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Tips for using audio to engage Web site visitors

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Answer: Incorporating sound into a Web site no longer requires the user to download an audio file and then launch a media player to listen to it. With the evolution of Flash and other rich media, audio can be streamed in real time from any Web site or even a banner ad.

Should you choose to include sound in your Web site, here are a few tips to remember:

Consider your audience. Particularly in large companies, networked computers often lack speakers. If sound is essential to the presentation of your Web site, your message may fall on deaf ears.

Avoid repetitiveness. Returning users don't want to hear the same thing over and over again when they visit your Web site. Keep the user's experience fresh and interesting by providing different sounds over time.

Ask for permission. Offer a button so users can toggle the sound on and off, and always begin with off. This way, users can control their Web experience. Surprises, particularly in the form of loud, obtrusive noises, are not always welcome, and there are times when music or audio may bring undue attention from over the cubicle wall.

Rich media technology is allowing Web sites to offer more dynamic user experiences with both streaming audio and video, but-as with any technology-it's critical to use the technology effectively for a purpose, not just so you can say you have it.

To see an example of good technology gone bad, just visit myspace.com, the wildly popular community of adolescent Webmasters. Many of the personal home pages feature music or other audio that blares automatically once the profiles are opened. Furthermore, the sounds tend to play on repeat, which only serves to annoy the user-that is, assuming they can still hear.

Bill Rice is president of the Web Marketing Association, sponsor of the WebAward competition for Web site development. Visit www.2006webaward.org for more information.

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