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Media Maze: Oh, What a Feeling

It’s no secret that advertisers have long worked at making emotional connections with their audiences. The act, or art, of selling has always been a combination of appeals to our innermost feelings and desires, even when those petitions to our senses look like they are really an address to our intellect. As I laid out in the recent two-part series on neuromarketing, different parts of the brain control different mechanisms of response to stimuli.

Marketers have known this in one form or another for decades.

When broadcast media brought us sound, motion and images, it wasn’t long before creating an emotional connection became the preeminent goal of advertising, the accomplishment of which had never been easier.

Remember the old telephone company television commercials with relatives calling one another long distance? How about the Toyota ad showing a tire rolling past various scenes from well-lived lives, with jingle writer and pop duo Fisher’s “Beautiful Life" playing in the background? Or the campaign for Canon digital photo printing with a song written by Jewel (“Paint a picture you’re your mind, nothing's crueler than the passing of time") --  the mixture of images and the sorrowful lilt of Jewel’s voice brings out of the viewer a sense of loss and evokes a desire not to lose memories to time?

Now that online advertising is no longer treated like the unholy offspring in a V.C. Andrews novel, traditional brand advertisers are flocking to the medium. The move is significant enough that recent ad spending forecasts have been downgraded by the likes of Universal-McCann and Zenith, because it appears as if less money will be spent on television, but some of those dollars are being funneled to online.

Most traditional marketers are going the standard route with their online adverting, using long-tested stalwarts like banners, or the more instantly gratifying and eminently popular search.

But with the growing penetration of broadband, marketers are able to take advantage of that bigger data pipe to push through to audiences richer creative experiences. With these ads, traditional marketers are hoping to recreate on the web the successes they’ve had creating emotional connections between consumers and their brand in other media.

The question many from traditional advertising are bound to ask is this: Is online capable of generating an emotional connection between the brand advertised and the audiences found online?

Marketers can start to answer yes to that question.

Did you feel that?

Late last year, American Airlines, in support of their “Why You Fly” campaign ran a 15-second clip that successfully accomplished authenticity by mimicking real family home videos. The clip conveys feeling and emotion, and by doing so it elicits an emotional response from the viewer.

Certainly advertisers attempt through the skillful use of images and text to do the same thing, but I would argue most audiences don’t get the full brunt of emotional force through static images and well-written text. It isn’t impossible to do, but it is more difficult, and the outcomes are more sublime, in the way that a well-written book or poem can evoke emotion.

According to a study released by the Online Publishers Association, the majority of internet users view at least one streaming video feed per month, and that nearly three out of four web users -- 74 percent -- have viewed online video at least once; 51 percent do so a minimum of once a month; 27 percent watch streaming video at least once a week; and five percent view web video streams daily.

Not only do many web users watch streaming video, but they would watch even more if more streams were available.

The implication is that video online is a compelling format for consumers to engage. The inference is that the engagement can be leveraged to generate an emotional response in no small part because sound, motion and images have proven time and again they are best at doing so on behalf of advertisers.

Being part of the story

Among the more interesting methods under exploration for creating that emotional connection so crucial to brand advertisers is the use of branded entertainment.

Over the last six months or so, both agencies and major publishers have launched branded entertainment units. Yahoo!’s branded entertainment efforts have led to video clips, replays and outtakes of “The Contender,” including advertising from the show’s primary sponsors. Doing this, Yahoo! provides a TV show’s promotional sponsor additional opportunities to reach customers and another chance at making an emotional connection.

MSN also has recently launched a branded entertainment group, renaming its custom-publishing unit as the “MSN branded entertainment experiences team,” while also doubling its staff. MSN is now going to concentrate more on entertainment-type websites, instead of only providing marketers with interactively rich online experiences.

"Advertisers are really trying to find another way to break through," Joanne Bradford, MSN’s chief marketing officer, was quoted as saying in AdAge a few months ago. The team inside MSN "will build experiences that integrate advertising and content."

The big picture behind the growth of branded entertainment is more than I can get into today, but one reason is that marketers are desperate to find other ways into the lives of their consumers and get those consumers to spend more time with their brands. This time spent is not to come as a result of a consumer’s being inundated with the ubiquitous presence of a marketer’s message, but rather the marketer’s product being able to provide an environment that people want to visit because of how it makes them feel. Entertainment is not simply about escaping, but about feeling differently after the experience than before it.

Does advertising still need to establish an emotional connection with an audience in order to be effective? 

“Has basic human nature changed?” asked Phillipa Gamse, a consultant and professional speaker on eBusiness and website strategy. “Online is absolutely capable of the same thing … but essentially you must convince me that you know who I am, that you understand my needs, and that you can be trusted to do what you say.”

What are the barriers?

To date, the barriers to making an emotional connection online have been the limitations of the medium itself.

When online advertising was restricted to a simple graphic banner, the limited time and space for communicating marketing messages drained most of the mood, tone and complexion from the communication. The thrust of most online ad campaigns was to get in front of someone and elicit an impulsive response, realized primarily by clicking on a banner. The marketer then hoped to lead the potential consumer by the nose (or by the finger, as the case might be) to satisfy a more complex call to action.

As I already mentioned, with the growth of both broadband and people’s use of the internet in a multitude of ways and at a variety of times, time and space are no longer the issue they once were for trying to make that emotional connection.

These days, the obstacle to making an emotional connection is the dearth of talent that is brought to bear on the creative execution. Over the years, most creative talent has wanted to have the biggest, most impressive canvasses on which to ply their craft. As online advertising starts to attract more attention from marketers and the budgets follow, the creative talent necessary to fashion more complex, emotionally charged executions will grow in kind.

Does it work?

Measuring clicks and purchases is easy. Measuring feelings is not so easy. Most research being conducted today cares little for emotional connection beyond “brand favorability.” The reason being, how do you quantify a feeling? The only way to try is to ask people. And that takes a lot of time and usually costs a great deal of money. Even then, when asked, people don’t precisely know how they feel about something, and the answers they give when asked about emotions are usually borne of a need to give an answer rather than of knowing how they actually feel.

Marketer’s intuition, however, indicates that making an emotional connection is better for the brand than not making one, even if the quality of that connection cannot be adequately quantified.

“If you talk to people about why they buy from a particular site,” says Ms. Gamse, the emarketing consultant, “they will talk about feelings a lot -- words like ‘comfortable,’ ‘intrigued,’ enjoying exploring the site, feeling supported, feeling a sense of community within the content, having a good sense of the people behind the site -- and conversely, not having those feelings.”

The old axiom remains true: People like to do business with the people they like, and making that emotional connection is still the best way to get your consumers to like you.

Jim Meskauskas is the media strategies editor for iMedia Connection.

Jim Meskauskas is a Partner and Co-Founder of Media Darwin, Inc., providing comprehensive media strategy and planning.  Prior to that, Jim was the SVP of Online Media at ICON International, an Omnicom Company, where he spent nearly five years.

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