emotional connection
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Our World Is Hyperconnected but Lonelier than Ever—Here’s How Marketers Can Help

6 Minute Read

Over the past decade, marketers have expended a lot of time, money, and creative thinking in figuring out new ways to personalize content, to personalize the user experience, and to communicate with customers as individuals. But just as great brand storytelling doesn’t have to be one-to-one; sometimes audiences want to feel like one of many.

In the digital world, where everyone is always connected, many people feel more disconnected than ever. We may have plenty of friends on Facebook, but we have fewer close relationships in real life. On average, Americans have two close friends, down from three in 1985. The number of people with no close confidants has tripled in recent decades. And more than a quarter of Americans (27 percent) now live alone. That’s up from around 5 percent in the 1920s.

It’s no wonder one in five people—roughly 60 million Americans—feel persistently lonely.

woman alone gray sky_Boss Fight

The Need to Connect

We may pride ourselves on our individuality—the qualities that make us special, the quirks that make us unique—but human beings are hardwired to be social. Our brains reward us when we make an emotional connection with someone and cause suffering when we are isolated from others.

Matthew D. Lieberman, a UCLA psychologist and author of Social: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Connect, studies the neuroscience of human connections and how this affects our behavior, our decision-making abilities, and even our health. As he explained to Scientific American:

Different cultures have different beliefs about how important social connection and interdependence are to our lives. In the West, we like to think of ourselves as relatively immune to sway of those around us while we each pursue our personal destiny. But I think this is a story we like to tell ourselves rather than what really happens. Across many studies of mammals, from the smallest rodents all the way to us humans, the data suggests that we are profoundly shaped by our social environment and that we suffer greatly when our social bonds are threatened or severed.

Research by Lieberman and his colleague, UCLA social psychologist Naomi Eisenberger, PhD, shows that social pain, such as feelings of loneliness after being excluded from a group, can cause real, physical pain.

“With respect to understanding human nature, I think this finding is pretty significant,” says Lieberman. “The things that cause us to feel pain are things that are evolutionary recognized as threats to our survival and the existence of social pain is a sign that evolution has treated social connection like a necessity, not a luxury.”

Other studies have shown that people who are socially isolated tend to be at greater risk of developing mood disorders like depression and chronic health problems like heart disease. Lonely people are also more likely to die early. Persistent feelings of loneliness increase risk of death by 26 percent, according to a 2015 study published in the journal Perspectives on Psychological Science. Social isolation and living alone can be even more devastating to a person’s health, respectively increasing mortality risk by 29 and 32 percent.

3 Brand Storytelling Campaigns That Build Community

The evidence suggested by this data is undeniable: people clearly need connections. They need to be part of a family, part of a community, part of the human race. With a little creative thinking, brand storytellers can tap into this need and provide the sense of togetherness that people so desire.

This could mean making them feel connected with the people right in front of them or with people around the world, with people who share their values or with people who share their struggles. Either way, by making audiences feel less alone, marketers make an emotional connection with customers. And that’s powerful stuff.

Of course, inspirational stories aren’t enough to make a great marketing campaign. There has to be relevance between the product and the message for a campaign to seem truly authentic.

For instance, during last month’s summer Olympic Games, many advertisers took advantage of the timely opportunity to tell inspirational stories about diversity and being part of the global community. While some brands found that relevance sweet spot, others missed the mark.

Take, for example, Coca-Cola’s “Gold Feelings” commercial, which juxtaposes scenes of Olympic athletes celebrating their victories with scenes of ordinary people enjoying time with friends and family while drinking Coke. The second set of images certainly shows people connecting, with each other and with the product. But the relationship between people socializing and Olympic victory (presumably that both feel good) is flimsy at best.

On the other hand, here are three content marketing campaigns that build community in a brand-relevant way:

1. Apple, “The Human Family”

Apple’s Olympic ad spot did what Coca-Cola was trying to do, only better. Part of the “Shot on iPhone” campaign, the commercial celebrates global community without mentioning the Olympics. Instead, it features pictures and videos of people from all over the world while the late Maya Angelou reads her poem, “The Human Family,” in the background. The poem reminds us that “we are more alike, my friends,/than we are unalike.” It reminds us that we are all connected as members of the human race. And at the end of the ad, Apple reminds us that all these beautiful images were shot on an iPhone.

2. Starbucks, “Meet Me at Starbucks”

A celebration of the “good things that happen when we get together,” the “Meet Me at Starbucks” campaign features real-life interactions between friends and strangers at Starbucks locations around the world, all on the same day. As reported in Adweek, 53 cinematographers spread across 28 countries collaborated to create a six-minute interactive documentary featuring customer stories about connection and community. The result: more than 26,000 hours of watched footage, 91 million social media impressions, international news coverage, and plenty of customers who were inspired to meet up at Starbucks.

3. Plum Organics, “Parenting Unfiltered”

Plum Organics know its customers want to make good, healthy choices for their children. It also knows parenting is hard, and that moms and dads can be tough on themselves. With “Parenting Unfiltered,” the organic baby food maker reminds its audience members that they’re not alone—other parents are going through the same challenges and have the same feelings of inadequacy sometimes. The microsite features funny but touching videos from real-life parents, who share their experiences, perspectives, and advice on topics such as: “Dad who isn’t the favorite right now” and “Mom who has missed a milestone or two.”

The site also features pictures and Tweets that users have posted on the company’s social media pages. My favorites: “Please don’t blow your nose on your brother’s face. Said to toddler.” And “Got a great night’s sleep last night because I forgot to turn on the baby monitor.”

Plum Organics has essentially created a community where parents can be honest about their imperfections and share their not-so-picture-perfect moments. And as the audience connects with each other, they also connect with the brand that helped them form these emotional connections.

Simply put, connecting with others feels good; loneliness feels very, very bad. In an era when people are longing for more human connections, try using your brand to engage your audience by creating a sense of community and making individuals feel like part of something bigger than themselves.

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Taylor Mallory Holland is a freelance writer, editor, and content marketer specializing in technology, healthcare, and business leadership. As a content strategist, Holland contributes thought leadership content for some of the world's top brands, including Samsung, IBM, BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee, and UCLA's David Geffen School of Medicine. She has been a contributor for The Content Standard since 2014.

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