How Emotion Drives Customer Action in Startup Marketing

By September 24, 2014 inspiration, marketing, news No Comments

Kobie Fuller is a principal at Accel Partners. This article is part of our ongoing “Inside the Minds of Today’s Top Tech Marketing Leaders” series, where top tech executives tackle some of the biggest challenges and opportunities for the future of marketing. The series follows Accel’s “Marketing Tactics for 2014 and Beyond” Portfolio Day. Get in touch at @KobieFuller.

This article initially posted on TechCrunch, with additional insights here.


Contrary to popular belief, startup marketing is not all about quantitative metrics and growth hacking. It’s time to start mapping out what creates a connection between you and your customer. Specifically, I am talking about driving customer actions by leveraging human emotion through the art of storytelling.

Humans are intrinsically wired to connect with stories. They connect us to people, ideas, places, products and brands; they help us justify how we spend our money and which brands we champion by substituting promotion with engagement.

Digital media has leveled the marketing playing field – savvy startup marketers can tell compelling stories with equal impact as their larger competitors. Creative, emotion-driven marketing enables any size company to drive product awareness with millions of consumers in real-time. These digital and social direct-to-consumer channels have replaced traditional advertising that once favored larger companies with big budgets.

Many companies know exactly what they do and communicate it well (“we make X app”), but few companies advocate the why ­(“we believe that people should have an easier way to communicate with the people they love”).

“Soliciting an emotional response is an intentional process that leads to buyers who see value and act with urgency,” said Eric Holmen, president of marketing automation company Invoca. “Too often, start-ups focus on the tactics, rather than the intentional emotions they need to create.”

It is easier to build marketing around the former (what), but storytelling originates in the latter (why). The why enables startups to tap into its product/brand’s intrinsic emotional advantages – like excitement, happiness or contentment.

In short, startup marketers must tap into the “Story Button” part of the brain; an idea coined by advertising agency Innocean, and neuroscientist Paul Zak. Through a story, startups connect through emotion-driven marketing, which creates more authentic moments of customer engagement.
Emotion vs. Data

Emotional marketing, however, is the ying to data-driven marketing’s yang. Despite the buzz around growth hacking, today’s most savvy marketers understand that consumers are more experience-driven than ever.

“Because of the abundance of data, there is a lot of focus on data-driven marketing, which is very powerful,” said Craig Elbert, VP of marketing at Bonobos, an e-commerce apparel pioneer. “But numbers will usually only tell you what is happening. To get at the why and create actions, marketers need to ensure they are spending enough time thinking about customer motivations and emotions.”

Elbert hits on an important trend: The most admired brands structure their businesses around meaningful, emotion-driven marketing material that doesn’t feel a whole lot like marketing. In short, great marketers make consumers feel something – fear, gratification, guilt, trust, value, belonging, envy, etc. These feelings, once elicited, drive action.
Bonobos 3.jpg
Bonobos 1.jpg

Above: Bonobos’ emotion-driven marketing elicits excitement and belonging through personable, relevant everyday attire.

Trulia, for example, built a loyal following by crafting branding material that fulfills intrinsic home-buying needs. As Trulia CMO Kira Wampler explained, “Great marketing starts with deep consumer insights. Insights are built on emotions and those insights are then used to craft campaigns that elicit an emotional reaction. If you’re good, those emotional reactions are ones that generate the behavior you wanted in your customer like a purchase, click or share.”

Companies like Apple, Nike and Virgin America have mastered the art of making customers feel connected to their brands. These companies, along with startups in our portfolio like Atlassian (enterprise), VSCO (photography) and Etsy (marketplace) elicit emotional triggers that build trust, which drives loyalty, which drives brand advocacy, which leads to word-of-mouth growth, which 91 percent of millennials utilize to guide their buying behaviors.
The science behind soliciting an emotional response

Psychologist Robert Plutchik discovered eight basic, primary emotions that guide all behaviors: joy, trust, fear, surprise, sadness, anticipation, anger and disgust. These emotions are product-agnostic, and over time, establish brand-to-consumer relationships that transcend traditional boundaries of engagement.

The question is, which emotions should marketers target, and how do they solicit these emotions? Elbert outlines the following correlations in emotion with user behavior:

Intrigue and mystery – creates a curiosity that drives initial exploration and clicks; important for advertising and emails
Desire and aspiration – stokes consideration; helpful for site imagery, product pages and lookbooks
Urgency and fear – provokes a feeling of missing out, which triggers a purchase
Surprise and laughter – drives sharing, as seen through April Fool’s Day marketing stunts

“Emotions change the decisions we make by making us more impulsive,” said Kristen Berman, co-founder of Irrational Labs. “Given a person’s impulsive nature, brands can amplify efficiency by not only looking at the metrics and drop-off, but also in thinking about the human emotions at play during each corner of the decision-making process.”
Emotion-driven marketing for the startup

A startup’s brand strategy and messaging should tailor to the core psychological needs, desires and behaviors of any given audience. If you remember nothing else, remember this:
Marketing organizations must incorporate human emotion in all marketing practices, across all marketing channels. For startups, this is even more important as they aim to build early adopter loyalty and a tribal-minded community.

Plutchik’s psychoevolutionary theory of emotion explains that emotions are not only adaptive, but also play an important role both in cognition and behavior. His “wheel of emotions“ diagram (above) illustrates various relationships among emotions. In the world of marketing, this equates to purchasing a product not because of quality, but out of admiration, loyalty or even envy.

According to Jascha Kaykas-Wolff, BitTorrent CMO, “Being emotionally driven with our marketing messages is first and foremost about articulating what our business stands for and then being consistent with how we describe that as a part of our brand.”

He explains, “Historically we’ve taken a strong public stance supporting a free and open internet because it’s a core tenant in our mission to support an internet of options, not rules. The balance we always seek to find is carrying our core brand message in balance with the practical value that our products deliver.”

For startups, emotion-driven marketing means thinking about how a product or vision supports a broader cause that your community cares about.
Key Takeaways:

Incorporate emotional ‘triggers’ in all marketing practices, across all marketing channels
Find the right balance of emotion vs. data-driven marketing
Identify which emotions your brand and product actually elicit
Make sure your brand stands for something larger than itself

About Kingi

In 1997 Kingi made a creative start at an advertising agency, Saatchi & Saatchi. Then, for five years was involved in the video game business, firstly in distribution and then as a developer. In 2004 Kingi started Ignite Studios and has been freelancing on all types of digital projects.

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