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Memes, Moments, and More Lessons from the BBC for Making Audio Social

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Presenters and producers from across the BBC gathered to delve into the challenges of manufacturing viral audio. What is it about audio that resists that explosive distribution?

Lots of content has evolved into being highly shareable on social media. Longform writing is accessible through links. Photos and videos are embeddable. But one medium manages to elude the potential for easy shareability: audio.

With 5.9 million people listening to podcasts, this shouldn’t be hard. And yet, getting audio to the same point of virality as video or photos has consistently proved difficult. In an easy and informative conversation, BBC’s Rowan Collison spoke to digital editor Anna Doble and BBC Radio presenter Shaun Keaveny about their take on the challenge, and how they’ve managed to overcome it—or to ignore the charge outright.

“Ask the Most Interesting Thing”

Keaveny has been presenting for radio for a number of years now, and is reluctant to even admit that he is good at engineering these moments. “If anything pops up that’s even remotely shareable, I’m usually quite surprised,” he admitted. Doble propped up her colleague before giving her response, crediting him with “going into [his] back pocket with interesting, quirkier questions.” As she sees it, content that’s engineered for virality needs that finesse because it’s otherwise uninteresting. But by committing to asking the most interesting thing, you have a head start on creating the content that compels people to comment, share, and start conversations.

Doble is a producer on a joint production between BBC and NRK, a true-crime podcast called “Death in Ice Valley.” Seeking to solve a cold case of a seemingly abandoned, apparent con-woman, the project has been highly engaging for a community of devoted listeners. By asking interesting questions about how this woman met her fate, they’ve generated interest in a topic. But more importantly for Doble, they’ve generated a sense of community among listeners.

Community as Key to Virality

Creating a Facebook group for Death in Ice Valley wasn’t enough to assure its success; the right things had to be shared in that space, and the audience had to have a stake in what was shared. Indeed, Doble admitted of some of the evidence, “we genuinely did need help!” The podcast’s subject had, prior to her death, developed a code to cover her tracks as she traveled. Doble and her team posted the original document to the Facebook group, “leaving the windows open for audience interaction” in hopes that listeners could help decode it. The progress they made was weaved into later episodes.

While Keaveny’s efforts are less open than that, Collison called attention to his use of externally sourced sound clips to create a kind of personality for his show. Keaveny notes that the practice was largely unheard of when he started it in 2002. But over the years, it’s become a signature element of his program. In a sense, Collison mused, he employs “audio memes” (like Jeremy Vine’s 2014 “cats in gangs” nonsequitur)to build community among his listeners. This applies to more than just the clips he pipes in, but also the scenarios he references—like the broken 6th floor coffee pot. Before Keaveny departs his current timeslot for an afternoon show, Doble suggested, he should orchestrate its repair on air.

“Weird, Wonderful, or Very Funny”

The trio found one concept recurred over the course of their conversation: intimacy. Audio is an intimate form of expression in a way that more easily shared media isn’t. It can document small moments, or small movements, in a way that other media can’t. And the audio that does go viral has to be, in Collison’s words, “weird, wonderful, or very funny.” Doble and Keaveny agreed that the return to audio might actually be a reaction to the demands of photos or video to be explosively popular: “maybe the return to audio is because people enjoy getting to paint their own pictures.” And said Doble in agreement, “People don’t need pictures all the time!”

As brands seek to make viral moments with video, they’d do well to keep these musings in mind: maybe the demands on audio should be different. They do something different. While they may not travel the internet as fast as other types of content, they travel to the people that need them most—and that type of community is invaluable.

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