You may have heard of empathetic content marketing — a form of marketing that appeals to consumer emotions and experiences. But it is right for you? And should you be using it as a marketing tactic?
This article is a straightforward breakdown of the power of empathy in marketing and what to do about it.
What is empathetic-driven thinking?
There’s a fascinating article published by the American Marketing Association (AMA) that describes how empathetic marketing makes you feel. It outlines a lot of the basics of what we understand as empathy and marketing: empathetic marketing in general, is marketing materials that are rooted in empathizing with a target consumer or target audience. Author Sarah Steimer provided some wonderful examples, including a study on the ingenuity of empathetic creativity in product design.
At the root of empathetic marketing is the definition of empathy itself: don’t just feel bad that another person (i.e., potential customer) is going through an experience, instead try to feel what they feel. Empathy is a difficult ability for many of us to conceptualize let alone adopt. On the one hand, we understand that it is actually impossible to perform the literary trick of “getting in someone else’s shoes,” but on the other, we can imagine what it might be like to go through an experience that someone else is going through.
There are caveats, of course. We can really only imagine an experience that is relevant to us and our past experiences. This is easy for small things, like when someone is frustrated that their item is unavailable at a restaurant. If you had your hopes for the köfte it may be hard to switch over to the lamb moussaka. But in general, the waitress will issue an “I’m so sorry about that” and you make a new choice. And even more simply, it is only a preference choice. That you get köfte or not is not life or death (unless you have a food limitation like food intolerance).
Our engagement with empathy, therefore, relates not only to whether or not we can relate to the event or not but also to the severity of the event. We are inclined to feel more empathy when we think about someone going through a hardship. If a friend loses their job, you can go through the motions and say “I’m so sorry that happened to you” (i.e., more like sympathizing), or you can hug them and cry with them (i.e., more like empathizing).
If we take this one level further, your engagement with empathy will also be determined on the number and variety of experiences you have had (positive or negative), and the level of emotion that you normally engage with. If you haven’t lived as aggressively as some, you may have less to relate to. And if you are normally emotionally detached, then you might enjoy the story, but the narratives may feel less evocative.
What does this have to do with marketing
In her article, Sarah breaks down the many ways in which empathy can benefit product design. One example is that of the food products company Oxo. I didn’t recognize them at first, but they are popular in dried sauces and stock cubes. I have them in my pantry.
Oxo’s approach to product design is people-centered in that they are constantly reminding themselves that sometimes simple tasks can be difficult. Their image of different types of lost gloves posted in their New York City office serves as a reminder to create accessible products for all types of people.
This is compelling stuff. If we think of the glove wall in terms of marketing, this can be confusing. Unless you’re an in-house marketing agency, you are most likely working with any number of clients, firms, or companies to build a creative brand. This means that your marketing deals with a growing number of individuals (internally, on the B2B side), but then you must also identify the numerous target audiences that a brand can speak to. This can put a strain on the style of marketing you employ, the number of marketing campaigns you host, and your ability to empathize with each target audience.
If you take into account the number of people working in a marketing agency, the number of people working on the client’s end, and then the different types of customer personas, then you’ll find yourself dealing with quite a few variables. It might seem that connecting with customers is nearly impossible.
Problem-solving and marketer bias
A marketer’s job is to inform a user of the value of a product or service and provide a pathway to purchasing (or interacting) with the product or service. This differs from product design, which is more or less about how the product is delivered to users and their experience with it (like UX/UI).
That said, it is not a bad idea to consider empathy in the eyes of a designer. UX and game designers have used an empathy map as a way to understand their users. I don’t want to get into empathy mapping too much, but here is a visual for how empathy mapping is accomplished:
For marketers, empathy should provide a space for exploration in creative brainstorming and development. This means that empathy will overlap with problem-solving throughout all development processes.
One crucial error that a marketer can make is to problem-solve for a scenario that they are most likely to be in and fail to consider that a consumer might have a different viewpoint from them. This is called marketer bias, and it relates to cognitive bias. We have a lot on our plates and simplifying information in order to understand it is just one of the many ways we cope. It is also one of the causes of both positive and negative cognitive biases.
I’d like to think that in every marketing development program there is a point at which the team stops and reflects on their marketing choices. This means assessing normal specs of the job but also checking cognitive biases in the language, images, and messages conveyed.
Here are a few things to consider when checking those blind spots:
Identify what you’re familiar with
It’s a basic task — jot down the things that you have a decent amount of experience with. The list might be shorter than you’d expect. Think sociological concepts (i.e., gender, race, nationality) and niche topics. What experiences have you gone through? What feelings do you identify with most?
Identify what you are uncomfortable with
This list is actually longer than you think, but its a nearly impossible list to write. How do you know what you don’t know? Well, for starters, you can try to look at all the different types of academic journals that exist (this list is only at Oxford). Simple tasks can be also uncomfortable, like separating your garbage or reading a book.
Do the processes in place allow for a bias check?
Typically, the answer to this is no. This is because the act of creating a diverse and inclusive workspace is now coming to head and we are finally trying to account for some of the biases that are apparent in workplace culture. Inside your work culture, are things like interviews anonymized? Outside your work culture, what aspects of a target audience are you considering? What about your strategy is speaking to transnationalism?
Step away from group-think and generalizations
I think this is overplayed, but not all disabled people are the same, not all women love pink, not all Americas are… you get the picture. It’s also not a good idea to manipulate generalizations to invoke an emotional response.
The common phrase used here is self-awareness. Unfortunately, that phrase is so common that it has become meaningless. It is also too vague and it assumes that most people aren’t aware of their own self. Of course, I’m self-aware. After all, I’m walking around, laughing, and talking, aren’t I? Instead, substitution takes self-awareness one step deeper and is key to thinking with empathy. If I were in that situation, how would I react? This is better than thinking about how you should react.
Imagine your networks
A great example of imaged networks was proposed by Hayley Barnard, co-founder and managing director at MIX Diversity Developers. She said to imagine that you have an issue and list two or three people who you would go to with that issue. This can be at your workplace and outside of it. If you categorize those people in terms of education, gender, age, and sexuality then you would see what your unofficially advisory board looks like — and that might be like-minded individuals or individuals who resemble you.
Seek genuine feedback
Open-ended feedback questionnaires will not encourage consumers to provide feedback around their pain points. They are painful, so they do not want to talk about them. Identify key areas that you want to target and ask specifically how your company is handling it.
Practicing empathy in your marketing strategy will allow your brand to tap into personas you’ve never engaged with before. You may find that you speak to potential customers on a more profound level and that developing a B2C relationship on that level is much more enriching than you’d imagined.
Empathetic marketing is not just emotional marketing, but its also about how the build-up of day-to-day things can be a nuisance, can be relatable or can be simple and enjoyable.
Done right, empathetic marketing can support organic lead generation, lead to greater brand awareness, a more positive customer experience, and increased consumer trust.
If you’d like to dive more into empathetic marketing check out this thoughtful article. Or, engage with me down in the comments below.