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.)

3 Parts of ‘Smart’ Marketing

I find myself pondering all of the things I’ve learned in my career about what’s smart, and what’s not so smart about marketing today. The following are three “parts” of marketing strategies that never fail for brands big and small, as well as in all industries.

smart marketingWith this month’s release of my new book — “Marketing for Dummies,” a new edition that focuses on the digital era — I find myself pondering all of the things I’ve learned in my career about what’s smart, and what’s not so smart about marketing today. The following are three “parts” of marketing strategies that never fail for brands big and small, as well as in all industries.

It’s Not About Creative

Thinking that the more clever or shocking your advertising is, the more your sales will go up is a trap that many big brands fall into. Take a look at the Super Bowl ad phenomenon.

GoDaddy historically does the worst, most tasteless ads every year. Yet they have experienced consistent growth each year and are at a pace to grow 20 percent. On the flip side, Budweiser always has the most heart-warming, talked-about ads with its horses and puppies, and quite often earns the coveted “most-liked ad” in the USA listings the day after. Yet, as pointed out in an article in Money.com, during their roll of Super Bowl ad success, sales have been going down along with their dominance in the beer category.

The takeaway here is clear: Creative entertains and builds name recall, but not necessarily sales results. If you are okay to entertain with your ads and not worry about the impact on sales, then go hire a creative team who can create a mini-movie in 30 seconds. If you need advertising to drive sales, ROI and profitability, like most businesses, then put your resources into the next three parts. Not saying creative is not important, but it should not be what drives your marketing strategy. What should drive it is a product of the knowledge you have about what inspires, moves, motivates and engages your customers — consciously and unconsciously.

Consumers disliked GoDaddy's Super Bowl ad in 2015.
Consumers disliked GoDaddy’s Super Bowl ad in 2015.

Empathy Is the Foundation

The definition of empathy is: the ability to understand and share the feelings of another. Now more than ever, understanding consumers’ and what moves them to engage, trust and assign loyalty is critical for acquisition and retention. CRM and data analytics platforms and so many more programs help us understand how and why consumers make choices so we can build highly relevant content to deploy across channels used daily by those we want to reach most.

Yet, if our communications focus only on what we learn from “data” about their transactions, we fall short. We need to understand what drives consumers emotionally and psychologically to engage. What are the feelings that influence their ability to trust and what actions create positive feelings toward brands? As I’ve written in many columns and throughout my book, these feelings that drive consumers toward our brands are much deeper than the satisfaction with our products or services. They are the feelings associated with what drives human nature: a sense of belonging, respect, value and altruism toward common causes.

Your communications and marketing content needs to be rooted in “empathy” of shared feelings and mutual understanding. With all of the research about consumers’ values and their support for companies that engage in sincere CSR programs, it’s not hard to get a glimpse of the feelings that move sales today.

Survival Is in Our DNA

After years of studying human psychology and how it drives choice and behavior, this single fundamental element of human nature stands out the most: We are wired for survival, just like any species is, and all of our thoughts and actions follow suit.

Survival relates not just to our physical well-being, but to every aspect of our lives. Consciously, and more so unconsciously, our need to survive socially, professionally, and emotionally is part of the big and small choices we make daily. Shopping for a dress for the company holiday party is not just about what makes you look good, it’s about projecting the image you believe will help you look powerful, sophisticated, and smart in order to maintain your current position or ready you for a new one that is better and enhances your professional and financial position.

When you can create personalized communications, or mass communications around key personas for your customer groups, you hit the emotional chords that get customers to engage and start a journey with your brand to see if it will lead them to a stronger position in the areas of life that matter most to them: social, professional, emotional, financial and more.

Conclusion

While there are many more than three parts of survival for brands marketing products and services in today’s dynamic and complex market environments, these three fundamentals are part of any “smart” marketing plan. No matter what level you are in your marketing career, you will “dummy” down your short- and long-term results if you don’t apply empathy, address the survival DNA, and keep your creative or marketing content relevant to these two drivers.

