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The big business of making super soft sounds

June 08,2018 12:38

Ten years ago, whispering into a camera wasn't exactly a career move, but now this kind of sound creation has become not only a social phenomenon but a way to make a living. What started out as niche content is poised to become big business as brands ...


Olivia Kissper creates videos that give people the tingles. She whispers into the microphone, taps her nails on objects, strokes brushes on the camera, crinkles packaging, and even eats on screen. It is weird and, at times, even a little creepy to watch.
But it is also extraordinarily successful. The videos she has posted over the past five years have regularly attracted more than one million views on her YouTube channel and she has more than 294,000 subscribers.

ASMR – the tingling feeling that can form on the scalp and emanate down the body in response to certain stimuli

Viewers come to her in the hope of experiencing a pleasurable sensation known as autonomous sensory meridian response, or ASMR – the tingling feeling that can form on the scalp and emanate down the body in response to certain stimuli. She is just one of a growing community of filmmakers who are creating content for people who crave this sensation.
The videos are slow-paced and hypnotic, typically running between 25 minutes to an hour. They show footage of people performing a strange array of tasks – from caressing different objects to brushing their hair – that are designed to produce what are sometimes described as a “brain massage” or “shivers” that lead to an intense sense of calm.
They capture the sounds these actions produce using high-quality recording equipment, often using a binaural microphone to create a 3-dimensional sensation.
Kissper’s own recent posts reveal a playful range of topics: one video bears the title “Eating Snake Eggs” – actually an exotic fruit – and another one called “Shsssssh! It’ll Be OK!” that is designed to induce restful slumber.
Ten years ago, whispering into a camera wasn’t exactly a career move, but now this kind of sound creation has become not only a social phenomenon but a way to make a living.
What started out as niche content is poised to become big business as brands and the marketing industry rush to tap into a cultural trend. For a content producer like Kissper, who plies her trade from Costa Rica, this evolution isn’t surprising.
“I think it’s inevitable,” she says. “It’s another platform for people to promote things. When you look at some of the [ASMR] channels, they’re humongous, so of course big companies will jump in.”
Type ASMR into YouTube’s search engine and it will throw out over 12.7 million results. Some of the most popular videos have been viewed more than 20 million times. With these sorts of numbers, content creators can start to generate thousands of dollars from advertising that YouTube places at the start of their videos.

Ten years ago, whispering into a camera wasn’t exactly a career move, but now this kind of sound creation has become not only a social phenomenon but a way to make a living

But with the loyal community that has formed around ASMR, brands are looking to do more than simply buy advertising space. Instead they want to get in on the act.
Last year IKEA launched an advertising series it called “Oddly IKEA”, for which it developed six ASMR-style videos, including one long-form video that ran to 25-minutes.
The video presents a tactile range of items that students might need for their university rooms, shown on screen as a narrator gently describes the merits of each product. Bed sheets are gently stroked, pillows are squished, fabric is scratched and hangers are delicately jangled as the hushed voice gives details about the thread counts and duvet fibres of the products on show. Viewers are given detailed price information, colour options and where they can buy the products.
View image of (Credit: Getty Images)
“Since this content was such an untapped market for brands, we didn’t know what to expect,” says Kerri Homsher, a media specialist for IKEA USA. “But we wanted to ensure that we were approaching our videos as authentically as possible to attract the ASMR community.”
The strategy paid off in a big way, according to Homsher. The video went viral and to date has had 1.8m views. IKEA says it saw a 4.5% increase in sales in store and a 5.1% increase online during the advertising campaign.
“Because the genre is a bit niche, there were a few people who were slightly confused by the content,” adds Della Mathew, creative director at advertising agency Ogilvy and Mather New York, which collaborated with IKEA on the videos. “But the ASMR community came to the rescue and we found a very natural community of advocates who were explaining the genre to other people.”
As YouTube searches for ASMR grow at a rapid rate – interest in ASMR has doubled from June 2016 to June 2018, according to Google data – other brands are also paying attention. Dove Chocolate, KFC, and a Swedish Beer maker, Norrland Guld Ljus, are among the companies that have leveraged the sensorial experience of ASMR, the latter even going so far as to release an ASMR album.
In 2016, fashion magazine W started a series of videos featuring celebrities doing ASMR videos, which has featured Gal Gadot, Emily Ratajkowski, and Aubrey Plaza.
View image of (Credit: Chancelor Humphrey)
Brands are also seeking out ASMR creators who have dedicated followers. Lily Whispers made her first ASMR video five years ago at the age of 19 and was one of the pioneers of the form. In addition to a full-time job in digital marketing, she produces two or three videos per week, in which she may feature a brand promotion.
She sees her role as that of a big sister, especially because 80% of her followers are women under 30, with many aged between 14 and 17 years old. Whispers is very aware that the interaction with her followers has the potential to run deep, she’s cautious about the limitations of online relationships too.
“I do think that ASMR can come close to providing comfort and a safe haven but I am a strong advocate of talk therapy and human connection and oftentimes urge my viewers to seek help beyond watching videos on YouTube,” she says.

