This article is based on our answer in a Reddit thread. The original post asked about how emotions influence decisions in the online buying process vs. the traditional process.
We were very interested in the question, but unfortunately the thread didn’t catch on like we’d hoped. We had our fingers crossed for an in-depth discussion about the psychology of marketing but, alas, that we did not get.
So we decided to explore it in article form instead. Enjoy.
We’ve recently investigated the link between the emotionality of brands and how they become famous (here). Jonah Berger talks about this concept in a couple of books, but we specifically looked at a paper  that told us that the emotionality of content has a direct link to whether people will share it. So, from a purely marketing point of view, we see that popularity depends on emotion.
“Attitudes have three different components: affect, behavioural intention, and cognition.”
It would then follow that buying process (in general) would be largely affected by emotions in the same way. From a quick squiz of our psychology text, we found that ‘attitudes‘ (defined as a set of beliefs/feelings/intentions towards something) are affected by emotional and cognitive processes, that ultimately lead to some kind of behaviour or conation . So, we can be fairly certain that the nature of the emotions and cognitive processes that a product elicits in the mind of a consumer has a direct link as to whether they’ll intend to buy it.
We know that the emotions are linked with driving purchase intent. The next question is, how do marketers create or influence these emotions? Apparently, the answer is in sensation, and the 5 human senses.
The reason we draw attention to the 5 senses, or sensory modes, is this: Physical sensations are linked to memories, and are often associated with certain emotions. In fact, the sense of smell is our most primitive sense , and is therefore most closely linked to our emotions . As testament to this fact, here’s an excerpt from Martin Lindstrom’s Brand Sense :
“…I was walking down a Tokyo street and brushed past someone wearing a distinct perfume. And whoosh! A Pandora’s box of memories and emotions immediately spilled open.”
Smell is a powerful sense. It can impact emotions subconsciously, without requiring any form of conscious thought. Naturally, the physical senses – the sense of smell in particular – are fantastic tools to exploit for marketing purposes.
The marketing applications of sensation is not unique to smell, either. Take touch, for example. Humans infer a remarkable amount of information from simply touching things. By holding an item in our hands, we can infer its material properties – weight, texture, hardness, and temperature . The ability to touch a product has been found to increase its customers’ purchase intent. In fact, some customers absolutely need this information:
“Barriers to touch, such as a retail display case, can inhibit the use of haptic information and consequently decrease confidence in product evaluations and increase the frustration level of consumers who are more motivated to touch products.” 
So naturally, any marketer should endeavour to maximise the application of multi-sensory experiences in the buying process, right?
Yes. But that doesn’t work so well online. Cue the next section.
The buying process in a traditional1 setting is often subject to all 5 of the senses. Say food, for example. You can see it, smell it, hear it being made, and ultimately touch/taste it at a restaurant.
Things get tricky when we have to market it online. This was the crux of our Reddit answer. Our point of view as marketing/brand/UX strategists is that while online marketing typically opens the door to interacting with a vast number of people simultaneously, it has a major drawback in the lack of sensory modes through which it enables customers to interact with products.
In contrast with our previous restaurant example, consider ordering through Uber Eats or Menulog. Doing so requires you to assess food purely visually; you’ve made the purchase before you get to even smell it. This places a huge task ahead of online media to facilitate the online buying process: they need to create the same emotions but have fewer sensory modes (i.e. tools) with which they can do so.
In all, this suggests that online marketing is heavily restricted in its ability to drive purchase intent, having been relegated to using the senses of sight and sound alone.
With all this, we know that emotions play a huge part in the customer’s intention to buy. We also find that the online sales process requires different strategies to elicit the emotions necessary to coax customers into buying products. In essence, online marketers are often tasked with finding innovative ways to express – in 2-sensory-dimensions – a 5-sensory-dimensional product experience.
So, instead of eliciting emotions in a primal way (through smell/touch/sound/taste), online is left to use visual (and sometimes auditory) means to either emulate other senses or otherwise try and work backwards to ‘remind’ people of smells, tastes, and such that will elicit the emotions they need to facilitate a purchase.
According to Peck & Childers , humans are capable of visually inferring the material properties of products – we can visually gauge texture, size, weight, and so on. Going further, we can imagine what a product may smell like, or even taste like if it were described to us.
Sometimes, such inferences are enough for people to gauge a product . This inference – using visuals and audio – is what online marketers often leverage to get past the sensory barriers of online purchasing. As such we recommend doing the following:
84% of people would trust a review online as much as a personal recommendation.
So if one customer were to purchase a product, experience it, and subsequently advocate for it – they could express (in 2-sensory-dimensions) the emotions they had for it, and the sensory experience of interacting with it. Then would then act as a trustable proxy for a 5-sensory-dimensional experience of a product.
Online marketers should therefore spend a decent amount of time creating videos to demonstrate the physical experience of their products, encourage word-of-mouth referrals where people describe the product to friends and family, encourage 3rd-party reviews, and promote the spread of both in-house and customer/reviewer videos to compensate for the lack of the physical connection that could otherwise be had if they were to market a product by traditional means.
Emotions play a massive role in making purchases. Both online and traditional need to elicit emotions to drive purchase intent. However, the way that online and traditional buying processes elicit emotions has to be fundamentally different because online interactions are limited in the number of sensory modes through which an organisation can interact with its customers.
Online marketing has an upward battle to emotionally connect with customers: If you are choosing to market your product online, then you should be aware of the fact that your product or service is heavily handicapped in its ability to evoke the emotions it needs to be able to sell itself.
But, there are ways around it. Creating videos is one great way of getting past the sensory barrier – you can illustrate what your product feels like, describe how it smells, what it reminds you of, the emotions it evokes in you, and so on. Of course, if you want people to trust the video, it’ll probably have to be created by someone else – an independent 3rd party – reviewing or otherwise advocating your product for you.
One way or another, it does not look like there is a perfect alternative for the ability to physically see, hear, feel, touch, smell, or taste a product like there is in person. Not yet, anyway. Until we can create multisensory experiences for people to virtually engage with a product, we’re going to have to rely on coming up with clever ways to use visuals and audio to make online sales work for us.
1: We assume the ‘traditional’ buying process as the act of purchasing products or services that require a physical interaction with the sales team, environment, or product itself.