September 19, 2018

The Next Marketing Skill You Need To Master: Touch

A few weeks ago, I took a class at Sephora on how to apply foundation—a life skill I failed to acquire in seventh grade probably because I had my oily nose buried in a book.
The beauty retailer offers a number of these free hands-on tutorials, which I had learned about from a friend after commiserating on the mystical art of “contouring.*” This particular one focused on Rihanna’s Fenty line, and over the course of an hour, an instructor walked me and another registrant through a step-by-step application of everything from primer to highlighter.
I didn’t walk away a beauty expert or a pop icon, but I did leave with some actionable tips—and a full bag of makeup. I had gone from try to buy in 60 minutes and spent more than double what InfoScout reports as the average basket size for Sephora.
I’m getting pink in the cheeks just typing this, and I know it’s not blush, because I haven’t taken that class yet.
If I’d shopped online, I doubt I would have purchased half the items I did. So the fact that I had spent with such abandon got me thinking: Does getting a product literally into a consumers’ hands increase purchase intent?

What I found surprised me. Despite the fact that we can buy anything and everything on the web, 56% of consumers surveyed recently by RetailDive said they still visit retail stores to first see or touch products before buying online. That tells us that despite the prevalence of digital many consumers still want to kick the tires or apply the lipstick. And the science I uncovered behind “haptic marketing” tells us a lot about how we can influence spending in truly high-touch ways.
What is haptic marketing?
Haptic information is the information we acquire using the power of touch. Haptic marketing is a relatively new discipline that focuses on the use of tactile sensations to influence purchasing.
Back in the olden days, when shopping was done primarily in person, we frequently used haptic feedback in our product assessments—we felt fabrics, pushed buttons, squatted in jeans, and squeezed cantaloupes.
Thanks to the rise of e-commerce, we now see things in picture form and use product specs and customer reviews to fill in the gaps of our understanding.
In many cases, we don’t hold what we’ve bought until the box arrives. In some cases, that leads to disappointment: “This fabric isn’t as sturdy as I thought it would be” or “These headphones don’t feel comfortable.”
While we may think of ourselves as omnichannel marketers, our shift to digital has caused us to overlook a key offline channel: Skin. Our dermis is the biggest bodily organ, and it is stuffed with tissue and sensory receptors that allow us to feel pressure, pain, texture, vibrations, and temperature, among other sensations. These receptors can trigger behavior. In fact, a field of science called “embodied cognition” argues that the loci of our decision making isn’t simply in our brain as previously thought, but influenced or even led by the body.
Altogether, that means our sense of touch can impact our buying decisions.
But don’t take my word for that. Ask Joann Peck, a marketing professor at the Wisconsin School of Business; she’s one of the foremost experts on the study of haptic marketing.
Among her findings: In situations where it helps to understand a product’s attributes (is a 1,000-thread-count sheet softer than 500?), touch can increase purchase intent because it gives us more confidence in our choice to buy. Even if touch isn’t connected to a product attribute (a piece of bark in the fundraising campaign for the arboretum), it can still increase our positive feelings toward the product if the touch is positive.  Additionally, if you touch something because you think it looks fun or enjoyable, that too can increase your product sentiment.

