Web Design Done Well: Making Use Of Audio

It’s easy to get hyper-focused on how things look on the web. There’s a lot to look at. You’re looking at this right now! However, in the age of touchscreens and home assistants, it’s safe to say sight isn’t the only sense worth caring about.

George Lucas once said half of any movie’s magic comes from its sounds. The same could be said of certain online experiences. For part two of this series, we’ve assembled some of our favorite examples of sound being used on the web. Most of us have had the misfortune of crossing bad examples (auto-playing videos being a particularly egregious example) but audio can give web experiences a whole new dimension when applied well.

What follows are some astounding sounds from the World Wide Web. We hope these bright ideas help you to think about your own projects a little bit differently.

Part Of: Web Design Done Well

The New Yorker’s Audio Articles

The word ‘article’ generally brings to mind words on a page, with some wiggle room on whether that page is paper or on a screen. With each passing year, this assumption becomes more restrictive and reductive. Words can be heard as well as read. This is something a growing number of websites are clocking on to, with the The New Yorker being a particularly good example. Much of their writing — fiction and non-fiction — comes complete with an audio version, often read by the authors themselves.

Most websites don’t have the luxury of recording people like Margaret Atwood, but with text-to-speech software getting better and better, we love seeing sites incorporating it into their design and functionality. Nieman Reports did a fantastic article on the subject last year, and yes, there’s an audio version.

Tune In To The World’s Radios In Radio Garden

Lest we forget, websites can take forms other than grids. Radio Garden takes you around the world’s radio stations in an instant. It’s like Google Earth, but with music. Spin the globe, turn on, tune in, drop out. A deceptively simple idea executed with a playful elegance.

A lot of pieces are needed for this to be possible, among them CesiumJS for the globe, Esri for satellite imagery, and Free GeoIP for the location API. A wonderful idea beautifully executed. (An honorable mention must also go to Radiooooo, a kind of time travel equivalent.)

Botany And Symphonies In Penderecki’s Garden

We doubt you’ve ever seen a memorial garden quite like Krzysztof Penderecki. Wander the virtual garden of the legendary Polish composer (and keen gardener) with his music playing in the background. It’s a beautiful tribute, and a cracking case study in web design to boot. There’s a lot of cool stuff going on but the music seemed the apt thing to focus on.

Akkers van Margraten’s Oral Histories Of WWII

The scope for archival material to reinvent itself online in new and exciting ways is almost limitless. The Akkers van Margraten oral history project builds its website around its audio content, with the audio clips accompanied by mournful musical arrangements.

The music is supplemental, helping the interviewees to conjure the spirit of a time and place. Would the effect be the same without? We’re not so sure.

Netflix Brings Trailer-Like Intensity To Its Dark Series Guide

There is a wariness of media that plays automatically on web pages. This wariness is well earned. Still, the guide for Netflix’s “Dark” series shows how powerful it can be when done right. The site’s deep ambient tones pull you headfirst into the mood.

Imagine a long-form article with the right accompaniment — a horror story paired with dissonant ambient arrangements perhaps, or a look back at the Swinging Sixties with a Jefferson Airplane song playing in the distance. This Dark guide shows how much of a shot in the arm that can be.

IT Museum Brings Audio Tours To The Web

The DataArt IT Museum is an ever-growing collection of Eastern European tech hardware, each item appropriately brought online. This e-museum is beautiful in all sorts of ways, but its use of interview snippets is particularly sharp. Not unlike Akkers van Margraten, the audio snippets bridge the gap between then and now.

It almost feels obvious once you see it. Just about everyone has wandered through a museum or gallery or historical building while listening to an audio guide. Why shouldn’t the same option be available to us online?

Ethics For Design

What is the role of a designer? That is the question posed to a dozen designers and researchers in Ethics for Design, with the answers presented in a way only the web could really pull off. Instead of presenting the results in one glossy run-of-the-mill video, the site instead separates all the pieces.

As much as anything else, it shows how much can be lost when we limit ourselves to one medium — be it text, sound, videos, photographs, or graphics. Although a little jarring to begin with, maybe that’s what’s needed to think about how each piece fits into a wider puzzle.

