How the digital world is reshaping the ways we interact with the people and objects around us.
Since the ‘90s, our industry has worked to bring the brick-and-mortar world online. But in the last few years, there’s been a movement in the opposite direction: the digital world is invading the physical one, reshaping the ways we interact with the people and objects around us. The change is being driven by a number of forces—some that are very new, and others that go back to the Stone Age.
I’m 37 years old, so I can remember a time when my friends and I were building our own toys, flying kites, racing soapbox cars, and climbing trees. But today, playtime is screen time. Children (and adults) live virtual lives—fighting wars, growing crops, and mining and crafting in digital worlds, with people we may never meet in real life. At work, we sit in front of multiple screens—chatting without using our voices and writing without using our hands.
But all of that is good news. Technology has enriched our lives, making us more productive and giving us capabilities and experiences we could never have had just a few years ago. But it’s impoverished some important, primal systems embedded deep in our brains.
Satisfying the Primitive Brain
Our minds evolved to face the challenges of millennia past. They’ve given us an internal reward system that motivates us to action—to hunt, eat, build, and protect the people closest to us. These drives have kept the species going, and they’re still at work in our brains. Even the most immersive virtual experience can’t fully satisfy those drives, as long we stay rooted to our chairs, staring into a screen.
That gap explains why even in this digital age, people are still seeking out tangible, real-world experiences. Entire media empires have been built to teach us how to cook, sew, build, and repair the things around us. Vinyl records have acquired a cachet that MP3s can’t match. And during the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, Millennials fanatically collected official FIFA stickers, traveling to events around the country where they swapped stickers to fill up albums.
How Brands Bridge the Gap
When businesses bridge the digital and the virtual worlds, they can create unique experiences that build value for consumers and loyalty for their brands. LEGO, for example, has recently become the world’s leading toy brand. Its product is the same as it’s been for decades—very tactile, very much part of the real world. But in the last few years, it’s tapped into the digital world, launching products that are extensions of movie and video game franchises. The company has also created content of its own—games, TV shows, even a full-length movie. All of this extends the LEGO platform with inspiring stories that keep children playing, and parents buying.
The connection can also work in the opposite direction—using the physical world to add value to digital-world brands. Recently, R/GA São Paulo created a pop-up brick-and-mortar music store for YouTube Brazil. The idea was to promote the video platform as a streaming music service—it had a larger music library than any of its competitors, and people were already using it as their main audio streaming platform. YouTube wanted to grow this audience; it needed a way to connect its brand with the act of listening, not just watching.
To spread this message, we created a 21st Century version of the record store. The goal was to recreate the experience of getting lost in bins full of vinyl and emerging with a one-of-a-kind discovery. The YouTube Playlist Store offered playlists that were curated by artists—with “cover art” created by top Brazilian illustrators. Visitors could physically browse through the playlists, listen to them, then download them to their smartphones and save them to their YouTube accounts. The experience was built inside a Google Creative Sandbox event, and the store became one of its main attractions, drawing huge crowds eager to find their own playlists.
For brands looking to bridge the physical and virtual divides, here’s some of what we’ve learned from our experience working on the YouTube Store:
Build immersive retail spaces. For today’s consumers, visiting a store is less about browsing and more about validating a choice they’ve already made online. To get around “showrooming,” physical stores need to deliver more than just the convenience of online shopping. They need to create fully immersive experiences that attract customers in the consideration and shopping phases. Technology can be the key here, but it needs to go beyond digital screens and tablets, to engage both the modern and the primitive sides of shoppers’ brains.
Turn mobile phones into personal assistants. Our phones have become extensions of our bodies and our senses. They go wherever we go, connecting us to the digital world and the physical world, with cameras, microphones, GPS, and other sensors. Retailers can tap into the power of these ubiquitous devices to give shoppers a heightened experience within the store.
Focus on the physical interface. Devices like Kinect have brought natural human movements and gestures into the digital world. Consumers can do a lot by tapping and swiping, but consider adding physical and analog interactions to connect with the primitive brain.
Design experiences that are easy to mimic. Scientists have identified a hard-wired system of mirror neurons in our brains, designed to help us learn new skills by imitation—a faster and safer method than trial and error. We can unconsciously replicate the actions, languages, behaviors, and emotions of the people around us, and that can help simplify complex interactions. When designing your experience, make sure it’s easy for people to watch as others participate, so they can mimic that behavior later.
Make it sharable. Great experiences, like great ads, motivate people to share with their friends and the world. Adding a social layer to your experience can facilitate this. In the YouTube Playlist Store, visitors got both a physical product (the cover art) and a sharable digital product (the curated playlist). The cover art gave them a lasting memory of the experience, but the playlist made it easier for them to share that experience with others.
Plan for earned data. Like any other digital communication, a well-designed, connected environment should be able to record actionable data from every key interaction point. Your customers should be leaving digital as well as physical fingerprints as they move through the space. Then, you need to consider three simple questions: What data do I want to capture? How will I capture it? And what do I want to do with it? Your answers will help guide you as you design the experience.