Quote from The Way We Were: Memories may be beautiful and yet/What's too painful to remember/We simply choose to forget

“There’s no WAY I did or said any of those things,” I interrupted my sister. She had been calmly telling me about something horrible I’d done to her, growing up. She had no reason to lie, yet I truly had no memory of the story she was relating. If the facts were objectively accurate, I wondered, why would she remember and I not?

The answer, I realized, was not that I’m simply a selfish, terrible sibling (although my sister might disagree). The answer was that I was apparently better off not remembering it.

From an evolutionary psychology perspective, we unconsciously retain things that benefit our survival, and forget those that don’t. For example, the negative events we retain serve as warnings for our future well-being. If a cave-dwelling ancestor was once attacked by a saber-toothed tiger, it was in his evolutionary interest to remember it, in order to avoid being a tasty tiger snack in the future. This particular memory served no such evolutionary purpose, and indeed had the potential to actually harm my self-image as a loving, perfect sister.

What does all this have to do with digital customer experience? Simple: business meets emotion through memory. 

Traditional marketing and user experience wisdom says that we need to tap into emotion to reach our target audience, move them to action, and build loyalty. Yet what we really need to be discussing is not emotion itself, but rather the gateway to emotion — the customer’s memory of the experience with our website, app, brand, product or service.

Where Do Memories Come From?

To understand how memories — and the emotions that shape them — impact customer experience, we must first understand how memories are formed.

Conceptually, a memory is a story we tell ourselves about an experience: the experience of being yelled at by a sister, or the experience of being chased by a saber-toothed tiger, for example. And memories are notoriously inaccurate: we tend to unconsciously omit parts of a story that aren’t aligned with the way we perceive ourselves, as well as embellishing those parts that may contribute to a positive self-image.

What we generally refer to as “a memory” is actually a long-term memory. Yet stories must pass through our short-term memory before a long-term memory can be established. The transition to long-term memory is not guaranteed. What determines what makes it through? Emotions. If the story is powerful enough to generate an emotional reaction, the memory can cross over from short-term to long-term memory.

From a business point of view, we, as customer experience stakeholders, are looking to make the crossover to long-term memory. Loyalty lives in long-term memory, as does brand awareness.

However, we don’t want to be in just any long-term memory, we want to be associated with a positive story. And this is where it gets tricky. Because as we learned in the encounter with the saber-toothed tiger, powerful negative experiences are evolutionarily more likely to form long-term memories.

Related Article: Mastering the Art of Emotional Customer Experience

Creating Positive Memories Online

So, how do we make sure to stay on the positive memory track?

The key to creating positive memories in any business situation is effectively meeting the needs of the customer during a given interaction. In physical stores, seasoned salespeople can assess what a customer wants just by looking at him or her. In a call center, tone of voice can tell volumes about how a caller should be treated.

In digital retail and interactions, it’s a different story.

In the digital world, we need to rely on the close ties between intent, mindset, mood and emotion to shape the customer experience and create the lasting positive memories that comprise loyalty. Online, we lack the luxury of overtly gauging customer emotional state based visual or verbal cues — but we can absolutely infer it by measuring digital body language

We can quantify digital body language with advanced tools that monitor sophisticated metrics like hover time over a call to action, active versus inactive time, clicks on elements, scrolling speed and reach, number and speed of mouse moves, direction of mouse movement (horizontal versus vertical), and much more. These on-screen actions correlate to different states of mind, which reflect the different emotions our customers are experiencing in real time. For example:

  • A customer showing “disoriented” digital body language is likely to be feeling frustration and helplessness, two powerful negative emotions that will skew their memory towards the details of what didn’t work rather than what did. A savvy online business would reach out to this customer in real-time, and offer help (perhaps even a live chat with a sales rep) in reaching their goals.
  • A customer exhibiting “exploring” digital body language is likely experiencing positive cognitive fluency, which is the ease with which information is processed. This customer can be expected to be feeling trust and satisfaction in his journey this far. Their loyalty could be cemented with a well-timed offer on the product they’ve been browsing.

Related Article: Reading the Digital Cues: Actions Speak Louder Than Words

The Bottom Line

The line between offline and online has never been finer. The advantages of customer interaction in the “real world” over the digital experience are fading, as technology enables us to truly understand what our customers are feeling and respond in real time. By tapping into the power of emotion in shaping memories, we can build loyalty and reinforce brand perception on a mass scale. If only I’d been able to read my sister as effectively when I was young .…