Despite the breadth and depth of the marketing technology universe and the emergence of AI and machine learning capabilities, marketing hasn’t really changed in hundreds of years. It has always been about understanding your customer and communicating with them efficiently and effectively.

But in the age of social media, we’ve shifted the emphasis away from pushing stories to customers to understanding the stories customers are telling for themselves. That’s where narrative analysis comes into play — helping you understand what consumers think of your product or service and the stories they’re creating around it.

Today, Protagonist — a narrative analytics company that was formerly known as Monitor 360 — has announced the Protagonist Platform. It claims to be the first software platform specifically designed to analyze complex, cross-platform datasets to reveal the underlying beliefs and motivations of consumers.

How does it work?

To uncover those user-generated stories, the Protagonist Platform leverages the latest techniques, including machine learning and natural language processing (NLP).

“First, we use unsupervised machine learning to find similarities between different documents and chunks of text based on narrative patterns,” Aaron Harms, EVP of product, technology, and finance at Protagonist, told me. “This enables us to develop narrative hypotheses for a new discourse/conversation, and assess what documents are likely to be promoting the same underlying narrative.  These narrative clusters are bound together by a range of features that capture the essence of a belief’s enduring logic and structure.”

The process isn’t completely machine-driven, however. There is an important additional element in the early stages of the machine learning process — people.

“Our human narrative experts then provide their input on the narrative hypotheses, and the machine learns from that input,” Harms said. “Once we’ve identified the narratives in a discourse/conversation that matter to our customers, we use classification algorithms to categorize new content — the continually unfolding flow of new information and news — into the known narratives and also scan for and identify new emerging narratives that are bubbling up from below the surface.”

The result of these combined approaches to narrative analysis produces a full overview of consumer stories, helping brands understand better how to craft future content and campaigns.

“In short, a series of unsupervised, semi-supervised, and supervised algorithms work in unison with our narrative experts to detect, cluster, and classify the clusters of narratives that exist in all kinds of natural language media content,” Harms said. “The marketer now has a data-driven understanding of the narratives that govern the beliefs of customers, constituents, and citizens, and an ability to track and model the ways in which these narratives unfold over time. These insights can be used to energize and protect a brand, understand and activate a target audience, and win a narrative battle that is playing out in the public discourse.”

This approach is significant. While there is a human element, it scales quicker — and will produce results much faster — than traditional focus groups, polls, and social listening techniques.

The Protagonist Platform includes narrative analysis and strategy, narrative subscription (which allows you to track changes in belief over time), and narrative playbook (which distills the findings into actionable tactics.)

It seems 2017 is the year that machine learning is making its way into marketing technology, and that trend promises to change how marketers approach their roles over the next few years.

“Machine learning lets the marketer focus on the creative and more strategic aspects of their work because the machine does the repeatable part,” Doug Randall, CEO of Protagonist, told me. “It’s impossible for a human to read every article, Twitter feed, Facebook post, or Reddit post of interest in order to understand what customers believe. So before now, they just read what they could and hoped they’d get the main idea. But, with the Protagonist platform and machine learning, computers can actually read everything and determine what the narrative is. The computer can also score it, determine what’s driving it, and provide other measures.”

The Protagonist Platform is available from today.