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Keeping it Real in a Virtual World

I want to tell you that reading this blog could well be an unsatisfying experience for you. Not (just) because it’s written by me, but for the simple fact that you will be reading it on some kind of screen – PC, tablet, smartphone, etc. Because there’s definite evidence that in an increasingly digital and virtual world, consumers still crave ‘real’ and tangible interactions and experiences.

It’s been striking over the past couple of years that among the comprehensive battery of attitudinal, lifestyle statements in the GfK Roper Reports worldwide study, the one item that attracts the lowest level of agreement among consumers globally is the idea that virtual interactions with people and places can be as good as being there in person.

The concept that for many people digital or virtual alone is not enough was also highlighted by the inspiring Jeremy Abbett of GfK Techscout at last month’s GfK conference, Naked: Digital Laid Bare. He asserted that, ‘hardware is the new software’, and pinpointed that, ‘tangible, non-screen based and glance-able interfaces’ is an area to watch.

To illustrate this point, he cited the fascinating example of Momo, a navigational device resembling a large, knitted egg that guides the user by leaning in the relevant direction. Much more fun and engaging than watching a moving blob on you smartphone map! In other words, the device preserves the practical benefits of technology but presents them in an appealing, tactile package.

Since then, I’ve noticed a number of examples of products, services and marketing communication that either promote the benefits of a tangible user experience, or at least help to reconcile the physical and virtual worlds. For instance, Stabilo pens recently launched the Smartball, a pen specifically designed to write on an iPad or other tablet rather than on paper. A number of traditional board game manufacturers have teamed up with online game developers to explore opportunities, when in the past they have seen them as a threat. Finally, the UK bookseller Waterstones’ latest  print ad campaign  uses slogans such as, ‘A browser. Much better to be one than to use one’ to promote the idea that there is still a case to be made for printed books as well as digital.

There is clearly an element here of companies whose products and services are threatened by the march of digital trying to justify their on-going survival,  however I think that a quote by Chris Anderson, editor-in-chief of Wired magazine and again quoted by Jeremy Abbett, gets close to the heart of the matter. He states that, “the past 10 years have been about discovering the web. The next 10 will be about applying those lessons to the real world.”

I get a sense that up to now many consumers have, with varying degrees of enthusiasm, accepted the diffusion of digital technology, but as our GfK Roper data shows, there are clear limits to how engaging consumers find life on screen to be. While they will not want to sacrifice the convenience and empowerment afforded by such technology, a little more novelty, stimulation and physical interaction is required. There’s a high chance the next few years will see the relationship between real and virtual shift and settle further. The important lesson is that consumer attitudes mean that it may not all be the one-way traffic from the former to the latter that we might imagine.

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