Messaging has come to play a dominant role in nearly every area of our lives—from how we communicate with coworkers and how we stay connected to friends to how we reach out to customer support and interact with businesses. And with social distancing top of mind, a term that epidemiologists are using to describe intentionally limiting physical contact between people during these unprecedented times, businesses are having to rely on messaging technologies, like chatbots, WhatsApp, SMS, and Slack, more than ever before.
In fact, before COVID-19, it already seemed like conversational business was moving in only one direction; Gartner estimated that “by 2022, 70% of all customer interactions will involve emerging tools like chatbots, machine learning, and mobile messaging, up from 15% in 2018.” Given our uncertain future, messaging may have even broader appeal.
The psychology behind messaging experiences
There’s much to be learned from companies already using messaging, often—beyond efficiency and convenience—to the end of deepening customer relationships. Messaging can foster strong connections by enabling people to communicate more freely and be their most true selves. Numerous studies have shown that people often say and do things online that they may not normally say or do in a face-to-face conversation. In cyberpsychology, this phenomenon is referred to as online disinhibition. Psychologist, professor, and writer, John Suler, explored the online disinhibition effect early on in his research, where he describes it as cyberspace’s ability to enable people to “loosen up, feel less restrained, and express themselves more openly.”
Messaging can foster strong connections by enabling people to communicate more freely and be their most true selves.
Suler explains that while some people hide behind the screen to propagate hate (toxic disinhibition), for others it’s a liberating mode of communication where they can reveal their most real emotions, fears, and wishes (benign disinhibition). He characterizes online disinhibition by six key factors, and three are particularly relevant when describing what makes messaging experiences special and different from other forms of social interaction:
- Invisibility: People experience a reduced sense of social anxiousness because they are ‘hidden behind the screen,’ which can make them feel less shy and more comfortable opening up. In addition, personal details that they may feel limited by in real life, such as gender, sexual orientation, weight, age, or occupation, are more concealable.
- Asynchronicity: Unlike face-to-face, phone, or live chat conversations, messaging allows people to take as much time as they need to respond to one another. This reduces social pressure because they can process the conversation on their own time and return to it when they are willing and better able to hear the response.
- Minimization of status and authority: When communicating with others online, a person’s status in the face-to-face world may not have as much impact. That’s because the Internet is easily accessible to anyone with a device and wifi, regardless of their status, location, or wealth, which creates a more level playing field.
Already, it’s easy to see across various messaging mediums that we’re experiencing a moment of being “in it together,” regardless of who we are or where we live. But for businesses thinking about making the move to messaging, here’s how four organizations, early adopters, leaned in to messaging as a way to foster more authentic, accessible, and human experiences.
[Related read: Messaging is open for business. Are brands ready?]
4 examples of when messaging makes sense
Online dating might have carried a stigma in the past, but by 2017 became the most common way to meet someone. Messaging plays a fundamental role in the development of relationships that start online, particularly on dating apps such as Hinge, Tinder, and JSwipe—a Jewish dating app that connects like-minded people looking for love around the world. So much so that JSwipe launched JSwipe Love Stories so that successful couples can access their first messaging conversations.
“We use messaging tools to help you express your interest and get to know someone,” said David Yarus, the founder of JSwipe. “With the right questions, you can determine if the relationship is worth further exploring or not. Most importantly, it helps you avoid any potentially awkward or uncomfortable encounters with someone showing up on a date that you realize in the first few minutes you’d rather not be on.”
JSwipe recently celebrated the engagement of Lori and Sam, one of the many happy couples that met on JSwipe. Messaging played a particularly important role in their love story because Lori is from South Africa and Sam is from Manchester, England. They first communicated through the app’s native messaging feature and later through texting, which eventually led to an in-person trip, and the rest is history.
Studies have even shown that relationships that start online are stronger than those that begin in real life. One of the advantages of meeting potential love interests through dating apps is that being ‘hidden behind the screen’ helps to reduce the impact of rejection because it filters out “gating features,” like shyness and nervousness, that may prevent people from being open and honest in a face-to-face conversation.
