Sound-Triggered Smartphone Ads Seek You Out

New platform could make location-based targeting simple and automatic

You can pack all kinds of marketing goodness into a smartphone app, but no app is worth the space unless consumers remember to actually, you know, open it. Trouble is, the likelihood that users will download your app and then promptly forget about it is all too high.

New York digital agency Densebrain hopes its new program, Sonic Notify, will remedy the problem. Using technology initially developed for an app that tracks buses, Sonic Notify uses bits of audio code to deliver messages, ads, and more to smartphones.

Jonathan Glanz, Densebrain's founder and technical director, says the idea surfaced unexpectedly during a meeting with Procter & Gamble this year.

"[They] wanted to know how to differentiate themselves in aisle," he said. "We said we wished we could just set people's phones off when they're standing in front of [a] product. And all of a sudden, we thought, 'We have something that can do that.' "

Repurposing the bus-tracking technology, Densebrain devised small beacons—designed to be hidden from view—that can be attached to shelves, and which emit inaudible, high-frequency sounds that trigger smartphone messages. The audio code can also be overlaid onto an existing audio track. As long as consumers have downloaded an app integrated with the technology, the smartphone will respond to the sound without user activation.

In-store, the system could alert shoppers to special promos. At home, it could provide interactive content cued to TV shows. It could even have uses for live concerts and sports events.

Sensitive to notification fatigue, the software does allow people to opt out of messages.

Glanz says conversations are under way with drugstore chains in key U.S. markets as well as some TV networks, major sporting events, and music festivals. In February, Sonic Notify will share the spotlight with runway models at the MADE Fashion Week event at Milk Studios in New York.

This past October at the CMJ music event in New York, music tech incubator Cantora Labs, as well as companies like Spotify and, partnered with each other and with Sonic Notify to deliver content about the bands and on-site promotions, triggered by the music. Attendees were asked to download a Sonic Notify-powered app; of those who did, says Cantora Labs co-founder Jesse Israel, 85 percent engaged with it.

Sonic Notify isn't the only U.S. company trying to reach consumers with contextualized messages in real time. The app Shopkick, which also uses audio signals, has partnered with major retailers to reward consumers when they walk into certain stores. And apps like Shazam and Yahoo's IntoNow listen to TV programming and ads to serve relevant smartphone content. To work, however, consumers need to launch those apps first.

Rodney Williams, assistant brand manager at Procter & Gamble, says Sonic Notify is not only more passive, but it's also a platform that can power a range of different apps. The biggest challenge, he says, will be getting stores and brands to jump on.

If Sonic Notify gets enough traction, Williams added, "it could change the way brands reach consumers."