The Future of Engagement Is Big Data Plus Big Emotion

Five Keys for Businesses and Brands to Get to the Future First

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This article is part of a series from the University of Florida College of Journalism and Communications' "Captivate" project, which presents insights from media industry thought leaders on new strategies for audience engagement.

The marketing landscape has changed exponentially over the last decade as both marketers and consumers have become more sophisticated, technologically adept, price-smart and also conscious of the impact of having a good reputation.

Technology has reset the value equation across the spectrum of audience engagement. Power has switched from the supply side to the demand side of commerce, disrupting the one-way brand model that focused on winning minds. Technology plus creativity is transforming every industry -- retail, finance, logistics, manufacturing, energy, transport, food, education -- delivering power and wonder to the audience at digital speed.

The tech-led empowerment of customers will only grow as the "Internet of Things" connects everything to everyone, driving down the marginal cost of production and distribution, just as technology has done with the supply of information.

Emotional fulfillment, not technology, will be the standout offering of a winning brand. People like technology -- but people mostly really like other people. The more digital life gets, the more people will value being understood, touched and involved by other people. The brands that win will be real and personable -- whether it's a live person on screen, a physical store interaction or the mass intimacy of a stadium event, from football to rock.

And big data? Is it the new nirvana -- the perfect marketing moment? Big data needs big emotion, because algorithms will never read and respond to humans the way humans do. The big data machine can read the lines, but not between them. Relevance is one thing, irresistibility is another. Big data can turn up at the perfect moment, but not ignite it. It can spit out stories based on what came before, but it can't dream the difference and feel the empathy that builds billion-dollar loved brands.

Here are five keys for businesses and brands to get to the future first:

Be a creative leader

Cultures that have the most ideas are best-placed to win, because creativity has unreasonable power. Ideas have reframing power, talking power and sharing power.

Old-world power, scale and money have been eclipsed by the velocity of ideas. Winning as a brand demands a climate where creativity can thrive, where diversity is standard, and where ideas fly in all directions all of the time. Creativity and innovation are in everyone's job description, and the crazies and misfits (especially the loyalists and the fans) get a seat at the decision table. Everyone on the production team gets responsibility, learning, recognition and joy in equal measure. This is the blueprint for creative leadership.

Be participatory

The more that brands bring their consumers, customers and partners into their secret garden, the greater the rewards that will flow back in, and the bigger the garden will grow. The new ROI is return on involvement, and the fan base is critical. Fans are not usually a numerically significant percentage of a brand's overall buyers, but they have outsized impact on building a winning brand. This is about influencers, shared values, inspiring community, word of mouth, creating movements, co-creating and story sharing. To reorder a classic line of the late great Steve Jobs: Amazing. Click. Boom!

Be visual

More than half of the cortex -- the surface of the brain -- is devoted to processing visual information. Images, Instagram and infographics are becoming hot properties in the information-tsunami for good reason. People today are aesthetically adept; they process images thousands of times faster than text; and they love to share cool imagery. We are drawn to beauty and universality.

Be fast

Priceless value arrives on time, and whether we're talking about curing killer diseases or simply feeding the kids, there is less time available for people than ever before. Across production, distribution and communication, brands have a need for speed. Tom Peters summarizes the way to win: "Test fast, fail fast, adjust fast."

Be emotional

Emotion is the primary key to winning on the road ahead, and in the technological century, the potential for a brand to deliver on heightened emotional demands is greater than ever. There is extraordinary capacity to understand people, interact, customize, personalize and touch lives.

The irony is that while loyalty was never easier to lose, it has never been easier to win for brands that are emotionally tuned, emotionally capable and emotionally executed. The commercial opportunity is not just to drive repeat sales but also to command premiums, build share and extend range.

Brands are becoming human relationships, and the strongest relationships have mystery, sensuality and intimacy -- the stuff we care about. The more empathy, magic and love that brands stream out, the more that comes back in a multiplier effect. This is about more than irreplaceability. It is about irresistibility, a brand with loyalty beyond reason -- a lovemark.

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