‘Tis the Season of Brand Emotion. Are You Listening?

How well does your brand truly understand consumer emotion? Equally important, how well do you understand the relationship between emotion and consumer-generated media (CGM)?

It’s a timely question, as the holiday season is in full bloom. ‘Tis the season for consumer emotion, from exuberance and cheerfulness to frustration and cynicism. After all, we’re usually juggling more balls than we can handle, racing to meet business and personal yearend goals while stressing over the challenges of reconnecting with family. We are less tolerant, have shorter fuses, and have impossibly high expectations around “service.”

This is critical context for brands. How people feel typically correlates with how much they talk, share, rant, rave, or communicate with others, which has real financial implications for brands. Remember, CGM doesn’t just act like media; in most cases, it’s more trusted, credible, and permanent than media. Most of the billions of archived consumer comments online owe their permanent residency to an emotional catalyst.

Empirical analysis suggests consumers who feel cheated and deceived over a late holiday shipment by e-commerce providers will tell others at a much higher rate than about other issues in which they feel disappointment or anger. I call this “situational virality,” and it extends to many other issues.

In the course of analyzing over a million letters on a consumer feedback portal, I clearly saw bad billing practices in the wireless industry generate higher word of mouth, or “CGM multiples,” than any other issue. There’s something about messing with money that triggers a raw betrayal feeling in consumers. Marketers often see betrayal at work (usually to their embarrassment) when a consumer perceives conspicuous gaps between advertised claims and product reality.

But let’s not forget the upside of positive emotion. A growing number of marketers are exploiting text mining to analyze millions of blogs, message boards, and forums. In doing, they find plenty of evidence that even the simplest things can trigger an unstoppable trail of viral passalong, such as a personal phone call from a manager to a customer; a thoughtful card; a piece of chocolate on a hotel pillow; a corporate blog that accepts comments; even a joke or silly song by a Southwest flight attendant.

Recent Study on Emotion

This fall, my company fielded the “Consumer Generated Media and Engagement Study.” The results made abundantly clear emotion is inseparable from the core motivations for speaking out or telling others.

“Being heard,” for example, is a core driver for spending time on message boards, forums, or ratings and reviews sites. This manifests from deeper needs of belonging and inclusiveness. For teens, being heard is at the heart of social currency. Our sense of self-worth, importance, and self-esteem often rest on how we validate our voice and what we have to say. Message boards and blogs do a wonderful job of satisfying these emotional needs because they provide a constant, perpetual feedback loop.

In general, marketers do a lousy job acting on emotion. Despite our suffocating rhetoric about consumer control and power, we’re not even close to managing three core drivers behind CGM creation: being heard, creating a dialogue with others, and finding a sense of community. We’re not terribly conversational, we’d rather not listen, and our marketing and consumer affairs departments live on separate islands. We’re also still anchored to one-to-mass marketing models that struggle to accommodate the more nuanced messaging prerequisites of our long-tail marketing world. To make matters worse, we’re now so grounded in a “Did they click?” online transaction culture and mindset that emotional fluency often takes the backseat.

Emotion and the Conversational Imperative

We need a deeper understanding of how different levels of emotion drive or kill business and what marketing tactics and strategies manage and respond to these tensions, not unlike how we target messaging to key audiences. For example, in the table below is a sample of emotions we probed as part of our CGM study. The primary mean score is a blended average to a question probing how many people a consumer would tell, and how fast, if she experienced the following emotion toward a brand.

Consumer-Generated Media by Emotion
Emotion Mean Index
Joy 6.7 119
Outrage 6.6 118
Fear 5.4 96
Frustration 5.3 94
Anger 5.2 93
Depression 4.5 80
Note: The mean score is a blended average of how many people a consumer would tell, and how quickly, if she experienced the following emotion toward a brand.
Source: “2005 Intelliseek Consumer Generated Media and Engagement Study”

The first surprise is joy, a positive emotion, correlates to the highest level of CGM. The second is outrage significantly scores higher than other negatives, such as frustration and anger.

The big miss in customer service operations, particularly during the holiday season, is that ostensibly efficient, rational systems fail to appropriately identify and respond to nuances in consumer emotion. If you read the textured nuances of Jeff Jarvis’s extended letter writing campaign to Dell, emotion evolved from benign anger to a CGM-intensive outrage. You don’t need an ROI (define) analysis to appreciate ultimate net cost and damage to the brands.

If brands are to have any hope of becoming more conversational, developing breakthrough corporate blogs, or simply keeping pace in a world where consumers are in the driver’s seat, they must anchor themselves more intimately to emotion. Here are some critical questions we should ask ourselves:

  • Listening and consumer empowerment: Do we truly value listening in our organizations, and does the absence of a listening culture make consumers feel differently about us?
  • First impressions: Are our online service interfaces accommodating or alienating consumers who seek emotional gratification in being heard? What’s the net cost of coming across as rude and indifferent?
  • Feedback loops/Call-center transcripts: Do we have recovery strategies for different levels of consumer emotion? If we know a consumer feels betrayed, should we respond or recover differently?
  • Intrusive advertising: What types of advertising drives negative emotion? What’s the cost of angering consumers with invasive or intrusive advertising, or using nondisclosed shills?

    If consumers are truly in control, we must message with them on their terms. This requires a deeper, more humbling intimacy with real consumer feelings and emotions. They call the shots. We can’t even begin to think about product relationships until we better understand their feelings and aspirations.

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