Ziggy Stardust and Digital Media's Emotional Void

By Published on .

Credit: Virgin via Amazon.com

One Saturday many years ago, I left my first job as a clerk in a South London cheese shop, the pocket of my Sta-Prest trousers filled with the coins for my day's labor, and ducked and weaved my way through the barking crowds until I reached the second-hand record store. Then, slowing my pace to what I deemed a record-store-appropriate saunter, I headed in. Dust, and the smell of musk and vinyl, flooded my nose. A welcome change from Époisses de Bourgogne.

I left clutching David Bowie's "Ziggy Stardust." The cover was dog-eared, the vinyl scratched in several spots—cheese-store pay wasn't enough for a new LP—but it was mine. My first vinyl record.

You'll indulge me this little trip down memory lane because you also have fond recollections of buying your first record. I know this because I've asked. At South by Southwest I asked 1,000-plus audience members what first album and/or DVD they remember buying—I offered Austin's finest vinyl records as gifts for the best answers—and I got 95 percent participation. Then I asked who remembered their first digital download, and only 5 percent could answer.

The reason for this disconnect lies in the nature of memory, which is essentially a sensory processor. Much of that sensory processing is unconscious, and the result not just of the fairly well-explored senses of sight and hearing, but also the more Proustian taste, touch and smell. Even if you tried to consciously memorize the act of downloading a track—and why would you think to do that?—you wouldn't have the barrage of sensory stimuli to help you that I had on that Saturday many moons ago.

Credit: Paul Woolmington

Digital technology has been a huge boon to marketers. It allows us to intuit what people want, and where and when. It allows us to sell directly to people via an omnipresent device that transfixes them because it's also their connection to everything and everyone else in their lives. It enables us to finally know exactly the return on a marketing dollar. It enables us to create digital experiences for people that give them faster, easier, more seamless access to the products, services and information they want. How did we live without it?

But as more and more previously human-centric and physical interactions are digitized it becomes harder for marketers to make a deep, emotional connection with customers, as a recent study led by IBM iX Chief Experience Officer Kelly Mooney suggests. Digital interactions tend to be fleeting and transactional. Indeed, many are designed to be that way: Our job in the digital realm is often to deliver what the person wants in the easiest possible way and the least possible time. One click almost always beats two. Moving images and sound, digital interactions tend not to be highly sensorial or memorable. "Honey, do you remember the time the Amazon form autofilled just perfectly?" said no one ever.

So while we take advantage of digital technology to create ever more scaled and frequent but shallow interactions, we'll need to marry them to deeper, immersive, physical experiences in order to create emotional connection to our brands. Our job as communications and behavior strategists is to understand and codify in new ways these relationships.

Some marketers already realize this. Physical stores are suddenly proliferating for brands that we think of as digital (like Amazon, Google, Warby Parker, eBay—even online dating service Bumble), or brands we'd normally expect to see only in a supermarket aisle (like Nestlé, Chobani, Yankee Candle and Cheetos). Other brands have taken physical presences further, with multisensory experiences, such as Glade's Museum of Feelings and Corona's "Paraiso Secreto" in Mexico City, which combined VR and interactive set design to simulate a journey through a jungle to a beach—in the middle of one of the busiest cities in the world. Corona's stated aim? To remind us to get out more as we now spend 95 percent of our lives indoors (at least according to its data). Sprint, interestingly, is using a physical store that charges twice the regular price of goods to bring to life its conceptual value proposition of being half as expensive as competitors.

I suspect that this rediscovered appetite for physical experience is going to go way beyond brands that want to make a more memorable connection with consumers. The heady valuation of WeWork speaks to the fact that even the gig economy doesn't change our need to be around others, and WeWork's $200 million purchase of Meetup only underscores that there's still money to be made connecting people in the real world. Then of course there's the upcoming construction of Zucktown. That's right, this year, the man who has profited most from digital technology that takes human contact out of being "social," said he wants to build an actual town to provide a community center and services for people who work for Facebook. I wonder if it'll have a second-hand record store.

Paul Woolmington, lover of cheese and vinyl, is the CEO of Canvas Worldwide, a progressive media and communications agency

Most Popular