It's everything kids dream New York will be.

Last but not least, TeamAudio also constructed an HTML version of the site for surfers with little time and/or low bandwidth.

For the first month after September 11th, Jakobson also added a special introductory pop-up "discussing the tragic events and telling our prospects that we are there and supportive of the cause."


Despite the fact that as Jakobson says, "The market is really soft right now" the new site continues to attract a stable number of prospects and generate new rentals. So, an appealing site can keep you going strong in a down market.

Plus, Jakobson has lots of anecdotal evidence that his tenants, prospects and applicants love the site. He says, "They really like it. They've even asked for the name of the designers."

Ramin suggests that you visit the HTML version first, and then the audio version in order to get a true feeling for the difference audio can make. She says, "The information is identical, everything is there but there's no Flash or audio. It's the best example I can think of that shows why sound works. The HTML version is colorless, featureless, rather boring. It functions really well, but it's as flat as can be."

Useful links related to this article

Jakobson Properties

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