SoundCloud’s Sticky Music Player Bar

We figured we should close with a god-honest feature. For that, we turn to SoundCloud, which has a music player that plays independently of the rest of the site. Clicking on a new page doesn’t reset the player, allowing visitors to browse artists and albums without breaking the flow of what they’re listening to. It feels so natural that it’s hard to imagine there one not being there.

We’ve become used to this through apps like Spotify, but on the web proper, it still screams untapped potential. Think of how it might be combined with other ideas featured here. Imagine you’re on a news website and start listening to a story, a la The New Yorker. With a player like this, visitors could continue browsing the site while still listening to the original story. Sounds like the future.

Wrapping Up

The sites featured here only scratch the surface of what’s possible. Sound can take countless forms: radio, music players, interviews, narration, and navigation to name but a few. We’re not all that far away from conversing with websites.

If you’re interested in learning more, the articles below offer a sound starting point for audio design online:

Technical capabilities have grown massively in recent years, with more and more flexibility demanded of the sites we use. They are seen, they are touched, and, increasingly, they are heard. We’ll hold off advocating for edible, pleasantly scented websites (for now) but sometimes it’s absolutely worth making them noisier.

Berlin Brands’ Exec on Ecommerce Acquisitions, Technology, More

We’ve addressed the rise of aggregating companies assembled solely to obtain funding and scoop up ecommerce merchants. The Berlin Brand Group also acquires ecommerce businesses. But its roots are different from most aggregators: It started as a seller of products.

Christian Salza is Berlin Brands’ managing director. He told me, “Our origins are on the product side, not mergers and acquisitions, or finance, or consulting. We are product people. I’ve been selling products since I was 19 years old.”

From selling electronic equipment on eBay 15 years ago, Berlin Brands Group (based, yes, in Berlin, Germany) now owns and operates more than a dozen ecommerce businesses, with 2020 net revenue of roughly $360 million. The company is profitable and self-funded.

In our recent conversation, Salza and I discussed the challenges of global scale, the importance of infrastructure, and the company’s approach to acquisitions, among other topics.

Our entire audio conversation is embedded below. The transcript that follows is edited for clarity and length.

Eric Bandholz: Berlin Brands Group manages about 14 brands now. Is that it?

Christian Salza: There are actually more than that. We have a few big ones — Klarstein, Auna, Blumfeldt, to name a few. But we have quite a number of smaller brands. And we’re still acquiring brands.

Peter Chaljawski started the company 15 years ago. He was 19. He was looking for disc-jockey equipment, and everything was very expensive. So he ended up importing products from China. Then started selling them. It evolved from there. Fifteen years later, we’re a big conglomerate with many brands and many countries, but it started with small DJ equipment.

We soon added audio, microphones, light machines, and stereo equipment. Then we tried kitchen products and kitchen electronics. Now Klarstein, which sells kitchen appliances, is our biggest brand with $100 million in annual turnover. Klarstein started small.

We’re self-funded, always profitable. About 10 years into it we brought in an additional investor. We’re one of the biggest Amazon sellers in Europe and definitely one of the biggest digital brand builders in Europe.

Bandholz: Was it always an ecommerce play?

Salza: It was always ecommerce. Peter started by selling products on eBay.

Bandholz: What percentage of your business is based in Europe?

Salza: About 40% of our business is on Amazon, and 14% of that is Amazon Germany. Total German revenue is bigger than the Amazon portion. The entire European turnover is roughly 80% of the worldwide total.

Bandholz: What are some of the hurdles in serving the European market?

Salza: It’s complicated to sell in Europe. There are many languages and sales channels. And each country has different payment methods. Plus you have different logistic providers. You have to master it all to be successful.

We’ve started selling more internationally, but at the beginning we were building the platform that allows us to launch these brands and distribute them across channels throughout Europe. Luckily we are in Berlin, which is very international with residents from all over Europe who speak the languages and can help us with translation and content creation.

We have built the technology and the logistic infrastructure to serve most of Europe within one day. We have multiple warehouses, and we have an ecommerce platform with access to more than 100 sales channels where we can push our products. And we will be a drop-ship supplier to all these markets, too. So we have access to all these channels and countries and mastered the logistics and technology behind it all.

That’s how we are successful.

Bandholz: Let’s talk about that technology. Did you build it from the ground up or start with an open-source platform?

