Can Software Really Predict Our Emotions?

Technology experts and sentiment analysis software developers are claiming that we can now infer people’s feelings by analyzing big data. It’s based on what we say in social media. As direct marketers, we know our copy and content are most successful when we tap into the emotions and lift the feelings of our customers and prospects that motivate them to

Technology experts and sentiment analysis software developers are claiming that we can now infer people’s feelings by analyzing big data. It’s based on what we say in social media. As direct marketers, we know our copy and content are most successful when we tap into the emotions and lift the feelings of our customers and prospects that motivate them to take action.

While I’m skeptical how sentiment analysis can be used without provoking consumer backlash, maybe we should reflect on this claim that software can predict people’s feelings.

In my last blog, I shared this thought-provoking quote from contemporary literature author Maya Angelou:

“I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

Let’s take a deeper dive to see if this claim of inferring feelings from social media posts is not only possible, but if it’s smart. Or shameful.

A recent Wall Street Journal article on the topic of big data (“Marketers Want to Know What You Really Mean Online: Sentiment Analysis Aims to Decipher the Nuances of Social-Media Posts“) cites several examples of how it works. The article goes into more detail, but in summary, the process works like this:

  1. Software now can break down tweets and status updates to extract the literal meaning of what’s being said. This step is called natural-language processing.
  2. The software determines the emotion behind the statement. Was it written in earnest, or was it snarky? Was the emotion strong? That is: enthusiastic, angry or sad?

This technology has been used by pharmaceutical companies, hair product companies, food companies, political organizations, and even for the State of the Union address.

What the article doesn’t tell us is if the technology actually worked to increase engagement and ultimately sales.

The resulting analyses of sentiment analysis can be far from 100 percent accurate, but could be one of many resources used in your messaging strategy. Context, cultural and colloquial nuances, and length of message can lead software algorithms astray. The shorter the message, the more difficult it becomes for algorithms to correctly interpret intent. As we all know, people often misinterpret sentiment when reading each other’s messages (consider how many times you’ve read an email that was intended to be cute or poke fun, but backfired).

The CEO of a sentiment analysis software company is quoted in the WSJ article as saying that, “right when a person is first diagnosed with cancer, they are the most optimistic. So he advises pharmaceutical clients to target ads based on the emotion the person is experiencing in the moment.”

Is this smart, opportunistic, creepy or offensive? My mother is currently dealing with cancer and this feels to me like an example of cold-hearted marketers tapping into raw emotions and feelings of a vulnerable person’s emotional state-of-mind. I’m more personally involved, obviously, but using big data on someone just diagnosed with cancer feels shameful (and notice I’ve used the word feel or feelings three times in this paragraph).

On a different and more appropriately used level, sentiment analysis can be effective when monitoring social media for complaints. It enables marketers to more quickly address a complaint and correct a problem for the customer. This feels like a powerful and appropriate use of sentiment analysis.

If we take to heart Maya Angelou’s quote that people will always remember how you made them feel, taken across an emotional line in the sand, marketers would be well served to remember that the good feeling of the moment could quickly turn into a negative your customers and prospects will never forget.

Author: Gary Hennerberg

Reinventing Direct is for the direct marketer seeking guidance in the evolving world of online marketing. Gary Hennerberg is a mind code marketing strategist, based on the template from his new book, "Crack the Customer Mind Code." He is recognized as a leading direct marketing consultant and copywriter. He weaves in how to identify a unique selling proposition to position, or reposition, products and services using online and offline marketing approaches, and copywriting sales techniques. He is sought-after for his integration of direct mail, catalogs, email marketing, websites, content marketing, search marketing, retargeting and more. His identification of USPs and copywriting for clients has resulted in sales increases of 15 percent, 35 percent, and even as high as 60 percent. Today he integrates both online and offline media strategies, and proven copywriting techniques, to get clients results. Email him or follow Gary on LinkedIn. Co-authoring this blog is Perry Alexander of ACM Initiatives. Follow Perry on LinkedIn.

2 thoughts on “Can Software Really Predict Our Emotions?”

  1. So true, Gary. We marketers always walk the fine line between unwelcome intrusion and valued helpfulness.

    The CEO comment about when the ad will be most helpful reflects the wishful thinking that characterizes some crazy marketing ideas. How do pharmaceutical companies target messages at that very moment? They can’t, is the short answer. Such strategies are simply not actionable.

    I love the Maya Angelou quote. Applies to both our business and personal lives. Thank you for that.

  2. Intriguing post Gary. It really depends on how the software is programmed to work and its intended read-outs. But in general, yes. It helps provide consistent and labor productive taps on what people might be feeling at any one point in time.

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