Want more sales? Don't promote. Connect emotionally, this Drexel Stellar StartUp says

Ethan Bresnahan (left) and Jeff Nowak, two of the cofounders of Boost Linguistics, hold up visual aids representing the emotions their software aims to help those who write marketing content evoke.

You know how something frustrating or depressing, thrilling or sad makes you want to eat a pint of Bassetts Pralines & Cream? That’s an emotional connection.

So is when you ooh and ahh and feel all warm and fuzzy when a puppy and a Clydesdale share a tender nose-to-nose moment in a Budweiser commercial.

A message that strikes an emotional chord is marketing gold, a powerful motivational tool when it comes to inspiring a purchase, experts say. And in today’s sensory-overloaded marketplace of push notifications, banner ads, and email blasts, making such connections is harder than ever for businesses.

“Companies are struggling to break through,” said Michael Brenner of West Chester, an authority on content marketing. “Ads don’t work.”

In that struggle, three Drexel University students saw business opportunity. In July 2015, they created Boost Linguistics, a start-up based at the school’s Baiada Institute that is using artificial intelligence to help marketers select the emotionally charged language most ideal for engaging their target audience.

“Our goal is to be able to provide people with the means to use language as an effective way of conveying ideas,” said Ethan Bresnahan, 22, a Boost Linguistics cofounder along with Jeff Nowak, 23, and Alexandra Dodson, 23. Nowak and Dodson have graduated; Bresnahan will finish classes in December and graduate in June.

Their product, Boost Editor, launched Wednesday at http://boostlinguistics.com/boosteditor, following a Thunderclap campaign in which supporters with more than one million total social-media followers pledged to spread the word.

Boost Linguistics is one of 26 finalists in this year’s second annual Stellar StartUps competition, presented by Philadelphia Media Network, parent company of the Inquirer, Daily News, and Philly.com, and sponsored by MassMutual Greater Philadelphia. It is competing in the student  category. Winners in all eight categories will be announced at an event at the Franklin Institute’s Fels Planetarium from 5:30 to 8:30 p.m. Sept 12. Tickets can be purchased at www.philly.com/stellarstartups.​

In a recent interview at Baiada — Boost Linguistics won one year of free access to the on-campus incubator in November, as part of its third-place finish in Drexel’s Startup Day competition — Nowak, a Northeast Philadelphia native who majored in legal studies, offered this simple premise of their entrepreneurial venture: “Word choice matters.”

Confirming that was Brenner, the content-marketing consultant whose clients include systems developer SAP (where he was vice president of global content marketing until 2014), Bloomberg LP, Adidas, and Marketo Inc., a California-based maker of marketing-automation software.

“Human emotional types of messages are just much more effective at reaching us,” Brenner said, citing a study in the United Kingdom that found them “three times more effective than promotional ones. … Emotion beats promotion.”

For Brenner’s advisory help, Boost Linguistics has given him a small equity stake in the company that only last week had a product to sell. Money “wasn’t even the motivation for me,” Brenner said. “I’m happy to help these young kids who have a great idea.”

Boost’s founders, he said, are “capitalizing on this desperation companies are really feeling to connect with consumers” and a recognition that artificial intelligence is “going to be part of our lives every day.”

For many, it already is. Voice-activated home assistants such as Amazon’s Alexa and Google’s Home greet us with “Good morning,” turn on music at our request, place shopping orders, and remind us about birthdays and anniversaries.

At a conference he attended recently, Brenner said, he learned of AI’s ability, upon analyzing 50 Facebook posts by a person, to identify 40 personality characteristics about that individual and predict their behavior better than a spouse or other relative could.

Results released in August of a survey of more than 100 retail marketing leaders by WBR Digital, a research firm, and Persado, worldwide developers of cognitive content software, revealed 86 percent planned to invest in AI/machine learning solutions in 2017. Nearly 50 percent said they expected to spend up to $50 million, with 25 percent planning to budget as much as $100 million, according to the study.

Boost Linguistics’ target market is businesses with much smaller marketing budgets. Its Editor platform is designed to analyze text for emotion and suggest verb and adjective changes to enhance the impact on those reading it. Such work is something few content creators — especially freelancers — have the time to do on their own, Boost’s principals say.

“We have spoken with over 120 content marketers, creators, and strategists who confirmed that they lack the time to craft emotionally compelling content,” Boost Linguistics said on its Stellar StartUps application. Most of them were bloggers, Bresnahan and Nowak said. They cited studies showing that firms that used emotionally charged language in marketing experienced, on average, conversion rates of nearly 50 percent over competitors that did not.

Which words are appropriate depends on the product and the desired emotion. Eliciting joy is most effective for increasing brand awareness — and love is the word that best induces joy, they said — while sadness increases brand empathy. Disgust is among the most extreme emotions, something, for instance, Clorox Co. wants consumers to feel about flu season, Nowak said. Buy now induces anxiety.

Since its founding, Boost Linguistics has been able to recruit two former machine-learning developers from Comcast — Suresh Allampati and Warren Kushner — to keep the company relevant in a quickly evolving tech niche, one with such sizable competitors as Persado, which was started in London and has a U.S. headquarters in New York, and Atomic Reach in Toronto. Grammarly, the eight-year-old San Francisco start-up that has had tremendous success with its AI-driven spelling- and grammar-checking services, raised $110 million earlier this year to expand.

In the next month or two, Boost Linguistics hopes to raise $100,000. That would be enough operating capital for 12 months, and would enable the founders and Allampati and Kushner to collect a “minimal” salary, Bresnahan said. Two employees might be hired in the next six months, he said.

Initially, Boost Editor users will have to copy and paste any content they want analyzed into the platform. But next year, the company plans to offer plug-ins to enable Editor users to remain within the systems they are writing in, such as Microsoft Word, Google Drive or WordPress.

There is a 50-cent charge for each of three available functions — analysis, receipt of suggestions, and follow-up analysis assessing the impact of changes — for a total of $1.50 per piece of content. Boost Linguistics’ founders are projecting $450,000 in revenue within two years, based on an average user spending $750 annually, with monthly fees ranging from $10 to $90.

“Our goal is to democratize this AI so it’s accessible to small- and mid-size businesses,” Bresnahan said.

7 tips, 1 common emotion to better connect with people: Joy

  • Want your blog to get as many shares as marketing professionals? Optimize the language of posts for joy.
  • Want to write a brilliant headline? Sixty-eight percent of the top 25 B2B headlines were ranked joyful.
  • Looking to grow your business' Facebook following? Eighty-eight percent of the top 25 Facebook headlines were ranked as joyful.
  •  Six out of 10 people will share your post based on just the headline.
  • The higher the joy rating, the higher chance your headline will receive more shares on social media.
  • Want to get more shares on your weekend blog? Joy is the best emotion to optimize to increase the probability of shares.
  • Looking to boost your business Facebook presence? Joyful headlines are shared nearly twice as much as the other emotions.