Salza: It’s a combination of both. We use different tools for different specialties, but overall the entire mix is something that we have developed. We have a large IT team. We didn’t build our own web-shop system. We use existing ecommerce providers that can scale and connect to our middleware and backend. We also have SAP for our ERP and finances.

Then we have tools that connect to various marketplaces. We have tools to operate the Amazon accounts and advertising portals. We pull it all together in a platform we call Launchpad.

Bandholz: Any regrets going this direction versus an out-of-the-box option?

Salza: No regrets. We did not build a lot internally. What we do well is connect the best tools. We’re constantly looking for tools that help us improve. We are good at connecting these tools into our infrastructure. That’s our strength.

We switched about a year ago to SAP. And we have kind of a middleware that sits between SAP and the other software apps. The middleware connects different applications so they can communicate. Again, that’s the skillset we have.

Is it perfect? Not always. But the speed at how we can adapt is quite amazing.

Bandholz: Hearing the words ERP brings shivers down my spine. I don’t want to think about it or implement it. Is SAP working for you?

Salza: It is working for us. If you don’t have a proper ERP, you pay for it later, and you pay for it big time. If you don’t have proper IT management, warehouse management, reordering, invoicing, bill payment system in place, it bites you down the road.

But I recommend to anybody starting a business: Focus on technology early. To build a sustainable business, invest in infrastructure.

Bandholz: How do you find brands to acquire?

Salza: We’re looking for brands that are successful in their marketplace or country. They should have a significant turnover already. So the sweet spot for us is an annual turnover between $3 million and $100 million. We can do $3 million to $25 million easily and fast. We’ll also consider smaller ones with a strong growth trajectory. We’re looking for strong reviews, rankings, and sales history — being a top seller in that specific category, the Amazon end game.

For direct-to-consumer brands, there needs to be a high-performing shop with relatively low advertising spend that allows for profitability.

But overall, we’re looking for top sellers and a very productive product assortment. A shop with $5 million in sales and 150 SKUs is more attractive to us than one with 10,000 SKUs.

We want to buy top sellers, items that sell well, continue to scale, where we can build something around. Our origins are on the product side, not mergers and acquisitions, or finance, or consulting. We are product people. Like Peter, I’ve been selling products since I was 19 years old.

Bandholz: How do you integrate the acquired company?

Salza: It depends on the size of the business and also what the seller wants to do. Normally sellers say something like, “I’ve grown it. I’m quite successful. I’m happy where I’ve got it. But to bring it to the next level, that’s a different skill set. I love what I’m doing, but I’m ready to start my next brand.”

Succeeding in Europe requires investing heavily in infrastructure, content production, and translations. Just the VAT filing is complicated; it’s different in every country. That’s often when founders say, “I’m out of here. I don’t want to do this anymore.”

We prefer buying the assets from these owners — not the entire company, just the assets that are relevant for us. We want the Amazon account and rankings, the patents, the inventory. We’ll onboard all of that into our platform.

There’s typically a short transition period, less than six months, where we work closely with the founder. That’s the normal acquisition process. Bigger companies can be different. On occasion, we buy the entire company.

On average, on an asset deal, our integration is complete after three months. Larger deals, such as acquiring shares, could take up to 24 months to integrate.

Occasionally we’ll invite founders to come on board, use our platform and our funding, and expand his or her category.

Bandholz: What kind of valuations are founders getting for their brands? I’m hearing three to five times EBITA for smaller brands. Is that your range?

Salza: That’s correct.

Bandholz: What about larger companies, say $50 million in annual revenue. Are those deals still based on EBITDA multiples?

Salza: Yes, definitely EBITDA. In smaller cases, sometimes we consider the seller’s discretionary earnings, or SDE. But it’s EBITDA for larger companies. The fundamental acquisition metric is always some measure of profitability.

Bandholz: How do you develop product expertise when you acquire a brand in a category you’re not familiar with?

Salza: We first look at the supply chain. Do we understand it? Can we get the product? Do we understand the product? And can we play this product on Amazon? Our Hong Kong office includes a big quality team. We know we can evaluate pretty much anything — electronics, non-electronics, furniture, big, small, mechanical. So understanding the supply chain is the first big check box.

Next is Amazon — how to scale the product on Amazon?

