Good Vibrations: Consumer Responses to Technology-Mediated Haptic Feedback

An increasing proportion of everyday communication is mediated through technological devices consumers hold (e.g., mobile phones) or wear (e.g., smartwatches). One major challenge marketers face when addressing consumers through mobile and wearable technology is that the small screen sizes limit the scope for visual communication. Perhaps in an effort to assuage this limitation, some brands have begun to experiment with haptic technology in their mobile communication efforts. For example, in mobile ads for Stoli vodka, users can feel their phone vibrate when a woman shakes a cocktail.

Within product design, wearable gadget designers are equally keen to employ the power of touch. Two recent illustrations are the clip-on Lumo Sensor, which buzzes if you begin to slouch, and the Fitbit wristband, which vibrates when you hit your fitness goal. However, while these applications are novel, the technology itself is nothing new: vibration is by far the most widely used haptic feedback mechanism in small devices due to the compact size and relatively low power usage of vibrotactile actuators. Since social etiquette obliges many of us to place our mobile devices on “silent” mode, vibrotactile alerts often accompany the receipt of messages, call notifications, and other communications content. In fact, vibrotactile stimulation is so omnipresent that people even report feeling “phantom vibrations”- vibrating sensations that do not actually exist.

Despite the prevalence of such device-delivered haptic feedback, very little research has examined consumer responses to it. Some work has focused on attentional and accuracy-based outcomes of haptic feedback (e.g., keyboards that produce vibrotactile feedback upon fingertip contact lead to improved typing accuracy; Brewster, Chohan, and Brown 2007). However, we argue that it is valuable to consider what additional psychological and behavioral consequences might stem from such sensations. Some scholars in computer science suggest that technology-mediated sensations (e.g., haptic feedback delivered through technological devices) can symbolize interpersonal touch under very specific conditions (e.g., if users are explicitly told that the sensations represent the touch of another person; Haans and IJsselsteijn 2006), and research in social psychology has shown that incidental interpersonal touch can substantially shape people’s behavior and judgments in various ways (Gallace and Spence 2010). Yet surprisingly, no research has explored how incidental haptic feedback accompanying device communications (e.g., vibrational alerts accompanying message notifications on mobile phones and wearables) might influence consumer responses to those messages.

We begin to address this gap by exploring how one particular form of technology-administered haptic feedback (vibrotactile message alerts) can indeed influence consumer responses in consequential domains. Drawing from theories in social psychology, communications, and computer science, we suggest that in addition to simply alerting consumers, haptic feedback accompanying communications may also play an additional role: generating a sense of “social presence” in what may otherwise feel like a cold technological exchange. Social presence has been defined as ‘‘the degree of salience of the other person in the interaction and the consequent salience of the interpersonal relationships” (Biocca, Harms, and Burgoon 2003). This sense of social presence makes the communication itself more meaningful and caring, and as a consequence, more effective in motivating behavioral responses (Qiu and Benbasat 2009).

We focus our exploration on one important area of consumer performance: physical fitness. Physical fitness is an externally-relevant context to investigate device-mediated communications given the skyrocketing adoption of health and fitness apps and wearable fitness trackers in the marketplace, which often act as a personal trainer/coach by tracking users’ performance and sending them motivational messages. In addition, a well-established literature has demonstrated the positive effects of social support (e.g., via a gym or workout buddy) on physical performance and exercise (for a meta-analysis, see Carron, Hausenblas and Mack 1996). Given that people show increased motivation and performance on physical fitness activities when in the physical presence of social support, it is compelling to explore whether social presence activated through technology-mediated incidental touch might also improve attitudes and increase voluntary compliance in this consequential domain.

Across four studies, we systematically demonstrate that haptic feedback accompanying message content can positively influence consumer attitudes towards the interaction and impact consequential downstream behaviors such as effort and performance. Studies 1 and 2 together demonstrate that adding haptic feedback to text messages on both mobile devices and smartwatches can improve consumer performance on related physical tasks. Study 3 extends our investigation to the field and provides preliminary evidence for the mediational role of social presence. Lastly, Study 4 demonstrates the effect in a non-fitness domain, examines the moderating role of message valence, and establishes more definitive support for social presence as the underlying mechanism. In sum, we develop a multidisciplinary theoretical framework encompassing computer science, social psychology, and communication theories to demonstrate that haptic alerts, by providing a physical cue of “social presence,” can motivate effort and improve performance.

While marketing literature has examined the efficacy of mobile marketing efforts from a firm’s perspective, there exists a dearth of research exploring consumer-centric responses to mobile marketing communications (Lamberton and Stephen 2016). Our research addresses this gap by investigating consumer reactions to communications mediated through mobile devices. In addition, by extending our empirical work to smartwatches, we also address recent calls for consumer research that keeps pace with rapidly expanding device types and interaction modes (Yadav and Pavlov 2014).

In addition to the theoretical contributions, this research provides valuable insights for both industry and public policy. Worldwide mobile advertising expenditure is projected to surpass $140 billion in 2018 (accounting for more than 60% of all digital advertising expenditure), and the emerging category of smartwatch advertising is expected to reach $69 million by 2019. Brand managers can choose to add haptic feedback to communications on such devices, and our research would suggest that doing so might be an easy way to positively influence consumers’ responses to the messages. Similar logic can be applied to within-app brand communications (more than 90% of the top 100 global brands have launched at least one branded app). Haptic feedback could be programmed into an apps functionality during the software-development phase and might be a way to improve both consumer engagement with the app itself and to strengthen consumer connections with the brand or company.

In terms of implications for public policy, three of our empirical studies demonstrated that haptic feedback can bolster the effectiveness of messages geared toward improving users’ physical fitness and health. Examining antecedents to increased physical activity and good nutrition is paramount, given that medical experts and public health officials have strongly encouraged healthy eating along with increased physical movement as a way to combat the pervasive obesity epidemic. Our findings are particularly interesting given the steep rise in consumer use of health and fitness apps. We suggest that developers of these health and fitness applications should consider incorporating haptic feedback into such motivational communication attempts.

As consumers rely on technology-mediated services in more and more contexts and consumer-product interactions become increasingly imbued with online connectivity, we believe the role of haptic sensations will continue to play an important role in shaping consumer perceptions, judgments and behaviors, just as they do in our offline world.

Ana Valenzuela, Professor of Marketing at Baruch College, (City University of New York), and Professor at ESADE


Rhonda Hadi, Associate Professor of Marketing at Saïd Business School (University of Oxford)




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