The power of sensation is more important than we might realise online

The power of sensation is more important than we might realise online

Are you sitting comfortably? Then we’ll begin. British people of a certain age (my age…!) will remember those words fondly. They are the words used at the beginning of the children’s radio programme, “Listen With Mother“, which the BBC ran on its “Light Programme”. Being comfortable is important and merely mentioning the words probably got children in the right frame of mind to listen because they “felt” right. All these years later, new research from Harvard University confirms that the physicality of our world has significant impacts on our perception. Indeed, the study demonstrates that our decisions are influenced by the physical sensations we are getting at a specific moment in time.

For example, when people were given a résumé (curriculum vitae) on a hard, thick, clipboard they judged the candidates as better qualified than when the same people were presented on a softer, thinner clipboard. Similarly, when people were given a jigsaw made of roughly cut pieces they judged a social situation described to them as harsh. But when a jigsaw with smooth edges were being used, the same social description was judged as much softer itself. And when people sat on hard chairs they changed their patterns of negotiation when compared with sitting on soft, easy chairs. They were much less flexible on the hard chairs; the people in the soft chairs were open to persuasion.

The researchers argue that the physical sensations we receive are causing our minds to react differently. They equate it all to the soft embrace we had when we were born – the loving, tender touch of a mother, compared with the hardness of a mat or cot in which we were placed, away from mum. All nice in theory, but how is it going to help your online sales?

For years, retail psychologists have specialised in creating the right mood. The lighting in the store, for instance, or the music playing in the background all help us have good, positive and “buying appropriate” feelings. This new research adds to what we know already by confirming that is not “feelings” that help promote sales, but probably “feeling” itself – touch, sensation and the physicality of the world we are in.

Online, of course, you have no real control over the situation. You might want to make your audience feel positive towards your website offering, but you can hardly say “before you read this website go sit in a comfy chair”. But what you can do is help people recall the physicality of their experience with you. So, for instance, when you send out letters in the post are they printed on “ordinary” paper, or is the physical experience good? Equally, do you provide other materials which have a physical sensation which embodies your principles and your work – and which you could remind people of online? When you hold meetings ore events, do you care about the chairs, or just use what’s provided? All of these real world physical factors will have an impact on how people interpret your business – and if you remind them of those physical facts online, you could reap some benefits.

For example, when I speak in public I usually provide handouts, like many other speakers. In the past these were printed on 100gsm paper. Now I print them on 220gsm card – and for the first time ever people are saying things like “nice handouts”. They are the SAME handouts – no-one ever said they were “nice” when they were on paper…! I’ve even stopped calling them handouts, I say to people “I have some cards for you” – to emphasise the physicality of the materials.

Online, you can use physical words, you can show images which make people remember physical feelings. What this new research shows is we should not underestimate the impact of the physical, even in a virtual existence.

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