Keeping the cake
When building digital brands online, the technological possibilities has become almost overwhelming. Consumer behaviour is changing very fast and technology follows suit — today it is possible to build most of those things we couldn’t dream of 10 years ago. So why does 90% of the online brand stores — the most important touchpoint for consumers — still look and behave as they did back then? To answer that, we must take a deep dive into technology and psychology.
First of all, e-commerce sites has been controlled by encapsulating systems for a very long time. By encapsulating we mean a system which controls the entire stack — from ERP accounting to photo resolutions to user experience. These systems where designed to make things easier for everyone, including administrators, warehouses, c-levels and software creators. But even if they focus on solving purely practical problems, the customer experience will end up being defined by engineers and templates that puts emphasis on "making things work" instead of building long-term connections with your loyal customers.
Lets take a small example. Imagine yourself starting a brand. You have done your marketing homework and learned that the difference between your brand and the competition with equal quality products is essentially what kind of emotions your brand triggers for the consumer. You might invest in a magical storyteller which captures the very essence of your brand, a beautiful logotype and a cool swiss design system. You feel good about this investment, because you realise the value of building a long-term emotional connection with your customers.
Now, imagine a potential customer walking into the biggest store in the world where your products are sold exclusively. But when entering the store, it looks like every other suburban outlet. The products are all tossed in an unfindable system, the design and logotype is way out of line and there is a distinct unfriendly atmosphere with sale-signs and irerelevant noise everywhere. The consumer might still be convinced about the product — or just plain lazy — and buy them anyway. But how much do you think this experience affects the emotional connection with the brand in the long run?
The Data Problem
The problem with answering that question is that it is opinionated. The answer lies in human connection and creative artistry rather than real-time data and sales numbers. But why does so many brands succeed in telling creative offline stories and then fail to tell them to the customer as they are evaluating your products in the online store?
One possible explanation is that the online store is often entirely measured in first-hit performance and data. The temptation of following real-time funds flowing into our system puts an effective blind fold on your emotional eye. And by the time you say "growth hacker", the only stories you will tell is about conversion rates, KPI’s and when the next sale starts. But maybe the first-time visitor was just getting to know the brand before buying the 2nd or 3rd time on another device? Or maybe in a physical store? Emotional connection is almost impossible to measure in data.
Another reason might be that the online store is traditionally seen as the last step of a larger marketing funnel. An idea that by the time the customer arrives, they already made up their mind and just needs a nudge in the right direction. But this is simply not true anymore — the online brand store is one of the primary destinations after first knowing about the brand. It has become the starting point for collecting proof, reading stories and initiating an evaluation process that will make them not only buy the product, but also feel good about themselves doing it.
Now there is absolutely nothing wrong with bringing the numbers. But what if you could connect emotionally AND boost profits and conversions in the same interface? Technology certainly allows us to. In fact, the user interface of an online store is the perfect place for this to happen.
All that is needed is a shift in mindset. The online store should no longer be seen as an outsourced technology project, who’s only job is to display a warehouse catalogue optimised for conversion. Instead it should be seen as the most important investment for your brand AND for your online sales, combined. Investing in a deep, emotional and immersive user experience surrounding your brand stories and products will pay off in all channels and have a direct impact on how your brand is perceived for millions of potential customers all over the world. The online store is really in the beginning of the funnel, not the end.
Are there brands who have adapted this mindset already? Yes there are and I think everyone can name a few. So let’s talk more about how they do it.
Building emotional connection online is not just about colors, typography and buttons. It is a complex blend of things like imagery, tone of voice, reliability, predictability and responsiveness. And from a technical point of view we have speed and stability as important ingredients. But let’s dive deeper into why these things matter from a behavioural economics standpoint.
Behavioural economics, made famous by researchers like Daniel Kahneman and Richard Thaler, teaches us that most of our day-to-day decisions are made by "System 1". System 1 is an automated machine in your brain which runs subconscious calculations in order to make quick decisions with as little effort as possible. Some decisions are too hard to make (like 1487 * 18) and it calls up "System 2" - a much slower machine to make a more accurate calculation.
Most times we trust System 1 to do the work for us quietly in the background. The interesting part is when System 1 makes predictable mental shortcuts that differs from rational choice theory in order to solve complex problems with less effort. These biases can be exposed; one famous example is when a group of people where asked if "Linda", a fictive character who is concerned about discrimination and social justice issues, was more likely to be (a) a Bank teller or (b) a Bank teller and active feminist. Most people answered (b), but (a) is at least equally correct (she is still a Bank teller).
Heuristics like this can strike as a gold mine when they are used to increase desirability using concepts like "sunk cost" and "loss aversion". But heuristics will only function as long as System 2 — with it’s logical, rational thinking — stays away as much as possible. And since System 1 runs subconsciously, we must use emotional triggers to make it comfortable and happy.
We know by now that a happy mood loosens the control of System 2 and thereby unlocks useful heuristics. Positive emotions feeds System 1 with convincing arguments about the experience and embodies the feeling the customer will get after interacting with the brand (purchasing a product).
Making people "not think" as a key to happiness is nothing new — UX and usability researchers has talked about it since the 1980s and the Buddha has talked about it for some 5000 years. A fundamental aspect of "not thinking" is to remove friction in all its forms — it could be a buggy interface, sluggish animations, confusing buttons, non-responding servers, irrelevant content or simply forcing the user to choose between equally appealing alternatives. Friction will introduce doubts that System 1 might not be able to make sound decisions, and the user might either leave out of exhaustion or even call System 2.
Breaking new grounds in the e-commerce space is not just about removing pain points. But the fundamental principle here is that we can logically reason our way beyond technical definitions to create a user experience inspired by psychology and emotional connection rather than templates and systems.
The short version:
Forget everything about encapsulating system restraints and start blank by defining the emotional experience you want your customer to feel when evaluating your brand online.
Make sure System 1 is happy by creating a predictable, fast, friction-less and uncrashable user experience.
Decorate the experience with authenticity, stories, animations and other emotional triggers to make the user feel trust, belonging and desire.
Interested in a deeper conversation? Let’s talk.