Appealing to the senses through digital commerce content

Online retailers build sensory experiences with VR, AR, video and conversational AI

By | 6 minute read | June 13, 2022

person using VR headset

Loyal customers recognize the powerful scent of cinnamon at Cinnabon, the mood-lifting music at Starbucks, the creamy taste of chocolate samples at Godiva, the silky touch of a beautifully made leather handbag at Luis Vuitton and the sight of glittering rows of jewelry at Tiffany’s.

For decades, big-name retailers have turned to marketing experts to create multi-sensory atmospheres in stores. Today sensory marketing is recognized as a powerful tool as the five senses — sight, smell, sound, taste and touch — play critical roles in human perceptions and can create positive experiences that delight and engage customers. But how can businesses, whether B2C or B2B, fill the sensory void on the e-commerce front?

The answer lies with existing and emerging digital content technologies such as video imagery, conversational Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Augmented Reality (AR). These tools are being used to create full or partial sensory experiences that bolster brand recognition and build customer loyalty.

E-commerce was growing fast even before COVID-19 hit, and it’s since accelerated. U.S. e-commerce sales increased 33% in the two years since the onset of COVID-19. In this climate, the competition is fierce. To understand customer behavior and create more personalized customer journeys, retailers are turning to a still-emerging branch of neuroscience known as neuromarketing.

Read why intelligent commerce is the future of business.

Tapping into neuroscience

Neuromarketing, or consumer neuroscience, studies the human brain to better predict consumers’ thought processes and behaviors. The field typically relies on cognitive neuroscience, the biological study of cognition such as attention, memory and problem-solving, and affective neuroscience, the biological study of emotions and feelings.

Neuromarketing uses scientific techniques and tools such as electroencephalogram (EEG), functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), eye tracking and face coding to measure emotional responses and predict human behavior.

In Marcel Proust’s novel In Search of Lost Time, it is famously the sweet taste of a madeleine that floods the narrator’s mind with powerful childhood memories. Proust is describing the phenomenon of involuntary memory, where sensory experience can spontaneously trigger a recollection that evokes an emotional response.

According to a study conducted by The Rockefeller University, our capacity to remember our sensory experiences is 1% of what we touch, 2% of what we hear, 5% of what we see, 15% of what we taste and 35% of what we smell. While the physical retail world relies on all five senses to attract and engage the customer, e-commerce relies largely on sight and, to a lesser extent, sound. But the world of e-commerce is growing richer and with it, the opportunities for customer engagement.

Calling upon the senses in the digital world

Videos versus images

In a 2022 annual report from Wyzowl, 86% of video marketers say video has been effective for generating leads, up from 84% in 2021 and 81% in 2019. But while many of today’s ecommerce retailers have assumed that video content is always better than image content on their sites, they need to strategically use both.

For instance, online photos grab attention and load quickly. Alongside written text, they enhance the overall user experience and trigger emotional responses. They may not be as dynamic as videos, but they are easier and more affordable to create.

Videos employ sight and sound to evoke sensory triggers, but they also require more time to ingest. But investing in video can pay off. For example when looking at engagement with ads on Facebook, Video ad clicks on the platform can perform as high as 59% compared to image ad clicks at 29%.

Conversational commerce

Conversational AI uses state-of-the-art speech recognition and can be integrated into IVR (interactive voice response), voice-led communication channels, messaging platforms, mobile apps and other channels.

onversational commerce also allows consumers 24/7 access to brands in a way that’s instant, familiar and conversational. Today’s virtual agents continue to improve at re-creating the conversational experience so central to in-person commerce. Well-designed conversational commerce built on machine learning and natural language processing (NLP) can mimic the personal touch of a human sales representative. In an online chat, for example, a virtual agent can learn when to respond to a customer empathetically with an “I understand how you feel” instead of a default “OK!” This deeper engagement elevates the emotional dimension of the e-commerce experience.

Creating personalized customer experiences with AR

In a typical e-commerce experience, customers cannot pick up a product to look closely from all angles, or to touch the product. Retailers are changing this with AR.

According to neurologist Dr. Dimitris Pinotsis, consumers in the digital space are drawn toward products they can see in 3D versus those they can only see in 2D. AR technology allows users to superimpose content — images, texts, videos — over a real-world environment.

For instance, with try-on jewelry apps, consumers in the market for an engagement ring can choose a picture of a ring on a jewelry retail app. They can then take a picture of their hand and voilà, the ring appears on their finger.

To create a true 3D experience, sophisticated retailers are using next-generation AI-powered neural networks for precise hand tracking that’s been trained on hand models to provide realistic gestures, skin tones and finger sizes.

All sensory roads lead to the metaverse

This same neural network technology is frequently used in the metaverse, where technologies such as AR, VR, blockchain and cryptocurrency form a virtual world. The luxury brand Gucci recently entered the metaverse with the opening of Gucci Town, a permanent space hosted by the online gaming platform Roblox. In this “dynamic destination,” users can express their individuality through virtual clothing, connect with like-minded individuals and play minigames to earn virtual currency.

The next frontier: intelligent taste, touch and smell

Thanks to emerging VR and AR innovation, creating multisensory experiences in the e-commerce and metaverse spaces is no longer a far-off fantasy. Take the virtual cocktail, also known as the “vocktail,” developed by scientists from Japan’s Keio University and the National University of Singapore. This VR beverage simulates various drinks such as lemonade or the mojito via an interactive drinking vessel, using electrodes to stimulate the taste buds, LEDs that alter the color of plain water inside and a micropump that releases fragrances to resemble real-world drinks.

For touch, there’s haptic technology, which has been used as a simulation tool in the fields of medical surgery and airline flight for years. In the fall of 2021, Meta introduced its own haptic glove technology, which uses vibration, motors and other physical experiences to simulate the sense of touch and deliver tactile experiences.

Last but not least, smell, the sense with the strongest link to memory and emotion, has entered the digital world. The Vermont-based start-up OVR (Olfactory Virtual Reality) Technology makes a hardware device that attaches onto a VR headset and fits over the nose. Inside the cartridge are vials of scents ranging from fresh-baked bread to a field of wildflowers, all manufactured in the OVR lab.

Customers develop brand loyalty when they are emotionally attached and remember how they feel when they engage with a product or service. A 2019 report from Gallup suggests that organizations that optimize emotional connections outperform competitors by 26% in terms of gross margin and 85% in terms of sales growth. Focusing on personalized digital content, orchestrated with a strategic sensory approach, can help retailers ensure growth in an age of e-commerce.