Over Filling

August 19th, 2021 by Nathan Hobbs

As More Companies Turn to Digital Tools, Will Our Minds Get Lost in the Missing Cues?

By Drew Vass

Imagine showing up to work one day, reaching for your trusty tools—the same tools you’ve used for decades—and finding they’ve been taken away. For the door and window industries, amid COVID-19, those tools include in-person meetings and trade shows.

“In this industry, we are used to a lot of human interactions, because that’s how business is done,” says Blake Huang, marketing manager for Plastpro.

And nowhere is this truer than in sales and marketing, she and many others suggest.

Amid a pandemic, “How do you captivate an audience?” asks Caitlin Wolf, a public relations representative for Royal Building Products. In a world without in-person trade shows, “How do you expound from a distance on a product’s many features and benefits?” she adds.

Tech companies have done it for years. Take Apple: the company’s annual Worldwide Developers Conference reaches only a select, in-person audience; but with tools such as social media and webcasting, the tech giant keeps an entire world tuning in—sometimes for hours. But when it comes to doors and windows, “People in this industry aren’t the most tech savvy,” Huang suggests.

Or they weren’t, that is, until COVID-19.

Amid the pandemic, companies have scrambled to use tools such as video conferencing and cloud-based software to keep sales going. In marketing departments, things have been a little more complicated, as they feel their way through the dark, searching for customers. Door and window manufacturers deployed revamped websites, new microsites for products, and even virtual reality experiences—all to fill the gaps left behind by social distancing.

“I call it ‘the quickening,’” says Liraz Margalit, Ph.D., a digital psychologist who specializes in behavioral economics, decision making and behavioral design. “The quickening means we have just jumped forward by 10 years in one year—in terms of growth and digital activity.”

Web 3.0

The first stop for most companies included their primary websites.

“We have used a lot of time that would normally be earmarked for trade show preparations to update our website,” says Charlotte Preston, marketing coordinator for Plastpro. “Especially with everyone stuck at home, we have seen this time as a good opportunity to improve the functionality and beauty of our site. We hope that if we can’t meet with customers in person they will
feel our website is an alternative.”

As trade shows cancelled, revamped websites and microsites became digital booths, of sorts. One of the first companies to bat with this concept was Veka, which launched Veka Experience—a new, interactive microsite that’s designed to brief visitors about the company and its products. Debuted in September 2020, the site “was a big initiative for us,” says marketing director Steve Dillon, and one that the company now ties to virtual tradeshows.

Over the course of the pandemic, similar microsites have appeared and evolved into online galleries and showrooms. Kolbe Windows and Doors launched an online gallery with more than 1,500 photos, 80 videos and project case studies. At the same time, “Social media, email and other online platforms really elevated in importance,” says Liz Huber, the company’s creative and communications manager, as Kolbe seeks to draw customers to online experiences.

At the end of 2020, Huang says Plastpro launched a Professional Design Studio that allows builders and architects to explore its door products the way you would in a physical showroom or at a trade show. This past April, Privacy Glass Solutions announced a similar concept. “Reaching this community and providing the right resources is the key to success and we believe that this new tool will assist us in increasing our penetration,” says Jamie Clingan, the company’s marketing manager.

Is it reasonable to expect websites to produce the same effects as in-person interactions? Maybe, Margalit says—if we learn to utilize more immersive features, such as virtual reality (VR) and artificial intelligence (AI).

“Prior to the pandemic, we found that brands that want to be successful in customer experience have to adapt their technology models to be more agile, and to rely more on things like AI and VR,” she says. “They want to reach customers with personalized interactions in real time … It’s hard to say how widespread the use of VR and AI is, but it is likely to turn out to be a good year for those technologies.”

Numerous door and window companies are counting on it.

Nothing Like the Real Thing

In January, just ahead of the International Builders Show, Therma-Tru introduced the Therma-Tru Virtual Experience, an immersive web-based platform that allows users to navigate information the way you would roleplay-style video games.

In April, Royal Building Products began sending out free, Google Cardboard-style (foldable) VR headsets. A new series of 360-degree videos, dubbed “In the Lab,” gives professionals an opportunity to see product demonstrations.

Linda Childers, who provides sales and marketing support for Brooklyn’s WindowFix, said Marvin went so far as providing her company with a digital replication of one of its showrooms. Using a 3D Matterport camera, the company captured a showroom to create an interactive, VR tour. “It’s very much like browsing in a store,” Childers says.

Officials for Sierra Pacific Windows say they’re planning to deploy a similar technology later this year, while adding the ability to use handheld gaming controllers to operate bi-fold, multi-slide stacking and multi-slide pocketing doors. Users will also have the ability to change colors, wood species, hardware, and can get education and design tips from life-sized avatars.

