Brands need to understand their customers’ intentions.

By Ricardo Urías Ibáñez, managing director at Forward Media Spain.

Much of the interaction between humans is nonverbal. We give out clues to others about our innermost thoughts and feelings without saying a word. From the way we sit — cross-legged or akimbo — to the looks on our faces, our body language offers other people insights into our attitudes, emotions and states of mind.

Every salesperson knows the power of body language. The art of selling involves interpreting the expressions, gestures, tones of voice and eye movements of prospects and reacting to them instantly. If a prospect’s body language indicates that they want to buy a product but are unsure, the salesperson can give them a nudge in the right direction, reassuring them about the quality or offering them a deal on price.

But the interpretation of body language gets tricky online. The spread of e-commerce and the invisible behaviour of website visitors erects a barrier between seller and buyer. It reduces the salesperson’s ability to interpret the prospect’s feelings and makes the job of helping them choose the best product for them more difficult.

But help is at hand for digital marketers. The new and growing science of “digital body language” seeks to interpret the nonverbal signals that people give off as they surf the web. At our recent Forward management conference in Miami, we were given a fascinating presentation by a startup called Reactful, which operates in Silicon Valley and Tel Aviv, and specialises in digital body language.

Co-founder and chief executive Jonathan Friedman explained that Reactful’s technology lets marketers react to the signals users give out when they go online. Reactful’s systems analyse the user’s mouse movements, clicks, scrolling behaviour and the time spent on each element of a webpage. Then it allows website owners to react to this behaviour and encourage the user to taken an action, whether that is prompting them to complete a purchase, watch a video or fill in a form.

So for instance, if a visitor stops watching a video halfway through, Reactful allows the website to put up a message saying: “Hey, too busy? Not enough time for the video? Watch it and get a free sample!” Or if someone’s cursor is hovering over a buy button, Reactful can pick up on this and make the button shake or send a message of encouragement. Friedman says brands pay good money to Google’s search engine to attract people to their site. But once there, the brands have little power to interact with visitors and conduct a dialogue with them. Reactful helps brands create a deeper relationship with prospects and customers.

“The interesting thing about digital body language is it really parallels body language from the real world, where people exhibit behaviour which is not verbal but which means so much,” says Friedman. “Nowadays we are interfacing with machines daily so the more machines are able to grasp our needs in a very intuitive way, without us expressing every single thing we want, then the more powerful and relevant those machines will become,” he adds.

The startup, which works with brand owners such as Procter & Gamble and Kimberly Clark, offers brands access to its Reaction Studio, where marketers can programme reactions on to their web pages. First they decide the trigger they want to target — a half-filled in form say — then they can choose from a library of reactions. This allows them to decide if they want to be subtle or have more of a hard sell, to be amusing or serious. They can customise the colours, use templates, use brand templates and make sure the reaction is “on-brand”. So if a user lingers on a certain element of the page but hasn’t clicked on a button there, the marketer can programme a variety of persuasive actions — such as the button flashing, or for an animation to pop up encouraging the action.

Friedman says this is like having a salesperson sitting at the shoulder of every visitor, encouraging them to click through the website and take the most relevant actions.

As brands dispense with human salespeople and increasingly rely on digital persuasion, understanding digital body language will become ever more important. Optimising visits to webpages is vital in a competitive world where web users often have thousands of possibilities for purchase and exploration.

As we enter a new era of machine living, those machines will need to adopt capabilities that are in touch with human behaviour. Interpreting nonverbal digital communication is becoming a vital step in the journey to the future.