A minor ruckus ensued this week when major media reported that Facebook knows how its users feel. It appears that some believe that the world is therefore coming to a nefarious end. As in, "Lions, and tigers, and emotions, Oh my!"

The specific incident involved an analysis that some of Facebook's team undertook in Australia, the results of which were shared in a private conversation with a potential advertiser down under. The reaction of the major media and many voices online was to immediately panic. The objections were straightforward: a) Facebook is snooping into people's lives and learning things it ought not (in this case, insecure teenagers, which seems all the more troublesome), b) Facebook wants to sell this ill-gotten knowledge to advertisers, and c) Facebook and advertisers are in colusion to commit some kind of terrible maniuplation of humanity.

A similar thing occured in 2014 when you'll remember that Facebook conducted a kind of A/B test on more than half a million users. In that case, they reduced either the positive or negative posts that you saw in your normal feed. What happened? You guessed it, people who saw fewer positive messages posted fewer positive sentiments. The same was true for negative messages. Pandemonium erupted as major media companies ironically complained that a media company would have the gall to choose what its users would be exposed to and therefore "manipulate" which emotions they would experience! (Do I need to put a few more exclamation points on that to emphasize the irony?) Never mind that major media companies know very well that manipulating — or what we call editing — content to reach people results in, imagine that, specific emotional responses. The horror!

Yes, Facebook is a social network, not a media company, though this is largely a legal distinction, not an actual one. And yes, Facebook can scale its influence across more than a billion users whereas major media outlets are lucky to get a few tens of thousands. All that is true. But it also beside the point.

Emotion is the primary currency of human beings, our individual and collective selves. We communicate through it, we read each other with it, and we try to influence it in others. No good CMO ignores the emotional context of their target customer. In fact, the best CMOs make emotion a primary focus of their marketing, customer experience, and even customer support efforts. This is all true, despite the fact that nobody really knows what emotion is and how it really works; and don't think that watching the lovely Inside Out Pixar movie will solve that. In fact, it will only make it worse. (For more of my thoughts on how weak our understanding of emotion is and where we're trying to take it from here, read this blog post and listen to this podcast.)

Given how fundamental emotion is to every thought we have, every action we take, and every interaction we have, it would be fundamentally irresponsible of a customer-obsessed company to ignore it and pretend that emotional context is off limits.

Think about it. The specific case in Australia allegedly involved a Facebook representative telling an advertiser that, for example, they can tell when a teenager is depressed or anxious. Facebook knows when someone is feeling down! (More exclamation points, I'm starting to get the hang of this overreaction thing.) Why on earth would someone like an advertiser want to know that about someone? Oh, I don't know, possibly because they can offer them something — an experience, a distraction, a note of encouragement or even a product — that would help them deal with their depression and anxiety. Wow, imagine that. Knowing your customer can help you serve them better. Who would have thought?

Obviously, I understand that emotion's very omnipresence in our lives is partly what triggers people's insecurity about its use in a novel context. Just like people shrieked when they first imagined putting their credit card information online in 1998 only to later become very comfortable with it when they realized how useful it would be and how convenient it would make their daily tasks. The same will be true of emotional context. The day will soon come — I estimate for some of us by 2020 and the rest by 2025 — when we will want our favorite brands to know our emotions. We will, in fact, be bothered if Alexa doesn't demonstrate an awareness of our emotional state. When we're happy, we'll want Siri to notice and speak to us appropriately. When we're perplexed, we'll want Cortana to understand and respond effectively. If they don't, we won't trust them.

Facebook had to deny any desire to understand its customers' emotions, which they dutifully did to comply with the kinds of objections raised by people who love exclamation points. But I hope they were just playing along. Because the future of Facebook depends entirely on emotion. And your products and services do too. That's why I'm hard at work on a primer, I call it The CMO's Guide to Emotion to make the topic more accessible to smart executives. Expect that in a few months. It will challenge what you think you know about emotion and also give you some tools for using it more effectively. 


James McQuivey, Ph.D., is a vice president and principal analyst at Forrester. He also has at his disposal an organic technology that can estimate your emotions with some reliability. It is called a brain and he predicts it's going to be very popular in the future! He is also the author of Digital Disruption.