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Smartphone Apps with Minds of Their Own: Sonic Notify’s Impact on Mobile Advertising

We’ve talked a lot about smartphone apps on this blog, and rightly so, seeing as apps have quickly become a significant way for brands to engage with consumers. But even if a company crams loads of content into an app, it won’t matter unless the consumer actively opens that app from time to time after downloading it. So maybe that Starbucks holiday app was fun the first time you scanned a cup, but now it’s lost its novelty. How does Starbucks, then, convince you to keep using the app so that you see promotions and want to visit the store?

A new technology developed for apps called Sonic Notify hopes to mitigate this problem. The program uses audio code to trigger notifications on a user’s smartphone, without the user having to actively open an app. (You do need to have a Sonic Notify-powered app downloaded to your phone already, of course.)

A cereal coupon? SCORE!!!!

A cereal coupon? SCORE!!!!

So, say you’ve downloaded an app for a grocery store. You’re walking down the cereal aisle, phone in your pocket, when you unknowingly pass a Sonic Notify beacon hidden on the shelf somewhere. The beacon emits sounds at frequencies you can’t hear but that your smartphone picks up, which then triggers that app to send you a promotional code for the Cheerios you just strolled by. You hear the notification on your phone, so you pull it out of your pocket and see the promo code. Voila! The store has encouraged you to use its app without relying on you to launch it first. And now you’re getting those Cheerios on sale, to boot.

The technology can also be embedded into existing audio—television shows and commercials, for instance. Additionally, the company behind Sonic Notify, Densebrain, is in talks with music festivals and sporting events, and the tech has been employed already at the CMJ music event in New York, where fans who downloaded the Sonic Notify-powered app received promos and band content triggered by the music.

The possibilities for businesses are numerous, and appealing to consumers in many ways, too. I wouldn’t mind downloading apps for some of my favorite TV shows, for instance, so that I could receive extra content while I’m watching.

Warning: notification fatigue may quickly escalate to notification rage

Warning: notification fatigue may quickly escalate to notification rage

But the downside here is what Adweek refers to as “notification fatigue.” Already, whether we own smartphones or not, we are constantly bombarded with text messages, emails, all manner of advertising, and plenty of other notifications we have learned to ignore or just suffer through.  How many people who download a Sonic Notify-powered app will quickly turn off the notification feature? And when they do, how does that app become different from any other app?

And for users who don’t turn off the notifications, apps are suddenly a lot more invasive than before. Sure, other apps use audio signals, but the smartphone consumer has to launch those apps first — whereas a Sonic Notify-powered app just launches itself when it wants your attention.

On the one hand, there’s plenty of room for creative and clever marketing with a technology like this. But on the other hand, if this technology becomes popular, Sonic Notify-powered apps might just turn into the smartphone equivalent of pop-up ads.

So what do you think? Would you use an app that’s powered by Sonic Notify? If this technology catches on, how do you think it will affect mobile advertising? Tell us in the comments below!


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  1. amy

    This technology is both creepy and cool, Rachel! I love the idea of “hidden beacons” on grocery store shelves that can alert me about special promos on items I already enjoy. It’s creepy though because all you have to do is download the app and from that point on wherever you go there could be a lurking beacon waiting to send you a notification.

    I think it would be cool to try this app for a few days, but I don’t know if I could handle all the notifications that it could send. Thanks for the info, Rachel 🙂

    • Rachel

      “Creepy and cool” is a great way to describe it, hah! I feel the same: I think I would try the app if I could, but I’m not sure how long I would last using it.

  2. Mandy Kilinskis

    I’m with Amy. On one hand, I love coupons. On the other hand, I already have notification fatigue and find it a little creepy. I guess it would depend the coupons or content they sent me.

    • Rachel

      Definitely the content/coupons would be the tipping factor for me, too. If I get spammed with Charming Charlie coupons or something, for example, I’d probably be totally okay with that! 🙂

  3. Alex Brodsky

    I feel this app would end up like a band that has sold out. The more popular this app would get, the more annoying it is.

    If it becomes uber-popular, stores everywhere would start to use it. Suddenly, you wouldn’t be able to go anywhere without being bombarded by a series of alerts that can drain your patience (not to mention your smartphone’s battery).

    The days of “Minority Report” have arrived. I guess it’s up to Tom Cruise to save us all.

  4. JPorretto

    If I could set it to only do certain stores I’d be ok with it. But if I get dragged into a bed bath and beyond and the thing starts notifying me like crazy, bad things gon happen, ya know?

    • Rachel

      Agreed! Though I think I’d personally be okay with Bed Bath & Beyond coupons … 🙂

  5. Joseph Giorgi

    I see what you’re saying about “notification fatigue.” Like Jeff mentioned, it’d be nice to be able to customize Sonic Notify so that it only goes off in select stores. If that’s not a possibility though, I can see how these “pop-up” notifications would become very annoying very quickly.

    Then again, since my phone isn’t of the “smart” variety, I’m not all that concerned at the moment. 😉

    • Rachel

      My phone is not of the smart variety either, so I’m also not especially concerned right now. 🙂 Though I keep writing about apps for some reason … maybe my subconscious is telling me to get a smartphone!

  6. Eric

    These are like real-life pop-up advertisements. While I’m never one to complain about saving myself a couple bucks, I have to admit, being bombarded by one promotion after another would be pretty overwhelming, unless I could create some sort of filter that would only allow items or categories I was interested in. Really interesting article, Rachel. There’s a very fine line here between something extremely helpful something that just becomes a pain in the @#$. Be curious to see how this does on the market, that’s for sure.

    • Rachel

      “There’s a very fine line here between something extremely helpful and something that just becomes a pain in the @#$.” — Totally agreed. Could be really cool or really awful; it’ll all depend on how the technology is used by companies, I suppose. We’ll just have to wait and see!

  7. Jill Tooley

    I’m not sure I’ll be taking advantage of this Sonic Notify app anytime soon. It’s pretty cool, but just not for me. I have a hard enough time managing all of the notifications I did approve, so it would be ridiculous if I had unwanted ones coming through every two seconds as well. Plus, I have to wonder how much an app like this would drain a cell phone battery during the day! It would suck to go out for a day of shopping, drain the battery, and then not be able to use your phone on the way home if you needed it!

    All in all though, this is an innovative idea. Smart apps kind of freak me out (I don’t want someone tracking my every move and behavior pattern!) but I suppose we’ll all have to get used to them. ‘Tis the future… 🙂

  8. Jeremy Vaught

    There is also another element to this that people haven’t thought about. “Frequencies that we can’t hear” can still actually damage your hearing. If there is a frequency being pushed out at 100db the whole time that you are in the store; just because you can’t “hear” it doesn’t mean it won’t cause damage to your hearing. Also, there have been some studies that frequencies that cannot be heard by the ear can still be “felt” by the body and can cause numerous side effects should as stress, body fatigue, nervousness, ect. This sounds like a TERRIBLE idea to me…

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