Why brands need to rethink friction in the digital world

Friction vs frictionless in the digital world- original Image by Kevin Morison from Pixabay

The digital world is a finely-tuned machine that ensures users can shop and buy with as little friction as possible.

But is the frictionless shopping experience championed by the likes of Amazon the be-all and end-all of the online shopping experience?

Frances Dennis is the Chief Commercial Officer at digital innovation agency Brandwidth, and she believes that the introduction of a little strategic, purposeful friction could actually be a game changer…  

Frances Dennis, Brandwidth
Frances Dennis, Chief Commercial Officer, Brandwidth.

A cult of frictionless online journeys has taken hold in recent years as brands made it their mission to create customer experiences that are as simple and smooth as possible. 

This was driven by the assumption that friction is only ever a negative interruption to the customer journey. But that’s wrong. 

By ensuring it’s balanced and used strategically, friction can be a powerful tool yielding impressive commercial impacts. 

The power of purposeful friction is clear for all to see in the physical world of high-street retailing, where many brands strategically deploy friction as a part of their marketing strategy. 

Frictionless vs friction in the digital world

Think of the way supermarkets change in-store layouts without warning – stopping customers shopping on autopilot and making them spend more time in-store. 

Then there’s the ‘IKEA effect’ – the increased perceived value of self-made products exploited not just by everyone’s favourite Swedish home furnishing’s giant but also the likes of Build-A-Bear.

Such real-world friction marketers understand friction as a way to increase the emotions that can connect with desire and, perhaps more importantly, intent.

Yet despite this, in the digital world, the well-oiled, friction-free, seamless Amazon experience is widely perceived as the Gold Standard every brand should aspire to; where the self professed ‘customer obsessed’ ideology has led to an experience that allows visitors to sleep-walk through a purchase process.  

Let me be clear, my point isn’t that frictionless is bad – far from it. 

But I do believe that friction isn’t the bogey man so many in digital now perceive it to be. 

Digital pariah: Dennis believes that a little friction in the digital world is no ‘Bogey man’.

Furthermore, I believe that purposeful friction for certain businesses, within a digital framework – achieved by building friction into selected digitally-enabled experiences within the customer journey – can increase purchasing intent and drive-up conversion.

To harness friction’s potential, it needs to be purposeful. And this is best achieved by adhering to three important principles. 

Get the friction value exchange

First, it is important to get the friction value exchange right by ensuring any friction intentionally built-in is in step with the perceived value of the outcome. 

If, for example, a low-value, fast-fashion brand makes it too hard to purchase one of its products where similar alternatives are in ready supply, it will quickly go out of business – despite the fact this is a recognised tactic within the luxury fashion sector. 

Value is not just attributed to high cost exchanges, however. 

Consider Primark and the long queues visitors experience in-store on a Saturday morning, surrounded by screaming children and clothes haphazardly piled all over the floor. 

Looked at one way, this is the perfect definition of friction. However, people stick with the queue because Primark is cheap, very cheap. And that’s the pay-off in this fiction value exchange.

Deliver against expectations

Second, deliver against expectations. So where friction is intentionally introduced in the customer journey, it is essential that the outcome meets expectation.

If, after waiting a year and parting with a four figure sum for a handbag, it fell apart within six months, outcome and expectation would be misaligned and an under-performing product will quickly diminish purchasing intent. 

Exceeding expectations: A little purposeful friction could still leave your customers in a happy mood.

But a purchase that will literally last a lifetime if cared for correctly makes perseverance in the face of intentional friction worthwhile, such as when an item isn’t instantly available.

Ensure friction is carefully controlled

Third, if you are intentionally introducing friction you must ensure that friction is carefully controlled – meaning it is intentional, considered and brand appropriate.  

The Hermès experience, for example, involves front line teams whose imperiousness and aloofness can be off-putting. 

This friction is intentional and artful, because those teams are so well-rehearsed in the brand narrative that their manner re-enforces the brand story. 

In fact, the near universality of their indifference fuels desire, as, when a customer finally gets their hands on an iconic Kelly or Birkin, they feel themselves part of an exclusive community or club. 

It’s time to get creative with friction

These three principles of purposeful friction translate beautifully to the digital experience, as a number of brands and businesses are already learning.

Some online queues create a sense of scarcity and achievement, for example. 

Image by www_slon_pics from Pixabay
Ideas to stir: Dennis says brands should not be afraid to get creative with friction.

The time it takes for appropriate feedback and, also, giving customers space to think or change their minds when making a big ticket purchase is friction that can drive trust.

Clearly, friction needs to be introduced with care. A clunky website experience will drive people elsewhere because everyone has their breaking point. 

But carefully executed barriers – like forced account creation or sign-up, restricted pre-sales, and online queues – can build desire and intent, increasing the ROI on your marketing spend. 

Used purposefully, friction is a useful weapon. And the time has never been better for online retailers to re-think seamlessness, start experimenting, and get creative with friction.

Check out this ideas-based piece:

Why attention metrics are now key to brands being seen in the digital world