There’s more to touch than evaluation, however. The feels can give us a sense of connection. “Merely touching an object results in an increase in perceived ownership of that object,” another of Peck’s mountain of studies concluded. And from feelings of ownership, purchase almost seems like destiny. I think I owned that eyeliner the minute I learned how to do a cat’s eye that didn’t make me look witchy.
Finally, and this is where it really gets interesting: Assuming the sensation of touch was positive, study participants who touched an object put a higher financial value on the object. That suggests that they could expect to pay more for it.
How can you use haptic marketing?
Given the potential impact of touch to increase confidence, sentiment, ownership, and value perception of a product, it’s not a bad idea for marketers to think about how to leverage this sense as part of customer experience. In this overwhelmingly digital world, product touch can actually be a differentiation point. Plus, it can reduce the impact or returns and refunds by ensuring that people know what they're buying.
Using touch as a marketing tool is not an entirely new concept. Free samples and free trials, for example, have long been doorwarmers for the beauty and SaaS industries. In these fields, consumers have become accustomed to getting to try before they buy.
In addition to this tried-and-true tactic, we’ve seen more clever strategies in recent years to encourage touch. For example, e-retailers like Macy’s, ASOS and Nordstrom are trying to replicate the dressing room experience  by offering free delivery and returns. That way you get to touch and try, with no downside of shipping costs. Similarly, companies like Warby Parker and Casper took away the risk of buying something people once never thought they’d buy online by building touch into the journey.
Another option is the creation of “haptic experiences,” in which the product is built into an activity the customer would otherwise enjoy—a la the Sephora class. The store gave me the opportunity to do something I thought was fun, and that I thought could help me.
In that case, the haptics were the products; but Peck’s research tells us we can stray a bit farther out. We can also leverage associative experiences of touch, such as placing something that evokes positive haptic sensations (an especially cuddly blanket) next to a product we’re trying to sell (a sleep aid).
Or, we could create an enjoyable but product-unrelated experience, and build in our product. An example would be the Cadillac House in New York City’s Soho neighborhood. Cadillac designed a highly stylistic art gallery, cafĂ©, coworking space, and pop-up shop that happens to have some cars sitting in it. Some people I know attended a marketing event there, and they mentioned that during breaks people took conference calls in the cars. Isn’t that an inventive way to get urban sophisticates who wouldn’t have identified as Cadillac drivers to touch a vehicle? Come try our $50,000 phone booth.
But what if touch isn’t an option?
While the aforementioned strategies will work for some companies, it’s not feasible for every brand to insert touch into the customer experience. But there are some workarounds.
Research suggests that when touch isn't an option, you should consider approximating the experiences you’d gain from touching. A study from TheJournal of Consumer Psychology found that for objects with material properties (like a shag rug or suede boots) people typically preferred to purchase in person—but the preference is significantly reduced when those properties are explained verbally. So perhaps there’s an audio file, video or just some powerful copywriting that can describe just the fluffiness of rug and the buttery softness of the boots.
Video is in itself a powerful medium to leverage in helping simulate the experience of touch, but a simple product 360 probably won’t do it. Consider how you could use a person to humanize the touch and serve as a proxy for your buyer. For example, you might have the talent touching the product and reacting to it, just as every single Cooking Channel show does ad nauseam to show how the food tastes. As a brand example, I love the videos Zappos includes with each pair of shoes; a company employee who looks like a normal person tries them on and walks around. These videos feel authentic, and I can imagine the shoes on me.
Or, for another P.O.V. on video proxies: On Think With Google, Matt Anderson talks about a growing YouTube trend called “shop with me” videos, in which creators take their viewers into a store. The watch time of such videos apparently has increased 1,000% over two years. “With this format, viewers are able to experience the shopping journey through someone they trust, and in the process evaluate whether a product is right for them,” he says.
In addition to video, we’re seeing some innovative brands using VR/AR to help create physical simulacrum—such as the Halstead Properties app mentioned in this article on that allows you to turn the doorknob in a home listing for yourself.
We’re at the precipice of being able to more commonly provide simulations of touch like this via "haptic technology," which can approximate the experiences that you get through touch via vibrations or pressure. Right now the systems are used primarily in gaming (that rumbling feeling when you play a car racing game on an Xbox), consumer electronics (the Apple Watch notification vibration) and in safety mechanisms (the shaking controller that signals to a pilot that he or she has made an error). Analyst firm Markets and Markets predicts that it will be a $20 billion industry by 2022, with a compound annual growth rate of 16%.
Some of the innovators in this space hope to see the translation of the technologies to brands. Last year, Immersion, a U.S. company in the haptics business, ran a test with IPG Media Labs in which they showed people ads from Arby’s, BMW and Royal Caribbean that included forced feedback sensations. Their finding: Such ads resulted in a 62% increase in feelings of connection to the brand and 50% brand lift, plus increased happiness and excitement compared to ads without haptics.
Another study—this one with less of an agenda—from the journal Psychology and Marketing used haptic technology in the form of a Novint Falcon game controller as part of an automotive test drive simulation. For people who had high Need for Touch, the experience collision resulted in more positive evaluations of the car and higher sense of brand connection.
One thing to consider, however, is that some of the reactions from these two studies may be owed to novelty—meaning the benefits of haptics may wane as the tech becomes more prominent. But in any case, it will be exciting to see where these technologies go, how the first-movers in marketing use them, and how the rest of us will catch up in second gen.
If more marketers start thinking about haptics as essential to customer experience, we may see a correction in the form of a renaissance of touch. A 2015 Harvard Business Review article claimed “We’re about to enter an era in which many more consumer products companies will take advantage of sense-based marketing.” The authors may have called it a bit early—but it’s still possible that "high-touch" may come to mean something very different in the near future. And who knows, maybe I'll even have learned to apply makeup by then.
Written by: Margaret Magnarelli - Contributor for Forbes 

3 comments so far

  1. Such an interesting read - thank you so much for writing this!!

    Rebecca |

  2. This is so interesting and definitely useful. I’m definitely going to add some type of haptic experience into my business. Thank you!!


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