Why Emotion Matters

Emotional intelligence is what separates man from machine. Get it right, and we can connect with anyone in a genuine way, generate whole new industries, and not just survive the automation revolution, but thrive within it. Happen’s StarMaker tool helps brands get there by scouring millions of online comments for peaks in emotion that show us what customers really want.

Humans have an inherent need to make connections. Just ask Mark Zuckerberg and his more than two billion customers. Technology has enabled those links to happen faster than ever before, and in more and more unexpected places. But what is each of those connections worth? For an activist living under censorship, they can be invaluable; for a teenager blitzed with thinspo on Instagram, alarmingly damaging.

As social networks multiplied into the monolithic tech giants we see today, they began to understand the nuances of what they had created. A mass of communication with the power to bring people together and make the human social network digital; but also the power to alienate and isolate, to exaggerate rather than diminish the problems already facing people in the real world. The missing link, that can transform an all-consuming endless scroll, our digital lives and our conversations with brands, into a genuine joy based on true connections, is emotion.

Emotion underpins loyalty and drives purchases

Emotion is behind every choice we make and every relationship we form – with strangers, or with brands. When Pepsi tried to show it had the finger on the pulse, it fell flat on its face with an advert inspired by #BlackLivesMatter and other protests. The advert was borne from an awareness of the increasing rise in social activism. But by failing to understand or reflect the complexities of the issues involved, including the emotions driving and informing them, it missed the mark and faced a barrage of criticism.

Professor Jos van Berkum, a cognitive neuroscientist at Utrecht University, is working on breaking down the very substance of our interactions, and how words, tone of voice and even emojis, elicit emotions. He is convinced this will enable “more successful interventions in society”.

“The motive states that are part and parcel of emotions, evaluations and moods control much of your everyday behaviour, from the supermarket you go to and the stuff you buy there to the people you seek out,” he wrote in a 2017 paper. “They also determine whether you read on or whether you cast this paper aside, and whether you mentally explore certain ideas or not. [They] need not be very strong to exert this control, and we may not be aware of how they tug at us at all.”

If emotions drive our decisions, then brands using the right language to elicit the desired emotions can have an enormous impact. This is what every marketing campaign strives for. But if we could track and evaluate real emotions, probabilities would turn into near certainties. This approach is fast becoming a necessity – missing the mark can lead to volatile dips in revenue in a competitive climate. In the months following the Cambridge Analytica scandal, advertising clicks on Facebook dropped by 20 per cent. It doesn’t matter how big a company is – they are not protected from fluctuations in consumer emotions, particularly when it comes to something as integral as brand trust.

Instances like this go to the part emotion plays in modifying our identity and beliefs. “Emotions play a crucial role in what we often experience as ‘rational’ reasoning and decision making, regardless of whether people are thinking about consumer products and medical treatments, or about a morally responsible course of action,” wrote van Berkum. “[They] also influence attention, memory encoding and retrieval… and the specific beliefs that people are inclined to commit themselves to.” So, elicit the correct emotion, and you will have a consumer’s attention, they will remember you, and they may be inclined to show loyalty.

Interrogate and act on real emotions

Silicon Valley is pouring millions into emotion analytics. Apple and Facebook have both acquired AI startups that read emotions from facial expressions (Emotient and FacioMetrics, respectively), and companies are using AI to track emotions from tone of voice (IBM Watson’s Tone Analyzer, used by customer service agents), or from the expressions of vast groups in stadiums (Snaptivity) or cinemas. Meanwhile, we are already allowing corporations to place microphones in our homes so we can enjoy voice-activated technology. Those microphones, and increasingly cameras, will combine with emotion AI tools to deliver compelling communications and adverts based on our personal desires. The likes of Google and Facebook know that if an AI cannot understand the nuances of human speech, particularly emotion, it will fail to connect with customers and surge into our schools, hospitals and offices as planned. Misstep here though, and the privacy implications will take decades to overcome.

“As innovators you have to tune in to the issues - to listen to people in their own environment. Formerly, we’d achieve this with half a dozen people. StarMaker let’s us listen to millions.”

David Walker, Happen Co-Founder

There is another way. Online conversations resemble an infinite source companies can harness to interpret emotions driving consumer decisions. Accustomed to communicating by text, people infuse their prose with expressions (and emojis) that make up for the absence of tones and visuals. They are also spontaneous and public – completely lacking the privacy pitfalls of voice, but imbued with an authenticity lacking in focus groups.

“Social media enabled people to participate in the conversation in a meaningful way,” says David Walker, Happen Co-Founder and CEO. “People comment online when they want to express an emotion – frustration (something to moan about), or to evangelise. We knew if we could get to those nuggets of data, they would be the two key ingredients needed to inspire progress.”

The quantity of data online is, of course, unwieldy – 6,000 tweets are sent every second. But unprompted reviews or Twitter rants are also likely to be far more genuine than market research data. “We wanted to get to the pieces of emotion that move people to action – that led us to build StarMaker,” says Walker.

StarMaker’s architects identified eleven emotions they wanted to capture, ranging from delight and excitement to anger and frustration. Emotion dictionaries were then generated, populated with words relevant to every industry. Blogs, news articles, forums, social media – anywhere where people come together to comment or debate became Happen’s curated focus group. StarMaker enabled us to filter the world’s biggest conversation by category, time and emotion.

It can be used to track the consumer response to product launches, enabling real time modification of marketing materials. But it can also be used to take a more tangential look at an entire category by seeking out emotions in as many related, but different contexts as possible.

“If a client wants to know more about the chicken category, for instance, but there are few reviews on supermarket websites, we can scour recipe reviews,” says Group Innovation Director David Hood, the chief architect behind StarMaker. “It’s about curating a bespoke data universe that is relevant to the business challenge and allows us to understand what unprovoked emotions are out there. We can understand the rules of a category long before designing the first innovation.”

Walker estimates that in just two or three weeks, a brand can gain an understanding that would take years of segmentation to achieve.

It also enables brands to listen in on the seemingly insignificant, mundane moments of joy and of despair, that can inspire serendipitous innovation. In the past, a startup like Uber may have been the result of casual conversations, venting frustrations among friends. Hear the same complaint enough, and it could spark an idea for intervention. But what if you could dip into those conversations, in an objective way, at whim?

“As innovators you have to tune in to the issues – to listen to people in their own environment,” says Walker. “Formerly, we’d achieve this with half a dozen people. StarMaker let’s us listen to millions.”

Shaping the future

When voice technology does eventually penetrate the market and is fully accepted, opportunities will only grow. But understanding consumer emotion now, and speaking to consumers with the right language, is what will pave the way for that new age. Then, authentic, spontaneous consumer data will become even more abundant as retailers make it easier to submit reviews using voice.

For now, we must not underestimate the potential of the written word.

Already, we are seeing it is emotionally savvy chatbots that are in demand. More than 2.5 million people signed up to converse with chatbot companion Replika in one year, while CBT-trained AI therapist Woebot processes more than two million messages per week. As people become more and more accustomed to sharing their emotions with machines, online dialogue will become more and more natural.

For now, we need to keep listening.

“We are still at the beginning of our understanding of how language impacts emotion,” reminds van Berkum. “Psycholinguists need to understand why language works – how it does not only inform but also affect other people. In that puzzle, emotion is not peripheral, but the key.”

This article is part of Happen’s Emotion Matters series. Watch this space for more insights on how emotion analytics stand to transform every industry – from helping companies understand what inspires employees, to revealing the unmet opportunities in healthcare.