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Voicing Emotion in an Age of Data-Driven Marketing

Voicing Emotion in an Age of Data-Driven Marketing

Louise Martens

digital photo of woman wearing sunglasses

Tips on how to strike the right balance between the use of data and creating emotionally resonant content

Data is critical to today’s marketing efforts. It can help us identify our audiences and boost our creativity to drive tangible business results, brand awareness or cultural change. And predictive analytics can give us a pretty good idea about how things might look in the future.

But using data can be tricky because it often misses context. Lean on it too much and your messaging becomes predictable—or worse, tone-deaf to what’s happening in the world. Not enough, and you lose precious insight into your audience. But for any message to land and genuinely connect with its audience, it must resonate emotionally with the real live people on the other end of our campaigns.

So in this time of artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning and predictive analytics, how can we reliably lean on data yet still create messaging and creative content that resonates with human beings? Here are some tips on how to strike the perfect balance.


Balance Data with a Human Touch

Being in tune with your customers is not just a best practice, it’s a must-have in today’s world—and most definitely in times of crisis. During a crisis, many brands freeze in a panic pause, not knowing how to contribute to or navigate topics for fear of making missteps—and rightfully so. As we’ve seen in the past weeks and months, the price of being tone-deaf can not only be devastating but also nearly irreparable.

First-party data can be extremely powerful for understanding customer sentiment during changing times. People will likely consume content or navigate your ecosystems differently (for example, visiting support pages instead of conversion pages). While that’s good intelligence to have, it can only tell you what’s happening, not why. Human interpretation in the context of current events is absolutely critical to transforming any data you collect into insights that can help you move forward with purpose, confidence and empathy.

Here are some guidelines on managing data during changing times:

  • Data should inform—but never dictate—creative. It can help guide you or prove creative ideas. But creative work can (and should) be emotional at times. (That’s where the human touch comes in.) So use data as a guidepost, not the endgame, to keep creative real.

  • Culture moves faster than data. By the time you’ve collected, synthesized, and analyzed the data, it’s already out of date. If you want to bring about and respond to cultural change, you need to be a step ahead all the time, analyzing data from a human perspective and in the context of current events.

  • Effective marketing and advertising is a combination of art and science. Understand who you’re trying to reach and what you’re trying to accomplish, and then decide how much weight to place on data and creativity.

  • There are times when you’ve got to ditch the data. Data will often point toward a strong path to take. But really good creative is about being human and taking risks—so try new things. Do the unexpected. Yes, it’s okay to ignore the data. Sometimes doing the exact opposite of what the data indicates (while keeping social context in mind) can have surprising and effective outcomes.

Build Teams That Authentically Create Emotionally Resonant Work

How do you create work that resonates emotionally? The short answer is to be a human first, and see your customers as such.

Here’s the slightly longer answer. There’s something to be said about rallying like-minded people around a brand, industry or mission. It can be extremely powerful. But there’s also something to be said about consuming content, advertising and media featuring people who look or think differently than you. That’s how we grow and connect with others, and it’s how we prioritize the collective whole, rather than just ourselves. “Diversity is everywhere and in everything that we do,” says Warren Chase, chief operating officer at digital marketing agency Firewood. “To create messaging that is empathetic and resonates emotionally, diversity has to be an authentic part of the process at every stage.”

While it’s nearly impossible to build creative teams that mirror every audience you’re trying to reach, you can build a creative team that mirrors the society in which you operate. Diversity on teams—of race, gender identity, age, education, experience—is absolutely necessary to create richness in your work.

But in addition to the traditional ways we think about diversity, consider looking for creative talent in nontraditional places. “Talent might not come packaged how you expect it,” says Vanessa Lai, senior creative director at MediaMonks, who has built a successful career in creative design without a college degree. “Bring in people with diversity of thought—poets, philosophers, sociologists—or diversity of skill sets like people who build robots, or teach or conduct research.” Creativity can come from anywhere. Diversity of thought and different, fresh perspectives creates natural tension and out-of-the-box thinking that can push innovation and take creativity to new heights.

Is It Possible to Bring Emotion into an AI-Driven World?

AI is all around us, literally everywhere in our lives. It’s driving recommendation engines for sites like Amazon and Netflix, audience targeting on sites like Facebook and content suggestions on Instagram. It’s helping us achieve scale, speed and efficiency. Adoption rates are increasing rapidly as the technology becomes more widely available. However, while the technology may be able to target more specific groups of people for ads and recommend similar items based on more complex criteria, a major hurdle concerns our ability to teach AI through machine learning, how to empathize while avoiding the ingrained biases of those setting the ground rules of its learning.

Recently, Lai and several colleagues experienced the effect of ingrained biases firsthand: After interacting with a number of posts on social media themed around racial injustice, they were suddenly served ads for Black beauty products. This points to an algorithm using too-simplified rules to bucket people into categories in which it assumes that people in those categories are all alike. This algorithm did not—and, based on current technology, could not—understand the developing situation in the world that provided the context for which they had interacted with those posts. And for many viewers, this shortcoming could be interpreted as a racially reductionist (and thus insensitive) move on the platform’s or advertiser’s part.

Empathy is what makes us human. It’s why things go viral. With the adoption of AI gaining momentum, is automated empathy or emotion the next step? Is it even possible? What level of empathy do we need to create and who ultimately governs that across different cultures and contexts? How do you solve for unconscious bias or intersectionality? That’s a very slippery slope and opens a whole slew of ethical issues. Until we’re able to create artificial empathy, AI will be limited to somewhat superficial comparisons and bucketing based on past actions.

Final Thoughts

So how do you reliably lean on data without being tone-deaf, completely missing the mark or disappointing your audience? How do you create empathetic, emotionally resonant messages that will engage and inspire? It’s simple: Be a human first. Use data to inform, but keep your focus on the real, breathing humans at the other end of your campaigns.

This article contains contributions by Warren Chase, COO at digital marketing agency Firewood; Michiel Schriever, executive creative director at Firewood; and Vanessa Lai, senior creative director at MediaMonks.

Louise Martens is global head of embedded production at MediaMonks.