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NEWS14 March 2018

Verbalisation founder on how researchers can harness language

Data analytics Impact 2018 News Technology UK

UK – Advertisers and agencies are missing an opportunity to connect with audiences using language, and researchers can decode language to understand more about people in focus groups, according to Sven Hughes, founder of Verbalisation.

As brands vie for attention in a fragmented, crowded media landscape, consumers are met with so much visual communication that they can’t process it properly, Hughes (pictured) said.

Speaking at the Impact 2018 conference held by the Market Research Society, he said: “We are bombarded with 5,000 branded visual images daily. Your brain cannot cope with that much visual information. It relies on cognitive biases and heuristics to make sense of it. The very fact that marketing is relying so heavily on the visuals mean that it is working against the brain.”

This has created an arms race for consumer attention which, according to Hughes, is only serving advertising agencies. “They’re increasingly saying you have a limited ability to get retina time, but also the cost of cut-through is more, so you just have to throw more and more stuff at the wall and hope it sticks. That cannot be sensible – it cannot be a realistic modern way to communicate effectively.”

Agencies and researchers can approach the verbal space by firstly using deep listening, analysing not just what people are saying it but the way they are saying it – their use of metaphors, for instance – language choices that may be affected by their context or cultural background.

“When you’re listening to your research groups, think about the environmental factors influencing them – political, gender, religion and so forth – they will have verbal leakage in their language with you. Verbal leakage is coming out of us all the time but we’re not listening enough for it.”

He also advised researchers to think about what people are revealing in terms of their retelling characteristics, their transfer structures – who they listen to and act upon, and cognition – what language is revealing about how people process information. Lastly, they should think about how people structure language in terms of metaphors.

By observing all of these behaviours around language, agencies can then start to encode their own language to ‘patent match’ with audiences, he said – using a three-pronged approach of brand essence, key verbal and power word. Using the example of President Obama, his brand essence was change – everything he said and did led back to this verbal DNA, while for Volvo their essence is safety, and Coca-Cola’s is taste, said Hughes.

During the same session, David Balson, director of intelligence at RipJar, formerly of GCHQ, outlined the role language can play in cybersecurity breaches. He discussed an example where a company was hacked, and ultimately destroyed, by a lone computer hacker.

After hacking into the email, the hacker emailed the company’s IT support posing as the chief executive in order to get the rest of the information they needed to hack into the network. During the email exchange, the hacker used social proof to demonstrate knowledge (for instance, that the chief executive was in Europe, which they had shared on Twitter) and pretended to be in a rush, using scarcity to suspend decision-making. They also used an open form of questioning to allow the respondent to fill in the blanks. 

“Many of the times when computer security goes wrong it is because of human frailty,” said Balson. “We can all be fooled by language. Ultimately, that can be a positive thing or a negative thing.”

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