Straightforward Steps to Achieving Empathy

Empathy is the ability to understand and share the feelings of another. In marketing, empathy is the code word for understanding your audience’s needs, desires and communication preferences so well that your marketing is tuned perfectly toward meeting those needs and desires, and inciting action. At least … that’s the goal.

Empathy is the ability to understand and share the feelings of another. In marketing, empathy is the code word for understanding your audience’s needs, desires and communication preferences so well that your marketing is tuned perfectly toward meeting those needs and desires, and inciting action.

At least … that’s the goal. In reality, marketers are challenged on a minimum of a three different levels:

  1. Do we truly have the capacity for empathy, or do we just like to say we have it?
  2. How can we best achieve empathy?
  3. If we’ve achieved empathy, are we actually expressing it? Are we providing value to our audience based on that common understanding? Or are we still pushing product and employing a couple of words to make it sound like we have empathy?

Let’s make the correct assumption that we should have empathy at the core of our marketing. So … how we do achieve empathy? And how should it shape our communications?

Empathy requires truly understanding our audience.

“You never really know a man until you understand things from his point of view, until you climb into his skin and walk around it.”
— Harper Lee. “To Kill A Mockingbird”

Certainly this wasn’t written with marketing on the brain. And Harper Lee’s words are not even the origin of the idea. But I’m going to terribly twist the thought to our ends and say it’s a great statement about what it takes to truly understand an audience. And currently, most marketers aren’t taking this tact when they say their gaining an understanding of audience.

Because, usually, the process marketers take (dubbed persona creation) involves gathering just about everyone into a room to talk about the audience…except members of the audience themselves! Which means marketers come together to discuss their biased beliefs of what an audience thinks, feels, wants and needs.

We’ve even gone so far as to try and talk ourselves into believing that’s the right way to do things by quoting other people — like Henry Ford (“If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.”) or Steve Jobs (“A lot of times, people don’t know what they want until you show it to them.”).

I would posit that those dudes were smart enough to know how important it is to know what people are asking for. And that, if the whole story is told, Henry would’ve heard “faster horses” and interpreted the thought as “a more rapid means of personal transportation.” Therefore he knew what his audience truly needed, even if it wasn’t in the form the audience thought it might come in. That’s understanding people far below the surface. That’s empathy. (I’ll give Steve the same kind of credit.)

If you’re going to truly understand your audience, then you have to spend time with your audience, and hear what they’re saying beyond just the words used.

How do you spend that time? Here’s three straightforward ways.

Straightforward Method 1: Observe

I guess you could call it stalking … but not the creepy “get yourself arrested” kind of stalking. As audiences are now creating plenty of profiles, content and commentary, those signals become the easiest entré into understanding who your audience really is, as individuals. Simply observing the language used (including shorthand like emojis), the commonalities of self-description and other surface cues can help you better understand the tendencies, needs and wants of your audience.

As an example, take a look at my actual Instagram profile. You’ll see several things that might be important to you, as a marketer. If you’re selling bourbon or beer, you’ve got the info straight from me that I’m a part of your audience. Likewise, if you’re selling marketing technology, I might be a good target, too. Now, that’s a bit too easy…especially if I’m already following your beer brand, this is just validation that I’m actually interested, but it’s not really new information.

If you go a bit farther, though, you’d find information that builds from that validation point, and gives you some interesting angles to work into valuable content for me (and others like me in your audience). I’ve been spending time at the pool … I play golf … I proudly promote my Raleigh community…so on and so forth. And I haven’t even delved into the photos I’ve liked from others – to start to build a picture of who I influence, and who influences me. Or followed myself (in this case) to other social networks to see what I’m posting.

One way to build empathy for your customers.

As a marketer, you can build some pretty amazing interest graphs of your audience that go far beyond demographics. And those interest graphs become the sparks of new content that is driven specifically by what I’m already engaging in. (Like: “Best IPAs To Drink Poolside.”) This is gaining an understanding of who I am, what I like, what I do and what I think. This is building empathy.

(A note on demographics: We marketers love the idea of personas. But I not-so-secretly hate personas. Because the commonly accepted version of personas are based on demographics. And empathy cannot be defined by demographics. One 44-year-old digital marketing expert is not just like another. But if you concentrate on demographics and don’t dig into the individuals behind the averages, that’s what you’ll be led to believe.)

Author: John Lane

Watching TV as a kid, I used to run to the bathroom during the shows so I could make it back for the commercials. Those days launched me down a path that included layout and writing for the college paper; communications strategy for political campaigns; marketing strategy and graphic design for Gensler (a global design and architecture firm); and the implementation of new programming, animation and design techniques for Centerline.

Today I specialize in content marketing strategy and building digital deliverables to execute those strategies. But it’s about more than just creating killer digital content. At Centerline, we help clients succeed in the digital marketplace using a three-pronged approach: strategic (message creation, brand strategy), tactical (design, development), and analytical (measurement and adaptation). This experience-tested approach allows me to build campaigns that are both well-designed and effective for clients like IBM, GE and Quintiles.

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