The science of emotion — and why it matters

“The quality of US customer experience is stagnating.” This is the key takeaway from Forrester’s recently published annual Customer Experience Index for US brands. According to the report, not a single brand has risen to the top of their rankings or continued to move upwards over the last 12 months.

And a world without CX leaders makes for pretty depressing reading, with Forrester characterizing brands in a range from “laggards” to “languishers”! But there is hope. They go on to offer clear advice saying that brands that want to break away from the pack need to focus on emotion. Because how an experience makes a consumer feel has a bigger influence on their loyalty than effectiveness or ease in every industry.

Clicktale’s very business is built on this understanding. And recent research we conducted with big data professionals backs up why emotion is so important — 76% believe that ecommerce is not a rational process and consumers’ buying decisions are led by their hearts not their heads.

What no-one really knows, and no one really tells you, is what the relationship is between emotions and experiences, and how marketers can use emotions to drive digital experiences. So, I thought it would be valuable to explain the science behind this.

The importance of short-term to long-term memory crossover

For context, we need to understand how our brains memorize daily experiences, and that what we really need to discuss is not emotion per se, but emotion as a gateway to our memory.

So, the question for digital marketers is: how can a physical product or a service become a memory?

We know that in one day, even in one hour, we have so many experiences, so which of these experiences are going to turn into a long-term memory? Because not all experiences do.

The experience must be vivid or significant enough to generate an emotional reaction, and then that memory can crossover from the short term to the long term, and a new story will become part of our memory collection.

What the science means for businesses

Now let's try to understand what it means from a business perspective.

As customer experience professionals, we are all looking to make the crossover to long-term memory, which is where brand awareness and loyalty lives. But here is the thing; it's not enough to just be in any long-term memory. We want to be associated with a positive emotion, which is harder to achieve because from an evolutionary perspective, negative experiences are quicker and more likely to become long-lasting memories.

And a world where we’re being bombarded by messages is compounding this challenge. A study of how well we recall advertisements found that in 1965, 34% of the viewers remembered the ads they were exposed to. In 1990, the percentage dropped to 8% and in 2007, only 2.2% of the viewers had any recall. The deluge of information, goods and services, merge and mingle in our memory and we cannot separate one brand from another, so the deciding factor will always be the emotions that are tied to that brand.

Think about your own smartphone, for example. Can you elaborate the differences between your smartphone to the competition? Perhaps. But most of us choose based on the emotions that are attached to that brand. So, if we were to do a direct association between the brand and a positive emotion, you no longer need to decide, you no longer need to think rationally, you just need to feel.

The two systems determining our decision making

The scientific reason for this is that we have two different systems operating in our minds.

System one is the automatic system. It is quick to make decisions and judgments, it does not require cognitive resources, and although most times it delivers the right answer, sometimes it fails. When it fails, system two comes in to help, but system two is not automatic. It’s slow to make decisions and judgements, it requires lots of cognitive resources, and while we use it, we cannot be involved in any other task at the same time.

This rational system, system two is controlled by our prefrontal cortex, by our higher-level brain areas, which is why it’s so slow and effortful. So, we naturally favor the automatic system, system one, because it’s controlled by our emotions and requires much less effort.

Now if you think about it, when we need to buy a certain product, if there is a direct association between that product and a positive emotion, we don't need to use system two. We don't need to use the rational system; all we need to do is to use our automatic system. All we really need to do is to feel.

As Malcolm Gladwell wrote, intelligently, in his book, the only way that human beings could ever survive as a species for as long as we have is that we have developed another type of decision-making apparatus that is capable of making very quick judgment based on very little information.

So, if your job now is all about creating an emotional connection with your customers, the next step is to gain insights into their digital body language so you can create a positive experience for them, one that will in turn generate a positive emotion!

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