Studies have even shown that relationships that start online are stronger than those that begin in real life.
“People don’t have to worry about how they look or sound when they type a message. They don’t have to worry about how others look or sound in response to what they say,” writes Suler. “Seeing a frown, a shaking head, a sigh, a bored expression, and many other subtle and not so subtle signs of disapproval or indifference can inhibit what people are willing to express.”
This sense of invisibility in messaging conversations combined with the perception of common interests, as most dating apps are based on algorithms that connect similar people, better enables people to be their most authentic selves and helps to increase self-disclosure, two key factors to relationship development.
For example, for someone who identifies as LGBTQ+ and may not be publicly out, online dating can give them more freedom to explore their sexuality. In fact, one study showed that 65 percent of same-sex couples that got together in 2017 met online. Messaging can offer a safer and more discreet way of communicating with romantic partners compared to places people traditionally meet, such as at a bar, where they are more likely to run the risks that come with ‘being seen,’ such as being judged by others around them or running into someone they know.
Or, for people with introverted personality types, messaging a potential match before meeting them in person can alleviate some social pressure. And, because messaging is asynchronous, there’s greater control over the time and pace of interactions, which can empower people to open up with more confidence.
And, because messaging is asynchronous, there’s greater control over the time and pace of interactions, which can empower people to open up with more confidence.
However, Yarus also notes that there are two sides to this experience. “One is, you have people expressing themselves fully and truly, feeling empowered to share exactly who it is they are. The other is that, as with any social network, communicating through devices and screens sometimes results in bad-apples being more rude or disrespectful,” he explained. “Make no mistake, the magic happens in person, but technology and effectively using messaging and chat features can help you get there in the most efficient, effective, comfortable, and sometimes even fun way.”
Messaging isn’t just transforming how we traditionally date and form relationships, it’s disrupting legacy mental healthcare experiences, too. For example, Talkspace, an online and mobile therapy company, uses text therapy to enable patients to get mental health counseling from a licensed therapist anytime, anywhere.
One of the key benefits of therapy through messaging lies in the minimization of status and authority as it makes mental health care more accessible. There are many barriers that prevent people from accessing traditional mental healthcare, including cost and stigma, according to Talkspace. Text therapy can help people navigate these barriers and receive mental health care they may not have been able to otherwise access.
“By offering care at a lower cost than most traditional therapy sessions and through the privacy, comfort, and flexibility of text therapy, we’re able to make therapy more accessible to all,” said Talkspace.
The asynchronous nature of text therapy also plays an important role in the experience. TalkSpace explained that some patients find it less intimidating to have the power to take time to think about what they want to communicate to their therapist and when, rather than being confined by a pre-scheduled time.
“It's important that individuals feel a sense of empowerment and choice in their mental health care. There are some days when it's hard ‘to go there’ and other days where it feels a little easier,” said TalkSpace. By giving people the flexibility to choose how and when they discuss potentially triggering topics, issues can be resolved in a way and time frame that feels more manageable.
One of the key benefits of therapy through messaging lies in the minimization of status and authority as it makes mental health care more accessible.
While opening up to a therapist you’ve never seen in person might be a new experience, not looking at them while you do so isn’t. In fact, Suler even compares the invisibility effect people experience when communicating with others online to a psychoanalytic therapy session: “According to traditional psychoanalytic theory, the analyst sits behind the patient in order to remain a physically ambiguous figure, revealing no body language or facial expression, so that the patient has free range to discuss whatever he or she wants without feeling inhibited by how the analyst is physically reacting,” he wrote. Text therapy can foster a similar experience.
Similar to the role invisibility plays in online dating for those who experience social anxiety or stigma when expressing themselves in person, it creates a safer space for opening up to a therapist as well because it adds an additional layer of privacy. In fact, roughly 60 percent of TalkSpace users have never been to therapy before, often because of the stigma society associates with mental health issues. “With stigma being one of the biggest reasons that stop individuals from seeking care, messaging allows a level of comfort that face-to-face does not,” explained Talkspace.
