Tech Goes Emo

There’s a soul-crushing moment in The Iron Giant when [spoiler alert] the alien robot chooses to save humans from an atomic bomb. The 1968 story by British Poet Laureate Ted Hughes presents one of the archetypal intersections of technology and humanity. It was science fiction then but, in the near fifty years that have since passed, the delta between tech and humans has narrowed. Today we live in a world where technology is closing in on what may be our most complex asset: emotion. And while the long-term impact unleashes a provocative range of possibilities, the more immediate effects are starting to be seen in customer engagement.
Emotion isn’t a new frontier in business, of course; sentiment analysis and emotional branding have been in practice long before they were formalized. Focus groups date at least as far back as World War II and Mad Men fans will likely recall Draper’s tryst with consumer-research (and consultant Faye Miller…) And, of course, as the 20th century progressed, technology joined customer insight’s analog tool sets. But it’s only more recently that tech-powered emotional analytics have really stepped into the spotlight.
What’s driving tech’s emo pursuits?
There is a certain inevitability to it all; for years now, artificial intelligence has made its way into countless sci-fi narratives, laying out a trajectory of sorts for innovation. But a more practical driving factor is the business case—the seismic shift in consumer behavior (thanks largely to on-demand content and mobile devices) has challenged brands by turning neatly defined channels and dayparts into an always-on free for all.  And while the ability to reach consumers anywhere/anytime sounds compelling on the surface, try accessing a highway without a designated on ramp. Without a construct for when to engage consumers, you need to be a lot smarter about making your move.
How is it done?
Fortunately, the same innovations that have muddied the waters of engagement offer a path to clarity. Mobile devices—the digital appendages that we eat, sleep and everything with—offer data on consumer needs, wants and, increasingly, emotions, all of which can be leveraged for targeting and overall strategy. Microsoft’s Project Oxford’s work, along with Apple’s recent acquisition of Emotient, have triggered recent buzz around facial recognition technology, while MediaCom’s announcement that they would use emotional tracking via facial detection in planning suggests that this is more than buzz.
There are also a growing number of offerings that use biometric feedback (like body temperature, sweat and heart rate) to gauge emotional response. Innerscope Research and Lightwave offer such technology, the latter recently partnered with 20th Century Fox to measure emotional reactions to The Revenant. Biometric data was also (not surprisingly) a topic of discussion at SXSW, with companies like Under Armour, Microsoft and Samsung coming together to discuss how it can be used to make marketing smarter.
It’s an insight upgrade for marketers
The data available through these various technologies isn’t simply a substitute for the traditional practice of marketing-by-assumption—it transcends it by providing marketers with a much more granular and actionable set of insights with which to make marketing decisions.
Further, what’s different today than say, 20 years ago, is that the same sort of technology that powers martech platforms is also available in consumer products. Smartwatches and fitness wristbands and bras are opening the door to a more emotionally-aware exchange between consumers and brands. As the technology proliferates, marketers have the opportunity to gain real-time insight into consumer’s emotional state at scale. (Focus groups start looking quaint, don’t they?)
Is it too creepy?
The response to this question often hinges on the value exchange—in other words, consumers are more likely to share information when they get something of value out of it. In the case of emotion tracking, the marketer’s endgame is to deliver more relevant and effective engagement opportunities by presenting messages or experiences that fit a specific moment and emotional mindset. As advertising becomes more attuned and responsive to consumer needs—offering information and utility instead of just taglines—it may evolve into something that feels more like a service than an imposition. (This can already be seen in mobile ads that offer features like store finders.) If it’s handled correctly on the brand, publisher and technology side (that is, with transparency), then the value exchange can work in the consumer’s favor.
Of course, there are benefits beyond marketing, too. Samsung’s Look at Me app is designed to help autistic children improve communication skills by, in part, helping them decode emotions, while the recent Be Fearless campaign showcases the ability to use virtual reality technology to cure phobias. Similarly, Stanford’s Virtual Human Interactions Lab is exploring virtual reality’s potential for building empathy. A number of similar programs are in use by the likes of the UN and Amnesty International. In other words, there are a lot of feel-good things happening in the world of emo-tech.
What next?
What does the future look like for a world where technology is attuned to our emotions? From a customer engagement perspective, emotional analytics enables clearer insight into consumer needs and general receptivity. Giving marketers the ability to make smarter decisions about how and when they engage consumers can have a positive impact on the relationship between brands and consumers, which is timely given the tension around ad blocking and oversaturation.
It’s also becoming easy to imagine a world where the information exchanged via, for example, wearables makes it possible to skip that intermediary message and allow brands to instantly respond to a current emotional need. Imagine getting a serotonin boost from your earbuds while riding the hyperloop to a lunch meeting in San Francisco? (This opens up a longer tangent about opting in, which we can save for another conversation.)
Despite great strides in emotional analytics, marketers are still in the discovery phase—learning what data is available and figuring out how to most effectively interpret and act on that data. So, there’s still a way to go before we reach many of the possibilities. And, along that way, a fair amount of trust needs to be in place for emotional analytics to be effective. That’s trust in brand, of course, but also in technology. Consumers need to see that tech can interpret complex emotions with reasonable accuracy and then, based on that insight, take the most favorable action—whether it be delivering the most relevant brand message or, well, saving us from an atomic bomb. You know, the simple stuff.