Filling the physical and online void

How brands can help the human mind adapt to our new, more physically disconnected world. Words by Crawford Hollingworth and Liz Barker of The Behavioural Architects

Part one: bridging the forced physical void in social interactions

In this article we look at how the ‘physical void’ created by the Covid-19 pandemic – firstly, the loss of physical social connection, touch and closeness, and secondly, more multisensory, in-store purchase experiences - may be accelerating us toward alternative solutions and experiences. Behavioural science and psychology illustrate how multisensory experiences actually augment our experience so that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, making them more emotive and memorable, or easier to navigate and respond to. The last few months have seen an intense ‘physical void’ thrust upon us. Whilst we have been able to hear and see, we have been unable to touch others or even come physically close enough to feel ‘in their presence’. We’ve also been limited in where we can go and what we can do, resulting in a greatly reduced multisensory experience.

Physical distancing in some form is likely to be with us for a long time, driven in part by our own cautiousness, as well as new norms and security regulations. In a June survey of over 500 epidemiologists, The New York Times found that a significant proportion (42%) thought they would not hug or shake hands for more than a year. There is also a growing recognition that deadly pandemics will continue to be a likely scenario for the future.

Whilst some behaviours with extended family and close friends will return to normal, many of us will remain wary, even avoiding particular situations. We may no longer feel comfortable tightly packed together in small spaces. We have developed new habits, routines and self-enforced behaviours which help us to feel safer and more comfortable. In other situations, we will see physical distancing forced upon us, particularly at large events or in work environments.

Consequently, there will be a need to fill this physical void offering an opportunity for ways to do this. The human mind is amazingly adaptable and plastic; neuroscience research has illustrated how the loss of one sense can result in the intensifying of another; the blind compensate for the loss of sight with enhanced hearing and touch; the deaf are much more sensitive to subtle movement and vibration which can alert them to sounds. Some neuroscientists also believe the brain can find ways to compensate for touch too. Professor of Neuroscience, Francis McGlone says “If this evolutionary system is in any way disturbed or interrupted, brains are good at finding compensation... If you remove a reward system, the brain will try to find some other way to get that reward.”

Psychologists have found that sensory effects help to augment or heighten an experience; combining related sound, smell, sight and touch together makes what is called a congruent multisensory environment. For example, we perceive crisps to be fresher when we hear the ‘crunch’ sound – we don’t rely on touch and taste alone. Sensory effects also often help us to navigate something better, providing feedback – think of the visual, sound and tactile experience of using a tablet or smartphone. In social interactions we take in a huge amount of information via non-verbal cues, often unconsciously. It is likely, therefore, that the new normal will drive and accelerate the growth and adaptation of new technology or ways of doing things to fill this multisensory and physical void. These solutions may prove to be better than what went before.

New ways to rebuild lost human connection

Many families have had limited or no contact in recent months, something that is emotionally stressful. But imagine if, while video chatting, a mother could stroke her child, a child could touch their grandparent’s arm, or a hospital patient could hold hands with their spouse. It sounds unbelievable, but virtual and augmented reality technologies are making these outcomes increasingly possible and could revolutionise communication. Last year, a new lightweight, wirelessly powered synthetic skin was developed by a team at Northwestern University. The ultra-thin, flexible fabric-like patch can be stuck onto any part of the body and gently vibrates against the skin to simulate tactile pressure-based sensations - like the gentle touch of a hand. A demo showed the mother-child scenario above actually happening. There is more potential too - it might be possible to sense a stronger or lighter touch, different temperatures or different types of sensations.

Other research teams in Switzerland and Singapore have developed similar devices - the fingertip and a sensory glove, respectively. It’s easy to see how this technology could dramatically improve our current tactile deprivation. Imagine the solace for the many who might have been able to remotely ‘touch’ the hand of a parent in a care home.

It may take time for tactile technologies like these to come on stream, but other communication technologies are already evolving and helping to make people feel more connected by recreating the ‘in-the-room’ social ease and commonality we experience with others IRL.


HBO recently partnered with start-up Scener to launch a ‘virtual movie theatre’ experience. New technology allows parties of up to 20 subscribers to livestream their chosen show “together” via a Google Chrome extension. and Netflix offers something similar. Initiatives like these help to facilitate some of the shared experiences we have lost. However, psychologists note that these technologies can be a big drain on energy as we attempt to socially interact on screen. The lack of many of the essential non-verbal cues we rely on face-to-face can lead to ‘zoom fatigue’ or even ‘Zoombies’.

But there is an opportunity for innovation to solve these challenges. The current situation offers an exciting test market for innovators. Improved virtual and augmented reality technologies in development will improve social interactions by delivering a more immersive, multisensory experience. Ultra-high-resolution screens and cinematic surround sound will make the virtual world appear identical to the real one.

