Q Media: Audio Tour Experts

Delivering your goals, to your visitors, within your budget.

Audio tours on cell phones! A great idea… for some.

Audio guides, iPods, cell phones, downloads, internet, multi-media and on and on and on. It seems as if the options for getting a message to your visitors ears are getting wider, more complex, and ever more confusing. But if you’ve clicked on this post you are looking for more information about one of the newest audio tour innovations — cell phones.
The first thing to keep in mind is that the device is only half the equation. Don’t forget about quality content! But we’ll talk about that more in another post.

The second thing to bear in mind is that every audio delivery method has pluses and minuses. Every single one! We have clients that have and do work with all of these different technologies. The key is to select the one that achieves your goals and causes you and your visitors the least amount of headaches.

Prospective clients often call us up and begin the conversation with something along the lines of “we want to put in an cell phone audio tour.” My usual first response is “Cool! Why cell phones?”

If someone ever came back with something along the lines of “Well, we are an historical association and are developing an audio walking tour of our city streets so we can share stories along with our vast collection of oral history recordings. We want something we don’t have to distribute, since we don’t have a convenient distribution point, but we also don’t want folks to have to plan ahead like they’d have to do with a download. We don’t consider this program a fund raising source and we have a sponsor that’s willing to commit to two years of the service contract or about $7,000 whichever is less. But, we want it to be good so we want some production support and we really don’t have a lot of money up front. That said, we don’t want it to have the same appeal as getting stuck in a voicemail tree for an hour and a half. Do you have any guidance or advice you can offer?”

I don’t think I’ve ever heard anything like that. Usually I’m told something like “Well, it seems like a cheaper alternative to audio guides and we really need to do something.”

Offering audio tours via cell phone is a pretty new phenomenon (past 3 years or so) and as of right now (April 2009) there are really only two major players in the US market- OnCell Audio and GuideByCell. Mike and I know both of the businesses and their principals and like them both. There are a few other providers but we either don’t know them personally or what we do know of them, we don’t like. In the past we’ve partnered with OnCell to provide cell phone service to our production clients (ex. City of Roswell, GA, Historic Homes: Smith Plantation, Bullock Hall, Barrington Hall).

As mentioned above, cell phones do provide a number of advantages:

  1. The organization does not have to purchase or distribute any audio guide hardware. You sign up for the service and you are ready to go!
  2. It is readily available to any visitor with a cell phone. All the organization has to do is create awareness of the phone number.
  3. The upfront costs are generally low, though there is always a monthly service fee. Currently, companies are offering a free trial period (usually 30 days or so), a one time set up fee ($500 – $1000), then the monthly fee which can vary widely from $150/mo or so up to $900 or more depending on the feature and number of users. NOTE – the providers are constantly adjusting their pricing structure, packages, rates, and specials in order to provide the best service for the best price that they can. Please refer to them for any specific pricing. I’m trying to be accurate, but as you know, things can and do change!
  4. You can easily produce and distribute your content, though you can actually do this with pretty much any device. 
  5. Visitors can often leave voice messages/feedback for the organization.
  6. It doesn’t appear that people are bothered by using their plan’s minutes. But many people aren’t aware of their roaming charges until after they get home. This is especially true for foreign visitors.

However, there are also some drawbacks to keep in mind as well:

  1. Contrary to popular belief, everyone does NOT have a cell phone. If universal access is important to your organization, then you’ll need to have a back up device to offer to visitors who do not have, or would prefer not to use, their own cell phones. A small batch of traditional audio guides or other off-the-shelf audio player (10 – 20) generally fills the bill but this does add to the upfront costs.
  2. While the service is often less expensive up front it is not necessarily less expensive over time. If you are not committed to your audio program and do not want to spend cash on audio guides, then cell phone costs are lower than traditional audio guides: however, past 24 months or so, they start to even out. At 36 – 38 months, traditional hardware starts to have the financial advantage.
  3. Being able to do something “easily” does not mean you can do it “well.” Cell phone providers and many of their supporters heavily promote the fact that you can dial in and record  your own content. I’ve made this point in other posts but will emphasize it again here, quality content matters! This does not mean you have to spend a gazillion dollars on full blown professional audio production services. But it does mean that your writing and production values must be part of the discussion and planning process.
  4. In some places, cell phones simply are not appropriate. I’m going out on a limb here because this is something I believe very strongly. Cell phone audio tours in churches, graveyards, some fine art museums, and other more reverent spaces are distracting. While I’m aware that the providers stress that people actually talking on their phones in such places is rare, that is not my experience. In fact, it’s happened to me. I was taking a cell phone audio tour, my phone rang (on vibrate, I’m not that unaware), and as soon as I saw the number I took the call. The reason doesn’t matter. It was important to me and at that moment, more important than the tour. If you think you’re immune ask yourself who would you take a call from when you’re on vacation?
  5. The audio quality is mediocre at best, downright horrid at times, and too often non-existent. The quality of the audio is dependent on the device. Many high end cell phones (the ones that are designed to also play music) can have great sound BUT you must develop you content for the lower quality phone. To that end, you can offer you visitor great, well written narration; you can use clean, clear oral history recordings and character readings; you can incorporate certain music and sound effects elements HOWEVER they must be “thin” and not immersive. The phone itself is trying to suppress background noise and rich, full production to be delivered through a standard cell phone is wasted time and effort.

There are other advantages and disadvantages that depend on each organizations unique needs and environment. The ones listed above have the widest application.

To sum up we’ve found that cell phone audio tours can be a great solution when presented with a certain set of criteria. If you are looking to provide information without using it as a potential source of income; if you have a sponsor or source willing to fund the service for a length of time; if you have an outdoor or “secular” location in an area with good cell phone reception; if you have an alternative device  available for visitors without cell phones; and if you are not trying to create a “rich, immersive visitor experience” then cell phones are worthy of consideration.

If you have any specific questions please ask in the comments line below of feel free to contact me at stasha@qmediaproductions.com.

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2 Comments»

  Liz Maurer wrote @

This was a really helpful overview. We’re considering a cell phone tour, and you did a great job of summing up the pertinant issues.

  Stasha wrote @

Glad you found it helpful, Liz. Please feel free ask any questions either on this forum or via phone or email. Our blog is new and I’m working hard to add relevant and useful posts, so any questions you have are appreciated.

As we tell folks, info and advice from our blog is FREE!

Best regards,
Stasha


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