See the Customer Inside the Idiot With Compassion

“A person is smart. People are dumb.” That’s been my best friend’s favorite quote since we were 16. But it has a flaw: Compassion.

“A person is smart. People are dumb.”
—Agent K, Men in Black

That’s been my best friend’s favorite quote since we were 16 years old. But it has a flaw.

It’s not numbers that make people stupid. It’s your distance from them and your angle of view that make them appear so.

Maybe it’s the customer who asks how many are in a dozen. Or the website visitor who says your pictures are too small, even though it just takes a click to enlarge them. Or the member who complains about your password protocol because they can’t figure out to write it down. (Full disclosure: I’ve been that idiot.)

That’s hardly an exhaustive list of the ways the people you’re marketing to can look like idiots. I don’t have any idea of the myriad of specific ways your customers frustrate you, but I’m betting you have a list.

The job of marketing is to convince people, many people, people you’ll probably never meet, to do the thing you have painstakingly tried to make them want to do. You may have spent years of your life trying to make it as simple as possible for them to do the thing. You’ve probably bent over backwards to make sure they have everything they need to do it. And yet, sometimes we’re all just Happy Gilmore on the putting green trying to get the ball to go into the hole that’s its home.

Happy Gilmore, not showing compassionWhen they don’t do the thing, customers can all look like idiots.

Compassion in Business

This came to mind when I was at Dreamforce last week. A big theme of the show was compassion. Now sure, a lot of that was discussion about charitable works and Salesforce’s gifts to nonprofits (which are to be lauded), But there was a bigger point that Mark Benioff made: Businesses and people don’t succeed by doing what they need, they succeed when they start doing what others need.

That sounds counter-intuitive, but it makes sense when you think about the hallmarks of great products and services: They solve your peoples’ problems.

Compassion is the key to doing that. If you can’t sympathize with the people you’re marketing to, you can’t solve their problems — be it the problems your products are meant to solve, problems with your products, or problems with the path to purchasing your products.

Compassion is also the key to finding a sense of purpose in your marketing. It’s hard to feel fulfilled herding idiots. When you can look at your customers with compassion, empathizing with their problems and helping them in a worthwhile way, that’s what’s fulfilling and sustaining in business.

So by being compassionate to your prospects and customers, you’re also being compassionate to yourself.

Plus, you’ll make more money that way.

Neuroscience, Leadership and 7 Challenges for DM Leaders

Leaders do make a difference. Maybe the explanation can be found in neuroscience. Over the years I’ve worked with many different leadership styles, and it’s apparent that some are more effective than others. Let’s take a look at the good and the, well, not-so-good leadership I’ve observed from direct marketing leaders, along with seven challenges that can deliver …

The neuroscience of great leadership.Leaders do make a difference. Maybe the explanation can be found in neuroscience. Over the years I’ve worked with many different leadership styles, and it’s apparent that some are more effective than others. Let’s take a look at the good and the, well, not-so-good leadership I’ve observed from direct marketing leaders, along with seven challenges that can deliver more results.

Where Neuroscience and Leadership Meet

There are two points of reference for this column. First, a column in Inc. Magazine titled “The Neuroscience That’s Turning Good Managers Into Great Leaders.” The article summarizes concepts from “Neuroscience for Leaders,” a new book by Dr. Nikolaos Dimitriadis and Dr. Alexandros Psychogios. A few highlights that reveals the importance of emotion in leadership:

  • There is a neuroscience to leadership, one that allows managers to move from “good” to “great” by retraining our thought patterns, nurturing emotions and training yourself to respond with empathy.
  • The brain is primarily “a social organ,” and a great leader views the role as one of empathy.
  • The emotional brain is crucial for guiding our decisions and behaviors, and it is always on duty.
  • Empathy is talked about in companies but rarely practiced in management. Managers desire to lead with more emotion, but scanning through spreadsheets and charts all day, responding to stress by becoming more analytical, and overemphasizing certain emotions — such as happiness or fear of failure — make leaders only partially effective.