Depending on the views per video and the level of influence, brands might pay between $1,000 and $3,000 plus for a campaign - Newton

Regardless, the powerful connection that ASMR creators forge with their audiences has left brands eager to sponsor personalities like Whispers to promote their products. And they’re willing to pay.
Depending on the views per video and the level of influence, brands might pay between $1,000 and $3,000 plus for a campaign, according to Savannah Newton, a senior talent manager for Ritual Network, a digital talent agency. The firm manages a roster of ASMR creators – it calls them “ASMRtists” –including Lily Whispers and Olivia Kissper.
It helps its clients with direct monetisation on platforms like YouTube, distribution of audio to Spotify and iTunes, and also helps secure branded content partnerships.
“Consumers of ASMR feel like they can relate to the creators on a personal level so they trust what they say when it comes to the promotion of brands,” says Newton.
The most successful ASMR creators can also monetise their talents via the Patreon app, which offers creative people, from podcasters to musicians, a way of generating funding directly from their fans, subscribers, and patrons. In exchange, artists can offer premium content for their fans.
Olivia Kissper lets these fans have early access to her videos, as well as a behind the scenes exclusives and live Skype sessions. Some ASMR creators have even created their own apps, like Ben Nicholls, a 20-year-old student at Liverpool University who goes by the online moniker of The ASMR Gamer. He whispers – to a predominantly male audience – about consumer technology, video games, football, and beer.

The fastest growing genre for relaxation online, lulling millions to a peaceful sleep each night whilst combating anxiety and insomnia – Nicholls

“What’s great about the ASMR subculture is that channels are generally smaller, but the audience that it grows and retains is much more involved than other communities on YouTube, where it can be more passive,” Nicholls says.
According to Google data, searches for ASMR tend to peak at 10:30pm regardless of time zone, which Nicholls suggests is because people use this content to help them sleep. He has even written a book on the subject, titled ASMR: The Sleep Revolution.
Nicholls calls ASMR “the fastest growing genre for relaxation online, lulling millions to a peaceful sleep each night whilst combating anxiety and insomnia”.
So far there has been little scientific research into ASMR. “In fact, there is no scientific evidence demonstrating that these videos produce consistent and reliable neurological responses,” says Tony Ro, a professor of psychology and neuroscience at the City University of New York Graduate Center. But he concedes that “it may help some people sleep better or reduce their anxieties or depression”.

There is no scientific evidence demonstrating that these videos produce consistent and reliable neurological responses - Ro

But for those able to induce this euphoric state with a video camera and a microphone, there’s ample anecdotal evidence that ASMR videos do offer a pleasant elixir. “I think people are starved of close intimate personal attention, eye contact, comfort, being soothed by a human voice,” says Olivia Kissper.
She jokes that the ability to induce tingles in other people is akin to having a superpower. And right now, that superpower seems to have real value.
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