ASMR: a tingly whisper banned by the Chinese government.
Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response (ASMR) refers to a tingling, or at least pleasant, sensation some people feel when they hear what can be best described as soft scraping, tapping or rustling sounds. Most commonly, those sounds are something like the gravelly sound of a whispering human voice, two sheets of paper slipping past each other, soft tapping on a something hollow, a plastic bag being crumpled or just about anything similar that is recorded through a microphone placed extremely close to the sound source. But ASMR can also be triggered by something tactile, like peeling the protective plastic off of a brand-new television screen, or visual by the movement of hands or lips.
For some (not me, admittedly) it’s purported to be audiovisual bliss, delivering an opioid-like rush to the listener/viewer—perhaps it’s the other side of the nails-on-a-chalkboard coin. In any case, the explosive growth of content tagged with #ASMR on social video sites has led to a lot of questions about its triggers, benefits, risks and long-term social impact. And, as mentioned in the header of this section, the Chinese government became so concerned, it banned the posting (or at least tagging) of ASMR videos entirely over concerns that the content was pornographic. Which, I have to assume, means someone in the Chinese government really enjoys ASMR videos.
How popular is ASMR?
A Google search for the term “ASMR video” returns more than 98 million results. Digging a bit deeper into Google Trends, we see interest growing at an accelerating rate globally. Obviously, there’s a great and growing segment of the population who (unlike me) are finding a deep connection to the subject matter.
So, what are the economics of ASMR?
With more than 640 million views, the leading ASMR channel on YouTube (only one of many), gentlewhispering, reportedly generates more than $500,000 in revenue annually. Given those numbers, you likely wouldn’t be surprised to discover that several brands have jumped onto the very quiet ASMR bandwagon.
During the 2019 Super Bowl, Michelob Ultra debuted a commercial featuring Zoe Kravitz whispering, scraping, tapping … you know, all the ASMR things, with a bottle of beer. The idea was to create for consumers a physical experience at a distance.
IKEA did a bit of ASMR homework and produced “Oddly Ikea,” a 25-minute-long commercial, featuring the sounds of hands gently caressing some crisp, new bedsheets, dragging along a comforter, rustling clothes on hangers in the closet and the like. At the time of this writing, it has garnered more than 2.6 million views.
If you take a moment to Google ASMR ad, you’ll find somewhere near 100 million results. Obviously, the Mad Men have discovered its pull. But what about a more esoteric application in customer experience design? Let’s investigate.
Adding ASMR triggers to UX design
Sound is generally overlooked by most UX designers. But careful use of audio feedback can provide a much richer and more intuitive user experience. And, when considering specific ASMR triggering sounds, one should assume, a more physically satisfying experience. The movement of a mouse or the dragging of a finger across a mobile device may be perfect moments to add a soft scraping sound. Add a soft tapping sound to wait screens? It seems better than a spinning rainbow beach ball. And let’s not forget the possibility of leveraging visual ASMR triggers. Instead of a static portrait of a model, why not a silent shot of that model mouthing a few choice phrases. An interesting potential example of this (and I am unsure if ASMR was the intent) might be answerthepublic.com. From the beard to the big wool sweater to the continuous movement and mouthing of words, it seems like no coincidence.
Adding ASMR triggers to physical experiences
Even the most dyed-in-the-wool online businesses are creating physical retail experiences. Warby Parker, Casper Mattress, Indochino—even Amazon. With the ASMR trend in kind, it may be time to eschew smooth polished surfaces and incorporate a bit more sand-like texture on checkout counters. Perhaps rustling layers of cellophane between items of clothing and their hangers. Or, punctuating the store experience with extended soft bursts of compressed air. A bead/pellet fountain? I guess I’ll leave the specifics to interior designers who, unlike myself, can actually experience ASMR.
So, you can. But should you?
I wouldn’t consider invoking ASMR for ASMR’s sake, good experience design or smart branding, per se. Every expression of your business and the design of every connection with a customer is to be considered in the full context of your positioning and your goals. However, there’s no reason ASMR shouldn’t be one more tool in the experience design toolbox. All other conditions being equal, why wouldn’t you want your customer to be pleasantly tingly inside?