Ethan Bresnahan is a senior at Drexel University, and co-founder of Boost Linguistics, a company that specializes in taking the writing of its clientele and adjusting the emotional language of its tone to suit a specific aim. The company has worked with many businesses, championing the belief that emotionally charged content elicits a stronger response from consumers, but the philosophy and theory behind Boost Linguistics digs deep into the inefficiencies of language and the potential to make human communication as direct as possible.
The Original Idea
Boost didn’t start as a company designed to help other businesses more effectively market their products. The project began in a consulting class for the U.S. State Department. “It was the winter of 2015, so I was working to neutralize violent extremist recruitment of college students over social media,” Bresnahan says. He and his group, after extensive content research, were able to pinpoint five emotional identifiers that would make someone a prospective recruit for a group like ISIS, likely to respond actively to the group’s online content.
Using what they’d found, Bresnahan’s group took the five identifiers and found their inverses. “We started making a daily newsletter, and we essentially started making our own neutralizing content for Drexel’s campus specifically.” The newsletter was a daily email composed of five sections, each of which embodied one of the five inverted “neutralizers.” Named “The Daily Boost,” the newsletter was to function as a “linguistic cup of coffee,” filled with positive emotions for anyone reading it in the middle of their day.
After the class ended, Drexel asked Bresnahan and his group to keep doing their newsletter as a side project. “But we spent a lot of time crafting the language of each of these sections, making sure that it elicited the right emotion.” Bresnahan recalls that he and one of his co-founders were sitting in a meeting when they thought of the idea for a tool that could take a piece of writing, then reword and optimize it so as to elicit a certain emotion. “We didn’t know if it was possible at the time.”
Eventually, Bresnahan and crew realized it was possible to create artificial intelligence and machine-learning algorithms capable of helping users optimize their language to induce desired reactions. The group pivoted. “We decided we would have a significantly greater impact by helping content marketers, or just content creators in general, optimize their content [rather] than trying to create content ourselves.” From then on, the group focused on software.
“Brands have discovered that it’s no longer product superiority that really matters,” Bresnahan says. “Clorox knows that their bleach is no better than the generic brand. It’s all about the relationship that you develop with that brand.” He goes on to explain that if your mother always used Clorox, and you always had it around in the house, you are then more likely to buy Clorox yourself because you have a relationship with it. “It’s all about emotional connection.”
Initially, Boost looked to creators of content to sell their services to. Many were bloggers who, while interested in the potential in such software, were not willing to pay for it. So the company focused on the growing content marketing industry, realizing that their software could be extremely helpful for companies looking to induce very specific responses from their consumers. “About 80 percent of the buying process is emotional and irrational, rather than the 20 percent that is just rational.”
Bresnahan talks about how in the past there was very little an advertiser could do to be exact in appealing to that 80 percent besides sitting down for multiple hours and honing content, and crafting that content takes time. Because sales reps demand so much content from creators, and this content takes time to make, the quality of the material that’s ultimately produced suffers. Boost found that many in such a predicament were very interested in the idea of a streamlining service.
“Our first product, the Boost Editor, allows you to not only edit faster, but also maintain or increase your level of quality when you’re appealing to that emotional side of your audience.” Bresnahan argues this helps marketers connect with their audience significantly faster. Boost Linguistics helps companies find and display the tone of their brand through specific words used in any given advertisement or statement. “Depending on what sort of engagement, or what sort of connection you want to establish, or what sort of reaction you want your reader to have, you can optimize for one of the five basic emotions.” These, similar to the film “Inside Out,” are happiness, sadness, anger, anxiety and disgust. Each of these five emotions elicits a different emotional response from the reader. “Happiness increases social sharing, sadness increases brand empathy, anger solidifies a customer’s purchasing decision.” Ideally, a company’s writing should elicit multiple variations of these five.
Business and School
Drexel University is a five-year co-op school. In students’ second, third and fourth year, they spend six months in classes and six months working full time. Drexel also offers an entrepreneurship co-op program, whereby students can apply for a grant and work on their own co-op project for the six months they would otherwise be working at an established company. Bresnahan is entering his fifth year and is finishing up his last co-op. He has been working full time with Boost.
“I couldn’t tell you what full-time means, I’ve probably worked more in this six-month span than my other two [spans] combined,” Bresnahan says. He’ll be returning to his last term at Drexel at the end of September.
The Future of Language
Boost Linguistics’ first product, the Boost Editor, was released on August 30 of this year. The target market for the software is presently content marketers, but that isn’t the endgame for the Boost team. “Our mission isn’t necessarily to help marketing content,” Bresnahan says, but he admits that it’s easiest to sell to content marketers because they can best see the tangible impact of Boost’s software. There are other industries and trades where Boost’s technology can help, but many in such areas don’t understand how it works.
“The concept of language is incredibly ineffective,” Bresnahan says. “If you think about conveying a thought from one mind to another as if you were sending a file via email, you have to compress that file, you have to send the file and then the person you’re sending it to has to decompress it, and you have to trust that, when they decompress that file, it’s going to be exactly as you sent it. But there’s a lot that can go wrong in that process.” The true goal of Boost, according to Bresnahan, is to help anybody express themselves, and to try and prevent as much information loss and misinterpretation between people as possible. “We view language as a bridge, not a barrier, to understanding, and our goal is to help people be liberated from the fact that they may not be able to choose one word over another in the heat of the moment. You want to make sure you’re conveying not only just the idea, but also conveying the emotions of that idea with it whether it’s a blog post about Clorox bleach or a short story.”
Simply put, Boost Linguistics wants to make the transmission of ideas between minds easier. Bresnahan is excited about the multiple avenues they can explore with their technology and its infusion with AI software. Boost is also working on a stock photography library, using student work, whereby emotions and subjects can be matched with images to accompany written content. They’re also putting together a video class series to teach smaller companies about the fundamentals of content marketing and help people who are already interested find a place to start.