Are you collecting emotional data on your customers, or are you just cyber-stalking them?
Creativity Creative Thinking

Tracking Consumer Behavior? Try Using More Emotional Data, Instead

8 Minute Read

Last year, in preparation for the arrival of my first child, I did what most expecting moms do: I shopped. I read product reviews, compared pricing, set up gift registries, and made quite a few purchases myself. Any retailer that was tracking consumer behavior knew exactly how to market to me, and the ads Facebook served up for me proved they were on it. But my father had a different experience.

Both my husband and I spent a lot of time looking at cribs. When we finally settled on one, we added it to our Amazon gift registry.

A few days later, my father told me, “I found you the perfect crib. It might not be your taste, but it’s what I would choose.”

Daddy doesn’t really get into baby accessories, but he likes furniture, so it made sense that a crib would have caught his eye. But when he showed me the Amazon listing, I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. It was the exact crib, in the exact color, I had chosen. I hadn’t shared it on Facebook, nor had I sent him the link to my Amazon registry, so I assumed he had stumbled upon it on his own.Crib


It was kismet. My son was obviously meant to have that crib.

Then a week or so later, Daddy told me, “I hope you don’t buy that crib I showed you. I’m so sick of looking at it. It’s all I see on Facebook. I wish I’d never clicked on that damn ad.”

Turns out, he had originally seen the crib via a Facebook ad. After he clicked on it twice—once alone and once to show me—it began to dominate his Facebook page, along with ads for other cribs. Suddenly, I realized why he was being targeted with ads for baby products. A few months earlier, I had logged into my Amazon account on his computer and forgot to sign out. So my behavioral data—expecting mom with lots to buy—was driving targeted messaging to my father, who doesn’t shop online—or, really, anywhere else, especially not for baby furniture.

That’s the problem with gathered data. It makes a lot of assumptions. Data is more trustworthy when it’s given, and better yet, when consumers have an emotional reason to give it.

This was the takeaway from the opening keynote at the Content Marketing Institute (CMI) “ContentTECH” event in late February. In his speech, the “Rise of Emotional Data,” Robert Rose, chief strategy officer for CMI, made the case for how emotional content leads to emotional data, the richest and most valuable type of data marketers can collect

In this article, we’ll delve into Rose’s compelling argument (which you can hear in its entirety on demand), and explore the ways in which emotional data can help you create better stories.

All Data Is Not Created Equal

In the digital age, most business decisions, even those concerning creative thinking, come back to data. “We need more data” has become the battle cry of business leaders, and marketers are scrambling to provide as much information as possible about their target audiences and consumer behavior.

But with data, quality trumps quantity. This is true for most things in life, but with data, it’s critical, because bad data points corrupt the good ones.

To illustrate this point, Rose gave the example of a large consulting firm with which he recently worked. This firm has an “amazing” digital magazine with rich thought leadership content and a sizable, loyal audience, as well as blog posts and other content that anonymous site visitors can access. To gather insights about both lead generation and content strategy, the firm’s marketing team runs polls and surveys. Recently, they created a poll asking visitors which of four given topics they find most interesting. Not only did the firm ask digital magazine subscribers; they also asked anonymous users, who were required to respond to the poll before they could access blog content.

When the marketing team segmented the data, they discovered something interesting. Anonymous users selected the four options at almost equal rates, with Topic A receiving slightly more votes. Among subscribers, Topic C far outperformed the others, while Topic A received the fewest votes.

presentation slide from ContentTECH keynote speech by robert rose

What happened here? Rose explained:

Gathering data from the anonymous users in front of the gate, they were pretty much just clicking on anything to get that content, so [the firm was] getting a random answer there. Bad data and unemotional data. Subscribers, however, cared when the data was given, and respondents took the time and the opportunity to give quality data.

Rose said this underscores the fundamental difference between creating content for buyers, versus telling stories for your audience. And, as he put it, “We [at CMI] believe in the power of building audiences, bringing subscribers to your content.”

Building subscribership requires a different approach than simply informing buyers, but it also yields more emotional data and, therefore, richer insights. Buyers will give data in exchange for what they’re getting, but subscribers give data in exchange for what they’re going to get. They benefit from giving you accurate information, so they have an emotional reason to provide good data.

Rose suggested thinking of it like subscribing to a magazine:

If you were asked to give over your name and phone number and address before you could read the magazine, you’d probably think twice. But if you [found the magazine on your own], and you think, ‘Wow, this is wonderful’ and you subscribe. Now you’ve got no idea what’s coming. You’re subscribing to 12 issues … because you want to hear more from this magazine. That’s a different approach to the idea of how we present our content. Can we create something that people want to subscribe to? When people subscribe to our blog or our email newsletter or our resource center or our print magazine, it’s because they want to hear from us. They trust us. Can we begin to create things with our consumers or influencers that they want to subscribe to? And then can we use technology to develop insight about audiences and that trust and the emotional data, in addition to nurturing them as leads?

Why is this a better approach to content marketing? After all, most companies aren’t selling magazine subscriptions. They’re selling their products and solutions. And if the end goal is lead generation and sales conversion, shouldn’t content be salesy and brand-oriented, with strong calls to action?

That’s the type of pushback that content marketers often get when they try to make the business case for brand storytelling. Of course, marketing leaders know the answer to that question: No one wants to read salesy content. It doesn’t provide value for consumers or make the kind of emotional connections that help to build relationships and customer loyalty. But as Rose pointed out, these arguments often fall on deaf ears because “we’ve really got no proof” that heavily-branded content is less valuable.

Now, perhaps, we do.

Better Data, Better Storytelling, Better Customer Experience

Differentiating between gathered data and given data can help content marketers make a stronger business case for building an audience versus targeting buyers, and for emotional storytelling versus branded marketing.

In a nutshell, gathered data can be corrupted. And for C-level decision-makers who live for data, that’s a big deal.

Rose says the concept of emotional data enables marketers to say, “There’s a strategy behind this. We’re putting the shopping- and buying-oriented content over there [away from the teaching and inspirational content], not only to make sure that it’s good for the customer, but because not doing that compromises our data, and that’s the value we’re providing. If you’ve got [content] that’s meant to inspire and teach and bring in somebody new, and you’ve got people willingly giving you rich data for access, well, in the long run, that’s simply worth more to the business than someone you extract an email from for access to an asset.”

Why is emotional data worth more? Because it is more likely to accurately predict and drive consumer behavior.

Take the example of my father. Gathered data told retail marketers that he was interested in baby furniture. Given data would have told them he’s interested in gardening, home improvement, baseball, and many other things, but baby furniture isn’t one of them. And he would have been happy to provide that information, if only to see more relevant content on his Facebook page.

Of course, Daddy did share the ad with someone who was in the market for a crib, but in the end, he threatened to burn it if I bought it, because he was that tired of seeing it.

I did buy the crib, and he didn’t burn it, but he was certainly annoyed with Amazon and Facebook—and annoying potential customers is the last thing businesses want to do. The goal is to build relationships that lead to sales. And emotional data is far more likely to make emotional connections than surveillance data. It’s like stalking someone versus having a conversation with them. The former might tell you what they’re doing, but the latter will tell you why they’re doing it. And that’s more valuable information for marketers, for two reasons:

1. When you understand the why behind consumer behavior, you can better personalize ads and optimize your ecommerce catalogs.

2. You can glean insights from emotional data that help you tell better stories—stories that will bring subscribers back for more content and compel them to share even more emotional data.

Simply put, emotional data (plus a little creative thinking) leads to a better customer experience, which leads to better sales. And who can argue with that?

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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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