Why mood matters in a digital world

Mood is a fundamental aspect of human experience. Yet marketers and innovators rarely seek to understand mood in anything more than a superficial way. In this post I’ll argue why mood matters, and how human-centric industries are becoming increasingly reactive to mood. In a digital world, moods are now identifiable, addressable and manipulable. If so, what new horizons are being presented to those of us who seek to understand and create possibilities for consumers?

Why moods matter

Mood is a nebulous concept. A term we use day-to-day, but find hard to describe actually what it is. We can talk of specific types of mood such as anxiety, excitement, and hopefulness. We can talk more broadly about being in a good mood or bad mood. We can even ascribe moods to experiences, such as the mood of a film, or the mood of a party. Meanwhile, mental health is often understood in terms of problems that may occur with moods.

In cognitive science, mood is normally included under the umbrella of affectivity, a term also covering feelings and emotions. Feelings are typically defined as reactive, bodily states, such as hunger or sexual arousal. Emotions tend to have a strong cognitive component, that is, an emotion tends to have an object, such as the fear of something, or happiness about something. Meanwhile, mood is less well-defined than its cousins, but broadly understood as a priming state or proclivity for certain kinds of emotions. They are a background, diffuse, object-less and perhaps less intense affective state.

Certain philosophical perspectives within phenomenology take mood to a deeper level. Heidegger introduces the concept of Grundstimmung, that is, grounding moods. The profound variants of mood, such as angst, awe and boredom act as the conditions for experiencing significance in the world. They direct us, like a magnetic force, towards different kinds of saliences, via different kinds of cognitions and perceptive possibilities — for example, not only does anxiety makes one more alert to threat, but the world presents itself as threatening. These grounding moods matter, at least for Heidegger, as they are what make mattering even possible. A contemporary philosopher, Ratcliffe, has coined the term existential feeling for explaining the existential nature of these moods, whilst situating them in a strong bodily component. We all know that anxiety, for example, is felt in the stomach.

You don’t have to sign up to the Heideggarian view to accept that moods are an important aspect of human experience. On screen we depict artificial intelligences as operating without authentic moods but instead maintaining only external expressions of emotionality. This reduces their human-ness. Mood-less A.I.s don’t really feel. If mood is an important aspect of human experience you would expect it to play a clear role in the vocabularies of human industries such as marketing and innovation. But at least in my experience, it does not.

Mood in a digital world

Previously, marketing and innovation have side-lined moods because they are such a nuanced, diffuse and intangible aspect of consumer experience. Hypothetical and not targetable. However, I think this is changing with emergent digital experiences, particularly via content and social. Moods are becoming increasingly identifiable, addressable and potentially even manipulable in a digital world.

Spotify is a good example of the identifiablity and addressability of mood. Spotify allows users to navigate with the platform via mood-based selection features — as opposed to the traditional music consumption dynamic via genres and artists. Through analysing patterns of behaviour, Spotify suggests music in its discovery features. In turn, the discovery features provide a textured and adaptive environment for listening based on day part, activity and moods, individualised to users’ music preferences. Music listening provides a rich data source for analysing the sorts of moods that users are currently having. Supposedly, clusters of music listening behaviours can be linked to different mood-types. And as such, moods are now identifiable by the company. Spotify’s recent announcement of a partnership with meditation app Headspace points towards the company making moves towards recognising the importance of mood management through its service.

Identification of moods allows Spotify to tailor the music listening experience of their subscribed users. But for unsubscribed users, the company also provides a case study for how moods are now addressable. Based on mood data, Spotify allows brands to target advertising to specific moods. It doesn’t seem a huge jump to assume there are moods where consumers are more receptive to certain messages over others — and this would be an example of the sorts of insights that brands would need to have in hand in a world where moods are addressable through digital experiences. Catching on with this broader trend within marketing, Spotify describes this advertising portfolio as human-centred. (More on that later.) Nonetheless, Spotify doesn’t provide the most obvious example of how moods are now manipulable. Though it’s possible that unsubscribed users could be primed with different kinds of music suggestions to bring about a desired effect, such as a more receptive state for advertising, there’s no evidence of that taking place.

Nevertheless, Facebook does provide an example with its well-known and and widely criticised mood experiment. For a week in 2012, Facebook experimented on a sample of 700,000 users through exposing a portion of them to increased positive content and a portion of them to increased negative content. The result was that users either posted increased positive or negative content depending on their exposure within the experiment. The study describes the effect as an “emotional contagion,” showing how moods spread through social groups like fire in a forest. Published in an academic journal in association with the company, this experiment made explicit and public the potential of Facebook for manipulating mood. Of course, outside of the experiment Facebook’s algorithm’s are manipulating your news feed all the time, though not necessarily with mood alterations as the goal — but for the increased viewing of partner content.

The criticism of this experiment uncovers some of our deep-seated intuitions about ethics in this area. Our intuitive distaste doesn’t seem to be so strong about being primed for needs and desires based on bodily feelings and emotions that are are employed in advertising and retail. But the idea of moods being manipulable summons greater ethical concern. This indicates that moods seem to matter more than the other bodily feelings and temporary emotions, perhaps because as Heidegger advises us — they are existentially vital.

Human-to-human

I expect mood will find its home as part of a wider trend within marketing, strategy and innovation circles. That is, the word “human” is being bandied around a lot these days, with phrases like “human-centred,” “human-to-human,” and “human sciences” being used by agencies and brands to describe their approach. (See for example RED Associates, GEMIC, HELLON as examples that come to the top of my mind)

On the one hand, this trend is being driven by the growing influence of User Experience and Service Design fields (which include amongst their methods the tool of mood mapping) and on the other hand by the emergence of anthropologically-inspired innovation and strategy agencies. What is emerging is an understanding of the consumer which is embodied, situated and individuated — inspired by contemporary insights in cognitive sciences, social sciences and philosophy.

My prediction is that whilst digital companies are creating the tools to address mood, the validity of mood as a subject of interest for marketers and innovators will emerge within this wider evolution towards a human-centric theory of consumer. Another area where mood might play an emerging role is in segmentation — I’ve put some thought into what a mood segmentation might look like, and how it contrasts with existing segmentation models.

I hope this trend signals a move towards industries taking a more complete and responsive picture of the consumer — and I’m excited to be around at the beginning of this movement.

Future horizons of mood

Imagine a world where data on our moods, perhaps gauged by our behaviour across platforms or measured by wearable technology, is a key resource available to the technology we interact with. Will digital personal assistants like Apple’s Siri and Amazon’s Alexa interact with us based on the moods they perceive, more like human social interactions? Will they be programmed to try improve our mood or to target our mood with solutions? The same goes for all of the other forms of ambient, interactive technologies and digital experiences that are becoming a part of our lives.

Further out, what role will mood play if a closer connection is made between cognition and computation, or so-called mind-machine interfaces reach their full potential. Will there be an AppStore for the mind? If so, moods states could be amongst the experiences available to stream on-demand for the cyborg mind. Mood might not be just a way of understanding and interacting with consumers, but an experiential commodity available for consumers to buy — that is, there would be a marketplace for moods.

Expanding these trends to a sci-fi extreme teases out our intuitions for the need for ethical work to be done in this area. Moods have been revealed as a foundational aspect to human experience, and a part of experience that in a digital world the “human- to- human” industries of marketing and innovation are increasingly gaining access to. As such, understanding and addressing moods will be become an important task of these professions, perhaps through segmentation. But so will addressing the ethical boundaries that should be present in how industry uses these new digital resources to identify, address and even manipulate consumers’ moods.