Sunday 22 August 2010

Digital Channels - The Hidden Dimension

We've all met someone who is over-familiar. Someone who just gets a little too close.

That feeling of uncomfortableness that arises is normally because they've invaded our personal space. However this raises the question, what is personal space?

Back in 1966, Edward T Hall wrote a book entitled The Hidden Dimension where he discussed the concept of personal space. Defined as:-

The region surrounding a person which they regard as psychologically theirs. Invasion of personal space often leads to discomfort, anger, or anxiety on the part of the victim.

The measurement of this space and the distances between people as they interact is known as proxemics. In a physical sense we all understand the concept of personal space, and whilst peoples tolerance levels in terms of distance vary, they can be broken down into 4 main zones which are:-

  • Intimate Space - For embracing, touching or whispering (= < 15cm)
  • Personal Space - For interactions among good friends or family members (46 to 76 cm)
  • Social Space - For interactions among acquaintances (1.2m to 2.1m)
  • Public Space - For interactions such as public speaking (3.7m to 7.6m)

In essence, the closeness of these interactions are based on the closeness of the relationship we have with the individual.

This is something we all understand in everyday life, but what happens when offline interactions move online and when interactions are not person-to-person but are instead person-to-brand.

It was recently reported that just under half (46%) of shoppers now feel they are "bombarded with irrelevant information and offers via a dizzying array of touchpoints." - so something obviously isn't working well.

Just because a brand has a customers contact details doesn't necessarily mean it has permission to talk to them across every channel. Not all channels are equal and some are considered more personal than others.

If a salesperson repeatedly invaded a customer's personal space, making them feel uncomfortable and causing them to walk away, you can bet they wouldn't be employed for very long.

Ok, not a great example as that's exactly what many salespeople do to try and cross that boundary from acquaintance to friend; from untrusted to trusted. However, brands risk customers switching off by doing similar things within digital channels.

In proxemics terms, my letter box is considered public - I expect mass marketing messages to be posted to it and re-act accordingly; which is probably why response rates are so low. My mobile phone however is far more personal and not a channel I'd welcome un-solicited messages on.

As an example, this is how I'd categorise interactions across the various digital channels in terms of proxemics.

  • Intimate Space = Telephone/Mobile Phone/SMS/IM
  • Personal Space = Facebook, Foursquare
  • Social Space = Email, Twitter
  • Public Space = Direct Mail

However these categorisations can also be affected by the relevance of the interaction.

Mobile can be a great channel when the message is very relevant and personal - almost when it could be a whisper in your ear. When Premiere Inn sent me a text message reminding me of my hotel booking and asking if I wanted SatNav directions (which I did), then this worked very well. It was like a friend quietly asking if I knew where I was going.

When my bank rings me up though on the pretense of a customer care call, loosely covering a sales call, then this isn't welcome as I consider this channel far too personal for that type of interaction. This is akin to the salesperson trying to establish trust and cross that boundary.

When I post my thoughts to Twitter - just because they are essentially public does not mean the channel is. I want friends on Twitter that have something relevant, entertaining, informative or witty to say - not a brand advertisement.

With the increasing growth of location based services including the new Facebook Places, this will add another level of complexity. Commentators are already discussing the potential of this channel for advertising revenue with the Telegraph recently saying:-

The business idea behind such applications is that all these individual check-ins can be used to drive advertising. [Adverts] can be targeted more specifically because a user's spending habits are known.

However, knowing this information is one thing, knowing how and when to use it is something else altogether.

Can a brand talk to me when it knows I'm in the area, but not in their store?

Do I expect it to talk to me when I check in at the store specifically?

Will it increasingly be a faux pas if a brand doesn't recognise me when I tell them I'm in-store - almost like refusing a handshake?

With the explosion of digital channels available to talk to customers on I think the principles of proxemics are more relevant than ever. Marketing messages should be looked at not just in terms of what channel do we have available but also in terms of what is the tone of the message and what is the relationship with the recipient.

The classic CRM mantra of Right Message, Right Channel, Right Time could be added to through the application of proxemics with Right Relationship.