It’s 4.30pm on a Monday in late September.
Two friends share a table and piece of cake in a Bloomsbury coffee shop. They have reached the dark valley of afternoon exhaustion.
An attentive bystander observes an obscure behaviour: in the company of a person whose company they seem to cherish very much, both of them stare at their phones, placed on the table in front of them, continuously refreshing a variety of apps in shared silence.
This parallel individual action serves as a ritual that legitimises and frames their shared disengagement from the social interaction with each other.
The quiet and peaceful solitude which was for centuries associated with smoking breaks, has found a modern equivalent in the “social media break”. The behavioural pattern in which they engage carries meaning beyond the action itself that can easily be interpreted by an outsider.
Ritualising the digital
Defined as “dramatically scripted and acted out (…) with formality, seriousness, and inner intensity” (Rook, 1984, p.252 in Neal, Mizerski & Lee, 2008), when it comes to rituals in the digital sphere (such as the social media break mentioned above), they are surprisingly hard to pinpoint.
In writing this article, I spent a solid hour staring into the nothingness between me and my laptop, parsing online interactions in search of something that might qualify as a proper ritual: “a type of expressive, symbolic activity constructed of multiple behaviours that occur in a fixed, episodic sequence, and that tend to be repeated over time (…).” (ibid.)
Rituals thereby transcend habits: they are more than mere repetitions of behaviour. Unlike habits, they do not occur on auto-pilot. Instead, they are imbued with symbolism and meaning, instilling a greater degree of emotional involvement in the individual acting them out.
They are sequentially fixed with a clear beginning, middle and end, and sticky in that they are reused persistently. A ritual triggers emotion and carries meaning.
It connects individual behaviours to shared identity, a performance that allows the actor to define him/herself as a member of one particular group. Performing a ritual thus allows the performer to consciously reinforce their identity in a manner that is meaningful to an observer.
In pursuit of pleasure
Research by Vohs and colleagues (2013, discussed by the NYT) suggests that engaging in rituals (“a series of behaviors that are seemingly irrelevant to the act that follows” such as knocking on a table or breathing deeply) prior to eating food as diverse as carrots or chocolate, can increase the pleasure we feel both in the anticipation and experience of the act itself.
Those of us who engage in these kinds of eating rituals tend also to engage more mindfully with the experience. Similarly, consumption rituals that take place when shopping in-store (such as enjoying a habitual hot dog at IKEA), unwrapping anything with sealed packaging (such as a brand-new Macbook Air) and consuming products in a ritualistic fashion (think Oreo cookie orgies) not only add to, but frequently give rise to, the joy involved in many acts of consumption.
How to create rituals that work
If rituals can increase people’s enjoyment of products and brands offline, how can you create effective rituals that consistently bring customers back to your store and products online?
Firstly, rather than to create a ritual from scratch, observe how your customers use your product or service. What unexpected ritualistic behavioural patterns can you observe with some users that you can transpose to others?
By making use of behaviours that have already been exhibited by some users, you are more likely to popularise a ritual that feels organic and natural to the wider group.
Secondly, the ritual should be as specific, fixed and consistent as possible. By anchoring the ritual with contextual triggers such as a specific location, time or occasion, you increase the likelihood that customers will be enticed to engage in the ritual and, through regular engagement, grow accustomed to and appreciative of it.
This search for contextual triggers poses one of the challenges in transferring rituals of consumption to the digital sphere. Offline, sensations that are associated with rituals around consumption can trigger a behavioural pattern (for instance the smell of the bakery reminding you to walk into the store for your pre-work croissant in the morning).
Online, we have to make do with sensual triggers such as sound or imagery to give rise to ritualised behavioural patterns.
Thirdly, rituals should integrate symbolism consistent with the values and ideals of your brand, and they should relate to the act of consumption in a meaningful way. For instance, if your company promotes environmental sustainability, a consumption ritual that involves unwrapping several layers of superfluous packaging might be a poor choice.
Lastly, strong imagery that is easily memorised, understood, recognised and reproduced helps to popularise a ritual.