Another company in the health and wellness space that’s using messaging to offer newer, more patient-focused experiences is MDacne, an acne app where patients can message dermatologists and receive treatment personalized to their unique skin type.
Similarly to TalkSpace, accessibility was a key factor when deciding to be an online-only service and to use messaging as opposed to in-person appointments. “There is a lack of access to dermatology today. I founded MDacne with my father to change that,” said Oded Harth, co-founder and CEO at MDacne. He has a background in tech and his father is a dermatologist, and MDacne brings the two worlds together.
Harth explained that at any given moment 500 million people experience acne, but only 10 percent see a dermatologist because it can be expensive and complicated. MDacne’s mission is to democratize dermatology by giving everyone access to it who has a mobile phone, and it’s able to do so through messaging and AI.
Patients take a selfie and complete a quiz, and dermatologists, with the help of AI algorithms, match them with a personalized treatment. Once patients start treatment, they can message dermatologists within the app an unlimited amount of questions and always receive a quick reply.
MDacne’s mission is to democratize dermatology by giving everyone access to it who has a mobile phone, and it’s able to do so through messaging and AI.
Again, privacy is another important part of the experience. People often experience embarrassment when dealing with acne, so being able to get help in private, through messaging conversations, makes it easier and more comfortable to talk about.
According to Harth, the asynchronous and sessionless nature of messaging makes the experience more human. Traditional dermatology can often feel transactional since patients tend to be left on their own after receiving treatment. But by proactively message patients to continuously check-in, MDacne providers ensure that there is a human touch at every step of the journey. “Being able to have a continuous conversation with your customers after they get your product is powerful because it shows them that they are not on their own and that they have a partner,” said Harth.
Harth believes that getting messaging right is about balancing the power of tech with that essential human touch. “Tech with human guidance is the way to go. Tech makes life easier and increases accessibility, but humans are important for emotional support,” explained Harth. “For our patients, that’s knowing there is someone you can ask questions to and get answers from right away.”
Harth believes that getting messaging right is about balancing the power of tech with that essential human touch.
Plus, most of the providers at MDacne have dealt with acne themselves. “It makes for a more empathetic and compassionate experience knowing you can always send a message and get a response from someone who has been through a similar experience as you,” said Harth. The app also has a community filled with heart and clap emojis where customers can message each other and share progress photos.
[Related read: Empathy and humanistic design are customer service game changers]
4. hims and hers
When it comes to sexual health and education, it can feel especially difficult to start the conversation as there tends to be a stigma around topics such as birth control and sexually transmitted diseases. hims and hers uses messaging and other forms of telemedicine to connect patients with a qualified physician licensed in their state to start their diagnosis, and talk about potential treatments—all from the privacy of their home.
The sense of invisibility in messaging can make conversations about awkward topics more natural. Since patients cannot be seen, it can feel more safe and less embarrassing to talk about their sexual health. For instance, a young girl who wants access to birth control but is afraid of running into someone she knows at her local Planned Parenthood can ask questions from the privacy of her bedroom.
The sense of invisibility in messaging can make conversations about awkward topics more natural.
The asynchronous nature of messaging is also important to the hims and hers experience. “Modern healthcare is complex, and many struggle to obtain, process, communicate and understand important health options available to them,” explains Adrian Rawlinson, MD and VP Medical Affairs, hims/hers. Being able to process what a doctor is saying to you on your own time and ask follow up questions as they come up, can enable people to become more engaged in their health.
Similar to Talkspace and MDacne, minimization of status and authority is another key factor as being able to have conversations with a doctor through a smartphone or computer, without having to physically be in a doctor’s office, is a step towards making healthcare more accessible and affordable, according to hims and hers.
To keep pace with the future, brands will have to determine which technologies are right for their business. But incorporating emerging technologies, like messaging, shouldn’t only be about optimization, efficiency, or reducing costs—it should also be about building better relationships. The secret sauce to delivering exceptional messaging experiences is to make those interactions human, or feel as human as possible. When companies get messaging right, they can create a safer space for people to communicate freely and be their most authentic selves.