In other words, great leaders effectively blend the metaphorical left brain (logic and analytics) and right brain (creativity and emotion).

The reference about moving from “good” to “great” reminds me, of course, of the classic book, “Good to Great,” by Jim Collins. Even though it was released a few years ago, it’s still relevant. Every company leader, and aspiring leader who wants to take a business to a higher level should read it.

Here are a few nuggets from “Good to Great” about the most advanced “Level 5” leaders for taking an organization from just “good” to “great”:

  • Level 5 leaders channel their ego needs away from themselves and into the larger goal of building a great company. Their ambition is for the institution, not themselves.
  • Level 5 leaders display a compelling modesty, are self-effacing and understated.
  • Level 5 leaders are fanatically driven, infected with an incurable need to produce sustained results.

How a Dirty Mind Can Help Save Your Creative

My journalism mentor Charlie Adair [RIP] was an utterly twisted human being, but in the best way imaginable for a student who wanted to learn to be the best reporter he could be. He could have taught marketers a thing or too, as well-for example, about empathy, hitting deadline, and always thinking on one’s feet. The final exams for Charlie’s infamous interviewing course were legendary for putting students in excruciatingly uncomfortable positions. … Team Obama could use a Charlie Adair.

My journalism mentor Charlie Adair [RIP] was an utterly twisted human being, but in the best way imaginable for a student who wanted to learn to be the best reporter he could be.

He could have taught marketers a thing or too, as well—for example, about empathy, hitting deadline, and always thinking on one’s feet.

The final exams for Charlie’s infamous interviewing course were legendary for putting students in excruciatingly uncomfortable positions.

According to a post on his eulogy, one class “was merely given phone numbers to call for interviews. The students discovered people who were blind, who had AIDS, who were in great distress—all assembled by Charlie for the exercise.”

“Typical Charlie,” I thought as I read it.

For another exam, he loaded the entire class into an Econoline van, drove them to the front gate of New York’s Attica state prison and told them to go in and get quotes from lifers.

The final exam for my interviewing class was a quote scavenger hunt that included having to find, phone and quote people who were obscurely referenced—maybe by just a name or nickname. This was before the Internet.

My exam also involved getting a quote from Buffalo, NY’s then mayor Jimmy Griffin, a man legendary for physical altercations with reporters.

I aced that exam. For example, I knew Mayor Griffin would get increasingly agitated by the calls from Charlie’s students and would stop accepting them, so I made sure I was first.

Charlie called his interviewing class “boot camp for the terminally over privileged.”

Just before he died, I met him for lunch during a trip back to Buffalo. After we shook hands, I produced a copy of iMarketing News, the dot-com trade newspaper I had launched for DM News.

“Everything you taught me is in play in this newspaper,” I said. “Your name’s not on it, but you’re all through it.”

He died in 2000 from unexpected complications from what was supposed to be minor surgery. He was 58.

I think of Charlie often, especially when circumstances arise that he warned us would come about.

In fact, I thought of Charlie recently and how he would have chuckled when an email arrived from the Obama team with “Michelle” in the “from” line.

“Sometime soon, I want to meet you,” said the subject line.

Team Obama could use a Charlie Adair.

One of the simplest but most enduring lessons he taught me was that the best editors have dirty minds. They can help avoid publishing embarrassing copy with unintended meanings.

For example, I once saved a reporter from including a line in her piece about a football practice bubble that had been “problem plagued since its erection.”

If a Charlie Adair were on team Obama, he would have told them that subject line in the “Michelle” email sounded like something from a pornography spammer.

Everyone can use a Charlie Adair on their copy team-including you. That guy or gal on your team with the dirty mind could mean the difference between a sale and a giggle.