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The year of being ‘touchless’ continues in 2021

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Over half the people around the globe miss being able to interact with family and friends since we entered the Covid-19 era. 74% miss being able to physically touch people as well as objects. Despite these human desires, everywhere we look we’re seeing more and more touchless technology, experiences and integrations designed to encourage social distancing. Does this mean physical human interaction is a thing of the past?

Even before the pandemic reared its ugly head and turned our world upside down, technology had been setting us up for a touchless or contactless future. Of course, at the time, these integrations were less about safety and sanitary precautions and much more about efficiency, speed and making the consumer feel more in control. At the end of 2019, in our annual Trend Book, we predicted 2020 would be the year of the ’Frictionless Follower’ with the rise of ’tap-and-go’ type payments. We concluded with what can now only be seen as an almost chilling premonition of what 2020 would be: “By the end of 2020, particularly with Gen Z entering their 20s and the Matures and Boomers declining, the idea of a frictionless society won’t be discussed as a distant dream; it will already be here.”

No, we didn’t have a crystal ball, didn’t employ an oracle and, at the time it was written, Covid-19 had yet to start campaigning for 2020’s ‘Villain of the Year’. What we did know were facts. Brands and services were ramping up their technological capabilities. They were looking to streamline their processes and remove the middleman whenever possible. The majority had circled the year 2025 in red on their calendars as their end-goal. When we entered 2020, cashless and contactless interactions, embraced mostly by early adopters and younger consumers, were expected to continue to roll-out slowly. Traditional methods were being carefully scaled back little by little, yet still at a pace where consumers felt they had control of how and when to assimilate touchless experiences into their lives.

2020 pushed all of us to adopt touchless technology and experiences whether we wanted to or not.

Three months into 2020, what had seemed like a solid roll-out plan was tossed out and a new one was hastily pulled together as we were all thrust into a touchless environment through necessity. The world, rightfully so, put safety first and, in doing so, completely rewrote how we shop, interact with others and engage with experiences – a jolting change for brands and consumers alike.

Brands have had to create ways to continue to provide a service to their customers in a safe and easy way and consumers have had to learn and adopt these new ways of shopping and interacting with others. However, even as we impressed ourselves with our tenacity and ability to adapt, the desire to engage with people, places and things didn’t go unnoticed. In fact, at the height of the pandemic, a proprietary research study conducted by Momentum showed that 86% of consumers believed that nothing could replace physically being at a live event, experience or festival.

So, what’s going to become of human interaction? Is a touchless society our future? Human beings, by nature, crave human touch. ’Touch starvation’ isn’t a made-up, trendy term; it’s a real medical condition. Interacting with others, being able to physically touch products, feeding off the energy of other fans at a live event – these needs aren’t going away. We’ve seen brands such as Walmart turn its parking lots into unique in-person experiences like drive-in movie nights, allowing families and friends to enjoy a safe evening out and bring about a feeling of normalcy. Or its ‘Holiday Winter Park’, which helped customers get into the holiday spirit while also providing socially distanced photos with Santa. The success of these events wasn’t just reflected in attendance numbers but also in the positive feedback received. Appreciation for providing the opportunity to make plans (remember those?), connect with others and simply feel normal goes a long way these days.

So, the question posed earlier: is physical human interaction a thing of the past?

Absolutely not, although it may certainly feel like that right now. Consumers are slowly being offered something in 2021 that they didn’t have at all in 2020: options. As the year progresses, they’ll be more in control of how they choose to interact with others, whether it be in-person, virtually or a combination of both (a hybrid experience). This, of course, places pressure on brands to deliver an approach that works for everyone. No small feat, but we’ve already seen promising offerings emerge in 2021’s few short months, from General Motor’s microsite at CES to a smaller, safe, in-person Super Bowl LV. We’ve seen impressive strides in the technology space, such as Touchless, a project out of Europe that draws on haptic tech and neurocognitive science to replicate touch in digital interactions, allowing consumers to still enjoy physical contact even if they decide they’re not quite ready to join in-person, if ever.

It will all come down to how. How brands decide to bring back the human component to experiences. How they get involved. And how they evolve. 2021 will be a year of efforts, of hits and misses, and learnings and opportunities. Watch this space as 2021 proves to be another year no one was expecting.

Lisa Gramling is senior vice-president of research innovation and intelligence at Momentum Worldwide.