When it comes to customer experiences, there are distinct advantages to VR, Margalit says, especially in how the technology allows companies to tailor experiences to each customer. But is it reasonable to expect those virtual experiences to become a permanent means for doing business?

“There are two sides to this coin,” she says. “As a psychologist, I have to tell you that if there is one thing that we’ve learned through COVID-19, it’s that we aren’t there yet—that is, we aren’t ready to transform our everyday lives through the digital world completely.”

When it comes to VR, she says, “A few years ago, it was very cool, but no one knew what they wanted to do with it. Today, we see all of these usages, but so far as replacing human interactions, we aren’t there.”

Finding Limitations

While possible uses for VR are intriguing, preliminary studies suggest that our brains might not be ready to fully embrace the technology, except in small doses.

“You’re looking through these glasses and you see yourself in an entirely different world, but there is this phenomenon—an after effect,” Margolit says. “Even though you’re in a real environment, something feels wrong.”

Following VR experiences, people report feeling tired and without energy, she says. That’s a phenomenon that might sound increasingly familiar—especially to anyone who’s turned to video conferencing as a day-to-day tool. While companies report that they’ve been successful at conducting business over platforms like Zoom, many now report that the effectiveness is wearing off.

“Customers immediately showed a willingness to conduct business this way,” says Jana Goodrich, CEO for door and window manufacturer Seaway Manufacturing Corp. “It was amazing the number of people who said, ‘Let’s just meet on a Zoom call and we’ll make our decision,’” she says. “I thought going virtual with our in-home sales team would be a disaster, but I’m here to tell you that it was amazing.”

Greg Koch, vice president of sales and marketing for Deceuninck North America, says that without traveling, “there is more time for calls and virtual meetings.” For this reason, “We’ve also observed, in general, that connection is becoming even easier,” he says.

Others say perhaps it’s become too easy, leading to overuse. The ease of Zoom has added a “why not” factor, Huang suggests. “My calendar has never been so full of meetings, because people automatically say okay let’s get on Zoom,” she adds. At the same time, “The longer this has drawn out, the less effective those things have been,” she suggests. After a certain point, she says, “The overall vibe that we got from builders was that their energy felt drained.”

And there’s a perfectly good explanation for this, Margalit says.

In psychology, the theory of mind (ToM) refers to the ability of humans to attribute mental states to ourselves and others. As such, ToM is one of the foundational elements for social interaction and it stems from non-verbal cues, including such things as facial expressions and body gestures. Those reactions account for around 70 to 80% of interpersonal communications, Margalit says, and in order to capture and interpret them, our brains include specialized mechanisms. When we interact through digital tools, those mechanisms are impeded. From this, we get what many have come to refer to as “Zoom fatigue.” Zoom fatigue results from endless searching by our brains, as our mental faculties look for missing cues—cues that fail to translate digitally. For this reason, “In Zoom meetings, 20 minutes is like an hour in face-to-face interactions, because it exhausts those mechanisms,” Margalit says. “In order for you to understand me, I have to work twice as hard and your mechanisms have to work twice as hard because you don’t see my micro-expressions. You don’t see my whole body.”

No Turning Back

In all likeliness, the dilemma for Zoom fatigue— and possibly VR, based on early findings—won’t stop companies from utilizing those technologies, but it could explain why some uses have begun to fall flat. Furthermore, “People want to get their hands on things,” Huang and others suggest. “They might shop online, but they’re going to head over to Home Depot or another showroom to see things in person,” she says. For this reason, no matter how well we adapt to technologies like VR and video conferencing, it’s widely believed that people will return to in-person trade shows and meetings. When it comes to trade shows, in particular, “Nothing is working on the digital side,” says John Moore, vice president of marketing for GED Integrated Solutions. Beyond issues of fatigue, “People just find it easy to skip things,” he says. “Whereas, if you go to an event in person, you’ve got to be there.” It’s those industry wide uses that “just can’t seem to get traction,” Moore suggests.

For this reason, many say that they expect the industry to return to the old way of doing things. Despite Seaway’s success at virtual sales, Goodrich says she fully expects that the company’s customers and salespeople will return to face-to-face meetings.

For these and other reasons, “I don’t think that the digital strategies we’re currently focusing on will stay, because everyone can’t wait to get out,” Huang says. “And the industry has been set in these ways for decades. Those behaviors are hard to change. It might change things permanently for things like meetings— maybe we won’t go back to as much travel—but otherwise I think the industry is going to go back to the old way that we did things.”

It’s partly about human nature, Margalit says.

“As humans, we need interpersonal interactions,” she explains. “Our brains haven’t developed as fast as our technology and we’re still social creatures. The same way that we need air and water, we need face-to-face interactions.”

At least until our brains catch up.

Drew Vass is the editor of [DWM] magazine

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