Can you hear me now? The real skill brands need to nail in 2018

As our industry rushes toward the world of artificial intelligence, it’s worth pointing out that in our culture, we’ve never liked it very much. For every R2D2 or C3PO, we have ten Hals.

Not surprisingly, there’s a call for brands to be less automated and more human in 2018. Much of the talk is about what brands can do: Put on a human face and reach out with real emotion.

But being human is not solely about how we present ourselves. It’s also about something else: listening. It’s through listening that we are able to appropriately and delightfully respond to cues our audience gives us. As customers engage with brands digitally, they give a much more subtle and valuable range of signals that tell us who they are, how they’re feeling, and what they expect in the next interaction with a brand.

In other words, we have a range of new tools that measure things such as culture and psychology—and enable us to connect with people in deeper, more human ways. Oddly, unlike in popular culture, these new “machines” can help us be more human, if used correctly. While every day new versions of these technologies appear, they fall into a few broad categories.

Emotional listening. Earlier this year, Facebook was accused of targeting depressed teens in Australia. While this sets off alarm bells, the truth was far more benign. The company had made a presentation to advertisers suggesting they could send uplifting messages to teens in need of a boost. Nonetheless, emotional targeting is here and real. Facebook’s own and third-party tools give us the ability to sense with reasonable accuracy not merely what people are doing, but how they are feeling. By listening to these things we will find new and more effective ways to support them in what they want to do.

The flipside is that if you do target something, such as depressed teens, you run the real risk of a backlash. As with all of the new possibilities we have, emotional targeting requires good human judgment to be effective and welcome.

Cultural listening. It’s time the term “in-culture” went mainstream. In-culture refers to marketing that listens and responds to a person’s cultural background. According to Mitú, a consultancy that connects brands with Latino youth, Latinos today are already a $1.4 trillion market. In addition, 60 to 90% of young Latinos speak English and find ads 50% more effective if they see themselves in the content. The opportunity here is clear. Rather than translate English ads into other languages, brands should seek to create in-culture content that responds to their audience’s personal identity.

Psychological listening. We also have psychometric tools that help determine the personality type of individuals on social networks. Cambridge Analytica, for example, is able to use Facebook links to develop personality profiles and then target at scale. This provides a great opportunity to find out who your customers really are and speak to them in language they understand.

A tool isn’t always necessary to leverage human psychology. You merely need insight. A good example of this is T.J.Maxx, whose parent company TJX has announced plans to open additional retail stores in an era in which such things are supposedly dead. Why? One reason is that there is something utterly fun about browsing in a store where you can find a high-end garment hiding in a rack filled with T-shirts. While no one knows the brand’s exact strategy (it is famously tight-lipped), it has figured out that humans like treasure hunts and has made its stores into one.

Just plain listening. Some of the most disruptive brands today are based on insights that come from talking with the people you know. For example, Peleton is currently a disruptive startup that brings professional cycling trainers into your home. Its big insight? Founder John Foley and his friends noticed how hard it was to get to a cycling gym when you had to juggle life with kids. The germ of his idea lay in listening to that small focus group of the people in his life.

Of course, with all of this, we need to be careful. There was a reason all those movie villain computers and robots were creepy. In using these techniques, we also have to use that other human tool—our brain—to make sure we don’t go over the line. Listening must ultimately be about compassion and helping people realize their aspirations or improve experiences—not simply about sales. After all, consumers are increasingly savvy and can detect inauthenticity a mile away.

Martha Hiefield is chief executive-Americas at Possible. She tweets @MarthaHiefield

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