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. In reality, marketers are challenged on a minimum of a three different levels:
- Do we truly have the capacity for empathy, or do we just like to say we have it?
- How can we best achieve empathy?
- 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.
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.)
Straightforward Method 2: Ask ... And Listen
So you’ve opened the list of your brand followers on Instagram (or Facebook or Twitter or other) and you’ve started looking at details. You’re now thinking beyond the fact that most of your followers look to be between the ages of 25 to 36. You’ve even started to map some interest graphs and seen, curiously, that an overwhelming majority of your followers have dogs. They’re dog people, not cat people. And that has started to spark some ideas for content of value.
You could jump right in and starting making content with this information. Or you could reach out to some of those followers and ask if they’d be willing to talk to you for a few minutes about themselves, and what drew them to your brand in the first place. They are, after all, following you. They might like you enough to also share some thoughts with you — about why they like you, what they want most, why the engage or buy what they buy, and what they’d like to see you do next.
This can be done in a public way by asking a light, open-ended question on one of their posts. Or by asking them a question after they like one of yours. That kind of dialogue often pulls in additional comments and opinions, which is positive in two ways: It makes you more conversational (human and approachable) as a brand; and it opens the possibility to understand other followers as individuals.
You could also ask them in a private manner, through a direct message. And that private conversation can be started as simply as asking, “Would you be willing to talk to us more about why you’re following us?” or “What you find appealing about our brand?” And starting the question with a “Thank you for following us!” can go a long way.
“Transparency Tuesday” is a regular Instagram event from Everlane — a clothing company centered on the idea of radical transparency. Keeping with our theme of simplicity, their community managers take questions from their audience and give straightforward answers. In so doing, a question like “When will you start making shoes for men?” becomes both a way to engage with an audience, but also provides valuable market research for Everlane. But — if they weren’t actively asking for fans to ask questions, and being willing to give open, honest answers, then fans probably wouldn’t be so apt to ask questions in the first place.
Another method of starting a conversation to understand more can be done through email. Everlane asked me recently to review a product I had purchased. Not just because they wanted a review, but because a customer who was looking at the same size and cut as I had bought asked a specific question about the fit. They quickly searched their purchase/CRM database for the right peer and reached out to me with a specific question to help another fan out.
By making that connection — peer-to-peer — they’re getting dialogue started that they’ll learn from. I’ll tell them (and the other customer) what I like and what I don’t in an honest way, and Everlane will learn why I buy what I do, what I might want next and why. They’ll gain true understanding of my thoughts, needs and wants. They’ll gain empathy. And in the process, I’ve created a new piece of content for them. And that brings us to straightforward method 3...
Straightforward Method 3: Co-Create
Your fans are content creators. Especially those on channels like Instagram and Snapchat. And often, you can help them in their creative endeavors – whether through liking posts, commenting on them or promoting them. And you can go further in helping them create even better content. In the process, of course, you’ll learn more about those fans, achieving empathy and greater engagement.
One of my favorite examples of co-creation — and market research — in this manner is GE InstaWalks. The process was simple enough. Identify some uber-fans with a specific interest in something you offer. In one of the GE instances: People who love trains. Next, invite those people in for an exclusive tour of the process and product. Finally, let them capture what they want and share the photos and experiences on social media.
Doing this not only gave access to something few get to experience. But it invited even more people—your followers, and the followers of your followers—behind the scenes as well. In the process, you’ve had a chance to see what those invites were most drawn to. You’ve gotten to hear, first hand, what drew them in. You’ve gotten to see what others like, and be a part of a conversation about the post. And, yes, all the while you’ve achieved empathy with your audience. You’ve transcended demographics and begun to know your audience as people.
Personas done right are centered on empathy, not segments.
As I mentioned before, I kind of hate personas. Not the idea of them, but the current execution.
If you could make a different persona, though...one that focuses on the true, expressed interests, needs and wants of your audience...one that focuses on empathy. That would be something that wouldn’t just allow you to segment your audience by demographics. That would be a touchstone for all the people communicating on behalf of your brand, to have to spark content of value and create meaningful connections with your audience.
That is achievable through some pretty straightforward actions. Try starting with the ones above and see where they lead.
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.