How shared experiences deliver positive outcomes
Sporting events, such as the Olympics which are currently taking place, are great shared experiences - with people gathering together to watch on TV. In a world where our entertainment seems to be consumed more individually than ever, given the vast array of choice available, flexibility of when to watch it and device to watch it on, then it’s interesting to see the way people choose to be in one place and watch something they could just as easily do at home by themselves. Shared experiences seem valuable to us: but why?
A sense of shared experience is of course defined by the temporal dimension: it is only possible by everyone doing it at the same time. With this in mind, we can see that sharing an experience means we do not necessarily need to know each other (e.g. cinemas) or indeed even be in the same room (e.g. social media). In fact, we can argue that watching broadcast TV is a shared experience even if the viewer is by themselves.
Whilst we have long understood that shared experiences have real value, there has been a lack of evidence to support this assertion: we looked around to see what evidence we could find to help us understand the value of sharing.
Hedonic value of shared experiences
One of the best known pieces of research is by psychologist Erica Boothby and team who looked at the impact of shared experiences on ‘hedonic’ perceptions. They recruited 23 students who then met another participant and told they would be completing the study at the same time. Unknown to the students, the ‘other participant’ was in fact part of the research team.
The pair were briefed that they would engage in several activities, including tasting chocolate and looking at a booklet of paintings, while both sitting together at a table. They were advised they would each individually complete the activities in random order but, in reality, the student was always only assigned to taste the two chocolates. One chocolate was tasted at the same time as the second participant and the other while the second participant was doing a different task, looking at the booklet.
Although the chocolate samples were described as two different chocolates, they were actually squares taken from the same bar. The students gave high liking scores for the chocolate they had tasted at the same time as the other participant. In comparison, the chocolate they had tasted while the other participant was doing a different task (looking at the booklet) was rated lower. This surely suggests that the simple act of sharing can influence our hedonic experiences.
To find out whether sharing intensifies specific feelings (positive or negative), the researchers then tasked another group of students to taste a bitter ‘chocolate substitute’ (in fact just 90% dark chocolate, which pre-testing had shown to be unpleasant). This time, the students said that they liked the ‘shared’ chocolate less. They also reported feeling more absorbed in the tasting experience when tasting the chocolates at the same time.
The researchers suggest this shows that sharing an experience with someone else may then focus our attention, making us more attuned to what we are perceiving.
Implications of this
It is clear from this that our social nature means we are drawn to shared experiences – even if the occasion is not explicitly about ‘sharing’. This helps us to understand the desire for people to attend festivals, go to nightclubs, attend football matches and so on. Life feels better when we do things with our fellow human beings.
There is a case to be made here for broadcast or ‘synchronised’ TV viewing of course: the value of shared activity has not escaped Netflix who recently announced they will be experimenting with the release schedules of two reality TV shows, The Circle and Too Hot to Handle (via The Hollywood Reporter). Instead of releasing all of the episodes at once, they will release them over the course of a month, with each show having a batch of episodes released once a week.
Not only does sharing seem to support our shared experience and therefore it seems, our hedonic experience, but there are a range of other impacts that have direct commercial implications:
Attention: Social context was found to affect viewers’ attention allocation to TV commercials. Moorman et al. (2012) found that watching a sports event on TV in the company of other people enhances the amount of attention paid to the commercials shown during that show. The authors suggest that watching sports events in social contexts enhances commercial exposure because individuals are less inclined to switch channels during commercial breaks.
Emotion: Some studies have found that experiencing ad messages in social contexts enhances emotional engagement. Csikszentmihalyi and Kubey (1981), for instance, report that co-viewing is a more emotionally engaging experience than solitary viewing.
Memory: Puntoni and Tavassoli (2007) showed that with print ads the recall of words that appeal to social desirability occurs faster when the participants are in the mere presence of one other person, compared to being alone.
Preference and Purchase Behaviour:Mora (2015) proposed that ad consumption in a social context leads to the activation of within-person goals, which directly influences consumer purchase behaviour, as well as the activation of person–environment goals, which affects purchase behaviour directly or through social interaction (Ariely and Levav 2000).
It seems that a range of studies on advertising effectiveness clearly indicate that social settings affect the way consumers experience advertising messages.
It is something of a cliché that humans are social animals – we intuitively understand this but the case for why and what the implications are have not always been made. This has changed somewhat during COVID as we have been able to understand more clearly the inter-connected nature of our lives. We are starting to see the very tangible benefits of shared experiences on a range of attributes that should surely offer guidance for marketers, policy makers and indeed TV schedulers.