Making Sound Waves: How Blinkist Creates Award-Winning Audio
Most of us will recognize the distinctive ta-dum of Netflix starting up, associate a lion’s roar with MGM, or get twitchy thumbs when we hear the opening notes of a favorite video game. Sound informs how we relate with the world and our feelings about a brand become linked to its logo. The team at Blinkist realized early on that a great app experience would be intimately connected to its soundscape.
Blinkist spent years developing its world-class audio experience, crafting engaging, high-quality narration, music and sound design. Now, an app that began as a delivery system for key ideas from the best nonfiction books has grown into an expansive audiovisual experience. Having already won awards for its visual design, Blinkist’s audio branding won a Better Sound Award in 2020 at the International Sound Awards.
What did it take to reach that point and where will it go from here? We spoke with members of the audio and content teams at Blinkist to find out.
From Insight to Foresight
After Blinkist was founded in 2012, audio versions of Blinks—that’s what we call our packs of key nonfiction insights—became its most requested feature. While there were solutions readily available, Blinkist had something more ambitious in mind.
“At the time, the more common solution was to have a computer program reading off the text,” said Ben Schuman-Stoler, Head of Audio at Blinkist. “The podcasting boom was in full swing at the time, too, so working with real people and voices felt really innovative.”
It needed to be more than just reading the text, though. The audio Blinks needed to strike the right tone. Ben and Odysseas Constantinou, Audio Production and Development at Blinkist, went back and forth with the team of writers about the best delivery. Ultimately, they decided on a warm and inviting tone as if in conversation with the listener. And by the end of 2014, readers could listen to their favorite titles.
On a New Wavelength
2017 proved to be a pivotal year for the Blinkist audio experience. The design team’s creation of a visual language for Blinkist landed them a Google Material Design Award for Brand Expressiveness and the audio team took note.
“We saw the way they were able to communicate a message through the visuals and establish an intentional relationship with the audience,” said Odysseas. “After that, we wondered if we could translate that to the audio experience.”
With such a huge demand for audio content coming from Blinkist customers and from the broader market, the company decided to shift to an audio-first mentality. This required an expansive overview of the soundscape within the company’s products—there were the Blinks, podcasts, videos, the (now-discontinued) Minute, to name just a few. But what held it all together? What made it sound uniquely Blinkist?
Up to that point, all of the assets for branding and marketing had been bought from stock music services or elsewhere. However, this posed a risk. If another brand used the same material, it made standing out more difficult. The team knew that to create a distinctive premium product, the sound in the app needed to measure up to the high standard of the written Blinks. Creating bespoke audio branding would solve the problems they were facing.
“Natalia [Piana, Blinkist’s Art Director] and Temi [Adeniyi, Blinkist’s Director of Design] were really helpful,” said Ben. “Talking with them early on led to a lot of insight on how to build and develop the brand without losing the core.”
“People assume too much about sound,” said Odysseas. “You’ve got to have some structured concept behind every decision.”
Kaleb Wentzel-Fisher, Blinkist’s Head of Video, joined Ben and Odysseas to kick off the audio branding project. They started with a question: What sounds do you associate with learning?
Initially, they were drawn to recognizable sounds from the real world. A match lighting up. A lightbulb turning on. A page turning. They experimented with mixing audio snippets into music.
“We soon realized there wasn’t a one-stop solution for our branding. Agencies we talked to would ask if we needed, for example, hold music for phone calls. A modular approach became the best solution, because it offered us flexibility. We could work with a studio to create the audio pieces. Then we could build off of that material in-house to meet new needs as they arose.”
But it still felt like something was missing.
They enlisted the help of audiovisual branding consultant Martin Backes from aconica. His model for developing audio branding helped focus the team’s efforts even further. In workshops, Backes suggested looking for the values Blinkist wanted to express. From that, the audio branding team could establish a foundation to build upon. In the end, the team looked at Blinkist’s existing brand values and realized they seemed like the perfect principles to build on:
These four cornerstones set the basis for the rest of the branding process. Blinkist had set itself apart early on through the narration of its Blinks. That sense of the people behind the app remained crucial.
Kaleb, Odysseas and Ben tossed ideas back and forth with teams across the company such as content, brand marketing, design, and the founders themselves. These conversations were crucial to coming up with the final sound.
For example, “Human” meant imperfections, meant using instruments played by people, meant having loose or unsynchronized rhythms. They still liked the idea of having audio to represent certain principles. Rather than real-world examples, they looked for suggestive musical phrases.
At the end of Martin Backes’s workshops, the audio branding team finalized a brief. The documentation laid out what it meant to sound like Blinkist. It also provided examples of what would not work. The clear vision would help an audio production studio—Michael Schlücker and the crew at Greatest Kidz—create the audio DNA.
From the start, the audio branding team wanted a range of auditory elements in their repertoire. “We always talked about having a modular brand,” Odysseas said. “That way you could mix and match and yet still keep it organized in some way.”
The brief offered an ideal roadmap. Keeping the “Human” idea up-front helped them choose which instruments to play and how to play them. Strings were an early favorite. A player could use the bow or pluck the strings. The musicians tried out more hand-played instruments as well, including a kalimba.