Then it comes to the brand. The brand is perception. Brand is how you present yourself, how consistent it is, the tone of voice. We have strong experts there that can train others and also can switch roles. They know how to set up a sports brand versus, say, a home or garden brand.

We have a bench of strong brand managers that we have grown in-house. We are hiring a lot of people, especially for brand management. We’re hiring from top-notch players — big electronic companies, sport equipment companies.

If we go into a new category, such as pets, we’ll find somebody who has the passion, understanding, and knowledge for it. Then we make that person the captain.

Bandholz: What’s the overall vision of Berlin Brands?

Salza: Our purpose is to democratize products around the world. We want to become a global player in building digital brands, a digital brand house.

Bandholz: Where can listeners connect with you and learn more about the company?

Salza: I’m on LinkedIn, @christian-salza. Our website BerlinBrandsGroup.com. Listeners can learn about our offices and job openings. We have more than 150 job openings right now. There’s also a section on the site about our unique approach to acquiring brands.

CommerceCo Recap: SEO Link Building Is Hard

Link building is among the most important search engine optimization techniques. It is foundational and essential. Just about every successful commerce business wants or needs to build links, but it is hard to do well.

Moreover, there is no easy way to “hack” link building. It won’t scale like other SEO or marketing tactics.

Link Quality

What might be called “tactical link building” was once comparatively easy to do. There were even services for it — pay a monthly fee, and links would appear. You could also join a link exchange.

But many of those links purchased or exchanged didn’t make a lot of sense. For example, does a link from a blog about crocheting to an ecommerce site selling comic books make sense? Probably not, but it is the sort of link that might have shown up in the past.

Buying links (and not identifying them as paid) or exchanging links to improve a site’s search engine ranking is a violation of Google’s policies and discouraged by other search engines, too.

“The way that I think about links is the way that Google has always thought about links — the ‘editorial link’ was what they were looking for,” explained Bill Sebald, founder of Greenlane Search Marketing, during a May 13, 2021, live stream for CommerceCo by Practical Ecommerce.

An editorial link makes sense in context. An example is this article about link building, where I linked (above) to Google’s policies around buying links or exchanging links. Another example would be an article about comic-book-pricing trends linking to an online store selling comic books.

Editorial links, Sebald continued, are an indication to Google. They show the search engine which pages are popular for a given topic not because of link trading or buying but because of the quality of the page’s content. Thus an editorial link is a better link.

In the past, Sebald said, some businesses would buy links to trick Google. But the search engine’s algorithms are too good for that sort of lazy effort to work anymore. Hence, SEO link building takes hard work because each link must be worthy.

Difficult to Scale

The fact that SEO links cannot be easily created also means that SEO link building is relatively more difficult to scale, stated James Wirth, the senior director of strategy and growth marketing at Citation Labs. Wirth was also speaking during the aforementioned CommerceCo live stream.

“We’d all like to hack link building, but really it is [done] one link at a time,” Wirth said. “We can’t just programmatically do it; it requires human intervention…especially the style [of SEO link building] we do — focusing on landing pages, sales pages, and local pages where the links have the most impact.”

Worth Doing

Having established that SEO linking building was hard, Wirth and Sebald encouraged businesses to do it and do it well.

Sometimes doing the hard things is the key to a competitive advantage.

Creating compelling content — particularly landing page content or product detail page content — is not easy. It will be difficult to find and contact site owners and show them why it makes sense for their business to link to your product page or landing page.

If you are not strategic about the process, it is more challenging still.

But link building might be that SEO technique your competitors are not doing — because it is hard.

Link Building

Now that you understand that SEO link building is hard and can give you an advantage, try this approach.

  • Understand your topic in context. Think about the topic of the page you want to promote. In context, how is that topic used? When would someone need help with that topic? What sort of things could a site post about the topic?
  • Identify “citeable” elements. What about the content it is worth linking to? What is citeable? How does that citeable element relate to your topic’s context? If nothing is citeable, what can you add?
  • Carefully select sites. Don’t just ask for links from every site that publishes guest posts. Spend time understanding why the link or submitted article would benefit the publisher. How does the topic of your content make sense for the site and its audience (answered in the last step), and how do you articulate that offer?
  • Make a meaningful connection. Reach out to the publisher not with spam or templated email but in a personal and specific way. For example, consider calling the publisher to pitch an article idea rather than just emailing with a “guest post.”