Empathy In Marketing: Why It Matters (And How To Have It)



Dev Patnaik, CEO of Jump Associates and strong proponent of empathy in business, said a while back that “the problem with business today isn’t a lack of innovation; it’s a lack of empathy.” While one might think that marketing — an industry based on open communication — would’ve figured it out by now, the truth is that many marketers today still undervalue, or at least misunderstand, empathy.

The first occurrence of printed advertising dates back to Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press in 1450. From that time on, despite a flurry of new mediums in which to market products and publish ads, one thing has remained constant: the need for accessible communications. If you struggle to find the right people and give them the right message, it doesn’t matter whether you’re advertising in print, on billboards, or more recently, on social media. You’re going to have trouble forging connections.

Despite the fact that social media should have made us more connected, for many brands, it’s actually had the opposite effect. These days, it’s easy to think of your audience on social media as “users” — people who do nothing but consume your content. The trouble is, this ease of connection makes it easier than ever to take an audience for granted. Remember: these aren’t users you’re connecting with. They’re real, living people.

Facebook recently overhauled the way it talks about its user base and ad customers in recognition of this problem, choosing to stop calling its users “users” in favor of (what I think is) a better term: “people.” We, whether selling products and services to consumers or other businesses, would all be well-served to follow their lead and start acting more empathetically towards our audiences.

Understanding Empathy

To start, let’s clear up something important: what empathy actually is. Our friend Dev has a good definition: “the ability to see the world through the eyes of another person.” (He adds that “unless new products or services connect with the lives of real people, design or marketing can’t do much to make them succeed.” More on that later.)

Empathy is, unlike sympathy, more ‘oh!’ than ‘aww.’ It rises above pity or sorrow. Empathy is, put simply, a form of deep understanding — of yourself, of your business and, most importantly, of the needs of others.

But we’re not a growth strategy firm. We’re a social media marketing agency. So let’s think back to the first print ads that were born out of the invention of the printing press. As long as ads and marketing have been around, so too have there been people who vehemently argue that advertising doesn’t work on them. That gap — between advertisers and marketers who insist that ads work, and consumers who think they don’t — is (and has always been) bridged by this deep understanding we’re talking about here. Advertising that doesn’t speak to some sort of need is nothing more than waste. It’s only when ads connect with their audience’s needs that they work, despite consumers’ insistence that they don’t.

Let’s be totally clear: in marketing, empathy starts with understanding what needs your product or service solves. There are a lot of ways to understand those needs. A clear, well-developed strategy is a good place to start. Once you have that strategy and understand your customers’ needs at least at a basic level, you can start to actually implement.

Internal Communication

Of course, understanding your customers’ needs is easier said than done. One good place to start is with positive internal communication. For most businesses, overcommunicating is better than undercommunicating.

This overcommunication starts when you put pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard) to develop and record your strategy. Whether you’re working with an organization like SMC or developing your own strategy internally, err on the side of too many questions. Better too much information than too little.

For example, if your business sells reclaimed building materials, what true needs are you meeting? Very likely, you do more than just give people materials to build houses with. You’re giving people a story. You’re giving them the opportunity to take history and carry it on. You’re helping folks be more environmentally conscious. You’re also giving them the opportunity to create beautiful art. One of the best ways to develop this marketing story — and accordingly, empathy — is being open and honest with yourself and team when first communicating these ideas.

If you were to start and end the internal conversation with an observation about supplying building materials, you’d be missing out on the nuances of your product—the emotional benefits. Don’t just think black and white. (The world is, after all, very rarely black and white.) Think about the million different shades of grey in between that tell you more about why you’re here.

In communicating internally, businesses are often unclear at best and dishonest with themselves at worst about their purpose. Until you truly understand that purpose, you shouldn’t even bother trying to communicate your product or service to others. Think hard: have you been open in your internal communication? In your strategy? If not, you’re not yet ready to move onto implementation.

Language Matters

If internal communication is the step that helps businesses be more empathetic in their marketing, language is the vehicle for its external execution. Being able to see the world through the eyes of your customers is helpful. So is being honest about the needs your products solve. But it’s the language you use in your tweets, blogs, white papers, and everything in between that ultimately determines whether your marketing strategy will fall flat or soar to new heights.

Our team’s newest member, Dylan Thaemert, pointed out just how easy it is to lose sight of language in an internal presentation he gave to the rest of the team last week. Unintentionally, we’d published some tweets on behalf of SMC that really missed the mark — that could be misconstrued as demeaning to users. It’s the difference between “Your users are no better — hook them,” and “Your users crave brevity and clarity — give it to them,” which may not seem important at first but which actually is quite impactful. One treats users like chopped liver; the other recognizes that they’re real people with real needs.

The rise of word economy brought on by Twitter and shortening attention spans could make it seem like words matter less. In our experience, though, it’s made them matter more. Businesses these days are forced to do more with less.

Don’t underestimate how much of an impact a few words can have. When those few words are your only opportunity to connect with your customers — to show that you understand their needs and want to help meet them — it’s important that you not lose sight of exactly what you’re saying. It’s not “just a tweet” that you’re writing; it’s a data point that can either ruin or build your brand.

To capitalize on this, make a concerted effort not to take your language for granted. Be infinitely clear about every word in your tweet or Facebook post or blog. Why is it there? Does this post help your audience? Does it hurt them? Does it demean them? Does it fit in line with your brand’s message and what you’re trying to accomplish? Without understanding these answers, it’s nearly impossible to truly connect with your audience — to exhibit real empathy. In fact, knowing the answers to those questions separates good language from great on social media. Never discount the importance of language at a time when the entirety of your brand rests upon how you use it.

Remember: People, Not Users

If you take away nothing else from this post, make it the fact that we’re talking to real people here. We’re not talking to some abstract online shell of people. We’re communicating. The medium of communication has changed, but what’s important to communication hasn’t.

The modern workplace features a lot of ambiguity. As it turns out, so does marketing. We all seem to be okay with the fact that trying to walk a mile in someone’s shoes is a good way to problem-solve. So why wouldn’t marketers — whose job it is to appeal to and heighten people’s desires, whether in B2B or B2C — make the same effort to truly understand what motivates people?


Reprinted by permission.

Image Credit: CC by Maria Elena

About the author: John Darwin

John is a recent college graduate from Creighton University. He earned his B.A. in English, specializing in British Literature, and is currently working as an editor at Social Media Contractors.

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