The DNA started taking shape.
As the materials from Greatest Kidz were finalized, the audio branding team started building. A TV ad put together by Kaleb and the video team became one of the first showcases for the new Blinkist sound. The app, podcasts, and further ads began to feature more music and sound design constructed from the audio DNA.
And like all DNA, the Blinkist soundscape continues to evolve. New projects on the horizon offered new and exciting ways to grow the company’s sound. The audio branding team explored the possibilities. Old melodies could be played with a different instrument or rhythm, slowed down or sped up. For all the variety, the four cornerstones of Human, Curious, Insightful, and Encouraging remain the same.
But branding wasn’t the only thing the team was innovating throughout this time.
Building Better Blinks
The release of audio Blinks in 2014 caused a paradigm shift. People’s engagement with information changes when they listen to it rather than read it. Meeting this challenge required re-evaluating how Blinks were structured.
“In many of the original Blinks, we hadn’t yet closed the gap between a written piece of content and how that content comes across in audio.” said Tracy Paulson, Blinkist’s Content and Innovation Lead.
User research showed that many people listened to Blinkist while they were multitasking. In this context, it would be difficult to retain every fact and figure as they might if they were reading a text version of the Blinks. The audio branding team also wanted to bring a more human and encouraging tone to the experience. That way Blinks would better match the company’s personality and values.
“Around the turn of 2018, we held several big meetings really looking at Blinkist with people like Sarah [Moriarty, Blinkist’s Director of Brand Marketing] and Ilya [Blokh, Blinkist’s Director of Product],” Ben said. “We wanted to figure out what it meant to have audio as a product priority. What did the future of audio and the product look like? Were there new content formats we could develop?”
Schuman-Stoler added that the emphasis on audio did not mean skimping elsewhere: “The content inside the product remained the priority. We didn’t want to do things just because they sounded pretty or it’s what’s been done elsewhere. It’s about what will help people learn more and learn better and be able to apply what they learn into their actual lives.”
The new approach required balance between competing factors. If the content is too lighthearted, it easily fades into the background. The information becomes lost or solely entertainment. If the content is too dense, it frustrates the listener.
This was especially true for the key takeaways. How do you make sure that information reaches the audience?
Your Attention, Please
Just like in any visual media, contrasts in sound help to grab a listener’s attention. Changes in volume or voice or the introduction of new sounds direct the ear the way a splotch of bright red on a dark blue canvas draws the eye.
In the early stages of exploring sound design, it became clear to the audio branding team what they did not want. “It’s not like what you hear in a podcast,” Ben pointed out. “We didn’t need music on every single word. For us, the content has to stand front and center.”
Clarity was key.
One solution the team arrived at was to include a second narrator. At a certain point within a Blink, they would deliver the key message of that section. Another way was to incorporate sound design. If the Blink used a real-world anecdote to illustrate a point, having atmospheric noises helps to set the scene.
“The music and the two narrators aren’t just cosmetic,” Odysseas explained. “They provide variation and interest. With the earlier audio, we found people would drift. So we had to solve for how to hook people in again, as well as improve retention. We tried an alert sound, but found it would become tedious or distracting.”
And the effort to fine-tune the approach paid off. Listeners did not always remember hearing the ambient noises, yet they better remembered the accompanying information. The findings raised new questions and opened new areas to explore and develop.
Blinkist turned a text-only app into a world-quality audio experience. “There’s just something about the team pursuing things and building a better product,” Ben said. Since 2018, the focus on honing the company’s sonic identity in service of its values has yielded both rewards and awards.
Paulson kept an eye towards the future: “We’re focused on how to create audio that inspires people to learn. We want them to see Blinkist as a place they can connect to content and learn new things that help them in their lives. It’s important we keep an eye on what users want and what adds to the use.”
Looking at how, where, and when people listen to Blinks has inspired new possibilities. Genres of Blinks—from biographies to cookbooks to psychology just to name a few—invite new and innovative approaches. Are there ways to expand what Blinks can be?
Other projects allow the audio DNA to grow in different directions while keeping its distinctive Blinkist character. The team at Blinkist continuously challenges itself to expand upon a soundscape that has caught many listeners’ attention, with producers Luiza Carvalho, Ben Jackson and Michael Wist taking the audio branding principles even further with new mixes and iterations.
New Content Development is now being spearheaded by Rachel Mallender, who came to Blinkist via BBC radio and publishing house, HarperCollins. That team has given Blinkist users new ways to learn with innovative new in-app audio series like 2 Minutes With… Seth Godin, Checking In which helped people manage life during lockdown, and most recently, Bedtime Biographies. Make sure to keep an eye out for one of our most exciting projects yet in mid-October!
Whether it’s an audio logo, a podcast theme, or Blinks sound design, the team remains dedicated to creating engaging auditory experiences. The team has built and developed a sonic personality that allows Blinkist to stand out by upholding the company’s principles. Innovation is just one such value, helping drive Blinkist’s work to the forefront of audio.
And the push to improve and grow hasn’t stopped. Each new insight brings fresh perspectives as ideas are shared back and forth. One of them might just be the next award winner.