Touch is a powerful mechanism through which we establish psychological ownership.
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If It Feels Good, Do It: The Psychological Power of Touchscreen Content

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Do a quick poll of your office right now. Does anyone not own a touchscreen device? Unlikely, unless you work with die-hard Luddites.

The ubiquity of touchscreen technology across a good proportion of our devices lends new meaning to the term “digital native.” Just watch this baby:

When faced with a traditional print magazine, this content-hungry infant gets a little frustrated at her magazines’ lack of interactivity when she tries and fails to tap and swipe her way to greater knowledge. While this behavior doesn’t necessarily seem surprising for a baby who’s grown up with tablets, I have witnessed similar behavior from my parents, poking at back-lit menu stands at restaurants, presumably trying to find the wine list.

It seems that whether or not we grew up with touchscreen interfaces, we’ve come to expect interaction with screens, not just passively absorb their information. For marketers, this may be good news.

Research is starting to reveal some of the science behind how and why we have an inclination—and it’s quite a strong one—to interact with content haptically (through our sense of touch).

A man using his iPhone in front of a laptop and monitor

I’ve Got a Good Feeling About This One…

A recent study published in the Journal of Consumer Psychology in 2014 found that consumers’ perceptions of products and marketing efforts online are filtered through the interfaces used to explore the content. More specifically, the study showed that touchscreen interfaces like tablets or smartphones can lead to higher product valuations compared with interfaces like the traditional desktop computer and mouse. Results of the study showed that when participants were asked how much they would pay for a product, those in the test group that had used a touchscreen to check out a sweatshirt online said they would pay significantly more for the sweatshirt than those who used a mouse: $67.70 versus $47.40.

So why do touchscreens make us feel better about the content we’re interacting with? It has everything to do with a mechanism called “psychological ownership.”

What Is Psychological Ownership?

Quite simply, psychological ownership is the feeling that something is yours, whether or not it actually is. It’s closely related to ideas of possession, stewardship, and the need to have control over something.

These seagulls from Finding Nemo display strong psychological ownership of a crab they’d like to eat:

Studies point to the idea that the needs underlying psychological ownership, like the need for self-identity and the sense that you have a place, are what motivate behaviors to establish psychological ownership. This could help explain our strong inclination to interact with content through our sense of touch.

This study, published in the journal of Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking in September 2015, highlights findings that touching a product through a screen activates some of the same mechanisms in the brain as if you were actually touching that product. This level of interactivity increases the vividness of the mental representation we form of that product, which in turn increases perceptions of ownership. In essence, the more we interact with content through a touchscreen, the more we feel as though we own it.

An interesting effect arises from this feeling of ownership, called the “endowment effect.” The endowment effect causes consumers to overvalue things that they feel they own.

Could it be that simply touching content through a screen increases the value we place on that content? Early research seems to suggest this is the case. These findings have important takeaways for content marketers.

A Holistic Approach to Emotional Marketing

The field of emotional marketing already knows that appealing to our self-esteem in a positive way, like making us feel smarter or more sophisticated, is a powerful mechanism for engaging audiences and increasing their positive associations with your product.

The recent research on the power of touchscreens to tap into some of these deep-seated drives for this kind of psychological ownership has important implications for how we go about crafting content to connect more deeply with our audiences.

Credit: David Blackwell., Flickr.

5 Ways Content Marketers Can Use Our Love of Touchscreens to Build Better Content

  1. Give your audience options. Everyone learns differently. Allow your audience to pick the kind of content they want by offering it in photos, video, and text.
  2. Encourage exploration. Consumers don’t need to be spoon-fed. They actually want to do some of the work themselves. Add buttons and functions that let people touch their way through your content in a way that lets them feel they are in control of their experience. Travel + Escape Magazine is a great example of a tablet app that does this well.
  3. Enable digital manipulation. Provide navigation arrows on photos and other content that let your audience rotate images, zoom in and out, and pan to different areas. This mental manipulation mimics that of real manipulation which leads to greater psychological ownership. Wired Magazine‘s tablet app was and still is a pioneer in maximizing the potential of touchscreen manipulation.
  4. Make your content richer. Experiment with pop-out content designed for an engaging touchscreen experience like photo galleries, videos and soundtracks.
  5. Let your audience talk back. Add elements that let your audience tell you how they’re feeling about your content: “Like” buttons, “favorite” hearts, mini polls and comment boxes are a great form of emotional engagement, especially through a touchscreen.

Applying new findings about the psychology of touchscreen interfaces could lead to a more holistic approach to emotional marketing techniques that seek to tap into our self-esteem and encourage us to engage more deeply. Give your audience psychological ownership of your content and see what happens.

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