The Mad Ad Dash to the Dashboard: The Auto Motive

By Patrick Reynolds, Chief Strategy OfficerTuesday, Oct 01, 2013 2:35 PM EST

With Apple eyeing the car dashboard, formerly monopolized by AM/FM and a bit of satellite, the audio game is getting more interesting -- particularly for fans of choice and control. Add to this the continued rise in simple aftermarket aux-in or Bluetooth tethering of smartphones to traditional dashboards, and it's easy to see we're about to go through the digital looking glass. Things that only tuned in a few stations using knobs and buttons just a few years ago now deliver content from exotic lands by voice command and even speak back to you! Curiouser and curiouser.

As tempting as it is to laud the dimensional superiority of digital, methinks the workhorse in the connected car will continue to be audio.  Rather than looking at this as a failure to move forward, I view it as preserving a strength -- and building upon it. Think of getting a picture from home when you're gone and missing family. Nice. Now think of getting a call and hearing a loved one's voice. Cue lump in throat. Audio's impact is undeniable, and audio publishers old and new would be wise to continue to leverage that emotional resonance of sound as much as ever before, while also augmenting it with visuals, video, interactivity and so forth.

Here are a few other considerations:

Drivers are Bad Enough Already.

There are clear safety issues associated with distracted driving. It’s bumper cars out there without dashboard peel-backs and popups. Regulators will surely kibosh that. Even outside the car there's growing angst that banners are declining in effectiveness. Mobile, conversely, remains very much on the upswing. Anyone think that trend will flatten any time soon?

Me neither.

Bringing us back to audio. The human voice. The spoken word. USPs (Unique Selling Propositions) and LTOs (Limited Time Offers) will need to be delivered thusly.

Blurred Lines on the Freeway.

As retro as that may sound to many in the chunky-glasses set, audio is actually pretty complicated technically. Unlike display advertising, audio advertising is asynchronous. That's different. In a display metaphor the publisher calls for an ad from the ad server, gets it, and it goes up for the end user. All in real time. While far from simple, it's not overly complex for today's technology. That's because a site isn't really 'moving in time' if you will. It's flat. Static. I don't mean that content may not be changing or there might not be some form of movement going on. But the content is dimensionally flat. Compare that to audio. Audio is moving through time, each second different than the last. Every stream on a different vector. It's like skeet shooting versus target practice. It's hard to hit a bulls eye, but harder to get a moving bullet to hit a moving pigeon-- clay or feathered. You have to call for the ad, wait for the perfect moment when the song or content is over, then play it. Too soon and you clip the content and create a bad listener experience. Too late and you have dead air-- a bad listener experience. Then, when the break is over, you have to do the same thing in reverse, go back to programming neither too early nor too late. Just right. Every time.

So we've been perfecting the art for seven years. An art that's changed considerably with the canvas-- from RTSP streaming to Flash streaming to HTTP delivery and from wav to mp3 and aac using various encoding bitrates. That dynamic puts audio in the driver’s seat of the connected car ad experience.

All Ears are Not Created Equal.

Ad serving-wise, audio resembles radio in certain ways but is very different in others. In radio a spot is a piece of audio creative that is blasted out to the entire listening audience, which is estimated quite roughly, because there's no technical way to target the broadcast signal. In audio, advertisers are frequently looking to buy a certain number of impressions. So let's say you're looking for one thousand impressions but the audience is two thousand. How do you deliver the ad to the one thousand and not two thousand? Logistically, what do the other thousand hear while your target thousand are hearing your ad? How do you decide which thousand are best for your campaign anyway? Thanks to digital, advertisers can now look at the listeners’ broader digital lives, their breadcrumbs if you will, and see if they might be the sorts of people likely to make good customers.

Changing Lanes, Crossing the Streams.

That covers 'live' audio (when you join in-progress, not when you initiate the station) issues. Pureplays have their own set of challenges. They're "on-demand." The music starts when the listener says it starts. Ads are truly delivered one-to-one based on the publisher's setup. There is no audience listening in unison. Every man is an island. Unlike live radio, commercial breaks can come at any time and not just after a pre-determined number of songs. Frequently ads get delivered when the listener interacts with the player -- skipping a song, changing a station… a single ad must be delivered to a single person at precisely the right time. It's like cutting your grass with scissors blade by blade. If I have had too much Robin Thicke, I hit the skip button and a spot must be at the ready to react to my whim. 

Hear Ye. Hear Thee.

Whether rolling through the School Zone or in the HOV lane, audio keeps pace with trusted voices, emotive tunes and a relevant ad experience that is in your ear, not in your face (again, drivers are distracted enough out there!).

Like anything new, it takes some knowhow to truly maximize all it can do for your brand. But more and more of the world’s biggest brands are getting in the pool because the audience and the engagement are there. So as you’re diving in, be sure to understand what it can and can't do. Plan what you should and shouldn't do accordingly. Wade into these waters half-cocked and you run the decided risk of looking like a (MC) hammer viewing all media as (nine inch) nails. Do it right, hit all the right notes, and you’ll be whistling all the way to the bank.