Voicing Emotion in an Age of Data-Driven Marketing

Ensuring A.I., machine learning and predictive analytics resonates with real people

This essay is part of Data + Creativity 2020, a Muse by Clio insight report exploring that critical intersection in marketing—and how to leverage it to create more impactful work. Click here to download the full PDF report of 12 essays, or here to read them on the Muse site.

Data is absolutely critical to today's marketing efforts. Data can help us identify our audiences—who they are, what they like, how they live and more. It can also help achieve creativity that can drive tangible business results, brand awareness or cultural change. And predictive analytics can give us a pretty good idea of 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 even worse, tone-deaf to what's happening in the world. Don't lean on it 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, feeling people on the other end of our campaigns. 

So in this time of artificial intelligence, machine learning and predictive analytics, how can we reliably lean on data yet still create messaging and creative content that resonate 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 be not only 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 out 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 are trying to reach and what you're trying to accomplish, and then decide how much weight to place on data, and how much on creativity. 

• There are times when you've got to ditch the data.
Many times data will point toward a strong path to take. But really good creative is about being human—and about taking risks. So try new things. Do the unexpected. Yes, it's OK 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 create emotionally resonant work authentically

So, how to create work that resonates emotionally? The short answer is to be a human first, and see your customers as humans first.

Here's the slightly longer answer. There's something to be said for rallying like-minded people around a brand, an industry or a mission. It can be extremely powerful. But there's also something to be said for consuming content, advertising and media featuring people who look different than you, people who think differently than you. That's how we grow, that's how we connect with people, and that'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. "And 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," explains 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 create 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 A.I.-driven world?

A.I. 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 A.I., 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 A.I. 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, A.I. 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, chief operating officer at digital marketing agency Firewood; Michiel Schriever, executive creative director at Firewood; and Vanessa Lai, senior creative director at MediaMonks.

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