The much heralded 5G will also facilitate these much-improved VR and AR technologies. Its speeds will be a thousand times faster than 4G and reduce delay by 75% to just 10 milliseconds.

Summary/key take-aways

There remains a huge opportunity to bridge the physical void that will be the norm for a while to come. The concept of ‘new normal’ will drive and accelerate the growth of new technology to fill the void, to build back human social connection in ways that will feel revolutionary and empowering. This is just the end of the beginning.

Part two: filling the multisensory online void

It’s not only social connections which suffer from the physical void. The last few months have forced an acceleration in digital sales with limited sensory contact - certainly no touch or smell - pre purchase. Online sales in the UK jumped from 19% in January to a record 30% in April as a proportion of all retail. In 2018 this figure was just 18%. Many stores have also switched to trading online for the first time in an attempt to stay afloat. Pre-pandemic consumers often made ‘hybrid’ purchases where they combined the benefits of in-store and online; handling or testing a product in-store before buying online.

Now, lacking the confidence, ease, or opportunity to go into a store as freely as we used to, people are increasingly buying without the benefits of touch and smell. Yet psychologists and behavioural scientists have found that sensory experiences - sound, smell, touch and ‘3D sight’ - are often a powerful driving force for our purchase decisions. Let’s look at touch:

  • Confidence
    Professor Bertil Hulten, Linnaeus University, Sweden, comments “Seeing is reinforced by touch, in that touch helps us get a fuller understanding of what we see.” A fuller understanding can mean we have greater confidence in a purchase; we are more sure it’s what we want. This ultimately means lower return rates which are around 8-10% for in-store, compared to 50% or higher for many online purchases.
  • Positive sentiment
    Research by Professor Joann Peck, an expert in haptic marketing at Wisconsin School of Business, has illustrated how we can become more positively disposed to a product simply because we have touched it or held it in our hands.
  • Endowment
    Professor Peck also says, “Merely touching an object results in an increase in perceived ownership of that object,” because touch helps to build a sense of endowment and ownership.
  • Need for touch
    Peck has also identified that one in four people have a high ‘need for touch’ in a purchase environment. One survey found that 64% of consumers said the main thing missing from online shopping was touch and feel.

However, with online retail rapidly growing, researchers have begun to identify ways in which we can compensate for the loss of touch. We already rely on consumer online reviews, something which is hard to find in-store. And there are also ways to partially compensate for the loss of touch. We can use language to describe the sensorial properties of the product.

One study compared consumer preferences of two retail environments - in-store or online - and found that describing the tactile properties of a product using evocative and sensory language reduced consumers’ preference for the in-store environment. In other words, descriptive product language can go some way to compensate for the loss of physical sensory purchase environments.

Another solution is to use video showing a consumer touching, holding and using the product in question - trying on a pair of shoes or stroking a sofa. This can provide a multisensory experience - the sound of the zip on the shoes, or seeing the ‘bounce’ of a sofa as someone sits on it and how the fabric falls or creases upon sitting.

Fashion stores such as Zappos - an online shoe shop - usually include a video of the item being worn or tried on; cycle shops often post video reviews by staff for each bike on sale, allowing consumers to see components up close and the bikes in action.

Surveys have found that 52% of consumers are more confident in their purchases when shopping online using video content and 57% of consumers are less disappointed by a product ordered after having seen a product video and, consequently, less likely to return. Zappos say they achieve a 6-30% higher conversion rate with product pages including video. As a consequence, they film 2,000 product videos per week and have roughly 40,000 product videos live on their website.

The property and car markets will be interesting to watch as initial viewings will be more likely to be conducted online. For most people, deciding whether to buy a property or a car is a highly emotional, multisensory experience. Viewing a house or car is not only about sight, but touch, smell, sound and visual scale - something which can be hard to convey through photos or even video. These augment the overall experience and tip people over the threshold to purchase.

The challenge for these sectors is to create a more emotional and multisensory virtual experience. Although online house viewings were possible pre-pandemic, the quality of the online product may need to improve vastly to impress both buyer and seller and lead to conversion. In the last few years, some agents have been developing virtual reality and augmented reality viewings which offer a much more immersive and transparent experience. Touch and smell are unlikely to be possible, but sound - as buyers move around the house or ‘stand’ in the garden - will be. Strategies to provide more immersive virtual experiences will likely be accelerated.

Summary/key take-aways

The physical void which has opened up will create new opportunities to optimise online purchase experiences, accelerating the creation of a more multisensory digital experience. Behavioural science illustrates how and why multisensory experiences are more engaging and powerful than a ‘2D’ experience.

Just as we look back aghast at the retail platforms from twenty years ago, this pandemic will lead to such rapid digital evolution that we will find what came before highly limited and unsatisfying at a sensory level. Finding solutions which can compensate for the loss of the physical sales environment and even provide a more effective, immersive experience will benefit consumers.

This article came from issue 7 of Marketing Society publication Empower. Read the archive here.