Sentiment is everywhere in marketing. It’s what many companies are actively measuring and reporting back to their clients–and companies are spending millions in social listening, which is said to auto-capture the sentiment being shared online. But how does sentiment differ from emotion? Although many dictionary writers cite “emotion” as one definition of sentiment, the two concepts are not actually equivalent, particularly when it comes to traditional measurements and use of sentiment data for business purposes.
Because of limitations inherent in measurement technologies, and perhaps due to a shallow foundational knowledge about the nature of emotions, it seems that many who are interested in the ways people feel about products and services have been content to understand feelings only at the level of positive and negative valences. Although they might go so far as to measure the degree to which a person might espouse satisfaction or dissatisfaction in a consumer context, they really aren’t asking people about their actual feelings. This means that learning is limited unnecessarily, and that opportunities are lost.
As noted elsewhere, the parties interested in learning seem either to assume that such simplistic dichotomies are all they need to know, or they settle for such an approach despite a desire for richer learning. That desire, unfortunately, has been thwarted by logistical difficulties (e.g. how to ask), concerns about respondent fatigue (as when people tire of traditional questionnaires or surveys), or lack of clarity in the data they gather (e.g. when text analysis and even expert raters fail to accurately identify the specific feelings conveyed in a social media post).
Star rating systems are arguably the sine qua non of this limited approach, as they rarely ask a respondent about anything more than “liking” or satisfaction levels. The limitations of such rating systems are well-known, and it is worth remembering that people don’t simply feel “good” or “bad” and they don’t experience only satisfaction or dissatisfaction. People feel feelings, the felt component of emotions, that vary in type, intensity, and in motivational implications.
A “dissatisfied” person might arrive at a conclusion – a sentiment – of displeasure by a variety of paths, both with respect to the circumstances surrounding such a judgment and with respect to the specific feelings engendered in a given experience. Disappointment does not feel the same as frustration does, and neither feels like disgust. More importantly, the three feelings motivate us in different ways. Failure to understand this and to accurately derive that information, leads to failures of response and failures of prediction.
What is now needed is an systemic evolution beyond sentiment, to ask or otherwise allow people to share their actual feelings easily, concisely, and accurately. This is the pathway to deeper, more accurate understanding and more timely, accurate responses along with more refined awareness of macro-level trends beyond any particular consumer or any given experience.