• Outlooks

Optimizing for love: how sentiment and emotion is evolving online.

We humans are a savvy bunch. Every time a new technology emerges, we create unexpected ways to express the human condition. We have to because more often than not, the digital experiences we create tend to put the nuances of human emotion in the back seat of our machine-mediated, networked world where productivity and value reign.

Bringing complex emotions to digital

One only has to look at the world’s largest social network to see how being social is focused more on connectivity and revenue than meaningful communication. Of all the transformative features Facebook has rolled out over its existence – from photo tagging to the social graph – Facebook operated for five years until it created something that could allow users to quickly say, “I like this.” And Since 2009, “Like” is all we’ve been able to do. Its only mandate was to surface content, but the Like button was a huge success because it could quickly communicate the way users felt about content. If a wider range of emotion was required, they were forced into the bigger commitment of a comment or post.

That all changed in October of 2015, when Facebook started to conduct tests in Ireland and Spain on six new emoji-like graphics designed to augment the Like button with more sentiment. It signaled Facebook’s realization of something it couldn’t ignore anymore: the network’s users needed to express emotion with more complexity. Rumors of an “Unlike” flourished for years, but Facebook finally decided to go with Emoji’s over something more proprietary. For the most part, “Reactions” have been well received since they were rolled into the feeds of Facebook users around the world. So one has to wonder what took so long?

Facebook reactions - like, love, haha, yay, wow, sad, angry

Facebook reactions

Deeper connections between brand and consumer

Marketers trying to create emotional bonds between an organization or brand and its intended audience is nothing new. But fostering these connections in the digital-first era, and measuring its effect on user sentiment, has proved much more complex than throwing media dollars at a jingle about buying the world a soda and watching sales go up – Don Draper had it so easy. But like Draper’s last epiphany of creativity in the final moments of Mad Men, where his spiritual advisor spoke of a “new day” spawning “new ideas,” three things have matured to a state that’s helping brands develop deeper, digitally-fostered relationships with their audiences:

1) Mobility – Where the battlefield for human emotion in the austerity of a network is at its most immediate. This is where Facebook likely found the inspiration for “Reactions,” and finally solved the one-dimensionality of the Like. Our need to express the complexities of the human condition in micro-moments of communication on mobile devices has helped to gestate an entirely new, rich and complex language driving the user experience of the digital things we create.

2) Big data – The 25 billion smart devices we are connected to on a daily basis have not only helped develop a digitally mobile society, they’ve created one that’s generating unprecedented amounts of information about ourselves: what we do, when we do it, where, why, and arguably more importantly, what we like and what we don’t.

3) Algorithms – Remember Microsoft’s Clippy? Well, thanks to algorithms, bots suddenly seem cool again. With all that big data at our disposal, and a suite of mobile-first messaging apps to live in, the 2.0 era of interactive bots stands to not only stick around, but entirely change the way we experience content. Suddenly navigation seems a little outdated.

Innovating for emotion

Mobile devices, big data, and algorithms are helping to create products that can arguably be seen as the foundation of everyday interactions with an artificial intelligence. We’re not there yet, but the door to creating personalized, digital experiences that have the potential to develop deep emotional bonds with their end user is, without doubt, wide open. Think Slackbot, and Facebook’s recent announcement that developers will be able to build their own service-based chat bots inside its Messenger Platform. Paired with the data a feature like Reactions can arm it with, what’s to stop a bot from taking into account your emotional state and adjusting tone and content to act accordingly? That is to say, acting human. Could a real-life scene similar to what we saw in the 2013 Spike Jonze film, Her, be that far away? Can marketers be close to using sentiment to develop experiences that deepen emotional bonds instead of just measuring it?

KLM Airlines on Facebook Messenger

KLM Airlines / Facebook Messenger

Let’s hope so, because a recent Forrester survey of senior marketers uncovered that while they believe in the value of digital, 56% have yet to elevate their strategies from a tactical effort to a brand-building one. Is it because of the limitations involved with successfully using digital technology to generate the emotional connections that are so integral to advertising? Is that why Facebook took so long to offer a wider range of sentiment engagement options? Maybe it’s because we don’t fully understand human emotion in the analog world, never mind the digital one. Throughout my research, I have found evidence we’ve been debating the essence of emotion since the late 19th Century – and it continues today.

No wonder innovation in the digital space is so often focused on making life better, but often not more meaningful. A meaningful experience seems easier to obtain by creating things that solve problems or add value to our lives. However, the byproduct of this approach might only be contributing to further inundation of digital experiences simply trying to make us more productive by making conversation, community, and work easier.

Developing emotional bonds with the things we use through creativity and product design, surprise and delight expressions of UX, and whip-smart content will always be important, but we’ve hit a saturation point. Moving the evolutionary needle towards a purely emotional digital experience, with products and experiences that can respond to a user’s emotional state at any given moment, seems like a more innovative way to create value than merely connecting us with a beautifully designed object in an intuitive way. Making users fall in love with something, once the magic of marketing has worn off, is the hard part. We just can’t do it the way Steve Jobs used to anymore. Which is why the glory days of Apple seem behind us, and mobile innovation seems stalled on iterations of processor speed, screen size, and case bevels.

Her film 2013

Her (2013)

Whether or not deeply emotional relationships with synthetically generated objects and experiences are things we should look forward to, we still need better ways to facilitate the expression of emotion online. For now, Facebook’s Reactions feature, and the opening up of the Messenger Platform to developers to make their own bots, is a step forward. As for users, Reactions has helped finally express a wider range of emotions online at a personal level. But even if Facebook’s experiment doesn’t succeed in the long-term, I’m sure we’ll always be coming up with new and interesting way to show some love online. We humans are like that.

David Look Creative Strategist