Empathy Marketing: How to Understand Your Customers, in 10 Steps

I believe that empathy for your audience is the foundation of good marketing. If you don’t truly understand your customer and the challenges they face, there’s little chance your content or brand message will make a lasting impact. Sure, you might be able to jam some conversions into your funnel. But your brand will be forgotten in the landfill of marketing buzzspeak that people have to race past as they go about their day.

A lot of brands are wearing the stench of that landfill these days because marketing has a huge empathy problem, especially in B2B content. Sure, companies may talk about business problems in broad corporate language—about “creating value in the ever-changing paradigm of digital transformation” or “unlocking the world of the future through an AI-enhanced revolution.” But relatively little B2B content talks to buyers like they’re human beings.

The reason for this, it turns out, is super simple: Most marketers don’t ever talk to their prospects and clients.

The empathy marketing problem

According to the Content Marketing Institute’s 2019 B2B Research report, just 42 percent of B2B marketers talk to clients as part of their research.

CMI B2B marketers research

By comparison, 50 percent of B2B marketers use social listening, which makes me want to abandon my job, hotwire a SpaceX shuttle, and give that whole astronaut dream another shot. You know what’s better than getting a list of keywords your audience uses on Twitter? Actually having an in-depth conversation about their problems and challenges. It’s also a hell of a lot cheaper.

Yes, data is important and should play an important role in your decision-making. But there’s no substitute for the nuance and insight of conversation. You’ll hear their hopes, dreams, and frustrations—even the language they use to describe their work lives, which will help you connect with them in turn. Using the same vocabulary as your consumers helps consumers feel closer to a brand.

Once you have these conversations, you’ll interpret your customer data in a new light. You’ll gain a deeper understanding of why your audience reads, shares, searches, and ignores the content they do. You’ll have eureka moments that reveal why that landing page just didn’t work. Because data without the context of customer empathy is like buying someone a present based solely on the data from their Facebook profile. (Speaking of which—martech sales reps, for the love of god, please stop sending me Limp Bizkit t-shirts.)

How to develop customer empathy, in 10 steps

This summer, as part of a Contently innovation workshop, I decided to devote two days a week for conducting empathy interviews with clients and prospects.

I’d just taken over as head of marketing, after a two-year stint as our head of content strategy. To be honest, I worried that the exercise would be redundant—I’d worked with dozens of clients as a content strategist and interviewed dozens more for our blog over the years. What else did I have to learn?

As it turns out, a lot. It’s one thing to spend time with clients. It’s another thing to do it without an agenda.

I got a fresh perspective on their struggles setting KPIs (many CMOs give little direction), tracking content performance (compliance keeps even basic analytics locked away), and inspiring their team to take risks (marketers are incentivized to play it safe). Even though I’d heard these things before, entering these conversations with an empathetic mindset helped me understand our audience so much better.

Here are some tips, which I am taking right from the Move the Needle field guide we used.

1. Start with a problem you suspect is affecting your customer. Use that to guide your interview questions. For example: Marketers don’t know what content to create, struggle to measure success, and are afraid of doing something wrong.

2. Talk to one person at a time. Group interviews lead to groupthink. You get more useful answers from people one on one. Feel free to bring someone from your team to take notes so you can focus on absorbing what you hear and asking follow-ups.

3. Decide if you’re looking for behavior or feedback. Behavior means understanding how they work. Feedback means getting intel on a product or offering. Don’t mix the two. Keep the person focused on ways they’ve tried to solve their problems in the past.

4. Embrace negative feedback. If you don’t go into these conversations damn near eager to hear constructive criticism, you’re going to end up leading the witness or trying to sell them something. The point of this exercise isn’t to confirm what you already think. It’s to learn something new that will help you drive future results.

5. Make them feel open to give you negative feedback. At the start of the call, encourage brutal honesty. Assure them the feedback is 100 percent confidential.

6. Ask open-ended questions. Yes-and-no questions are your enemy. Instead of, “Do you do content marketing?” go with “What types of content do you publish? What motivates you to create that content? Do you ever get frustrated with the process of creating content?”

7. Listen without interrupting or influencing. Ask your questions in a neutral way, and don’t fill the silence. Let the customer keep going. Say “I see” or “interesting” to keep the conversation going, but keep it as objective as possible.

8. Go deep. If you hit an interesting thread, don’t be afraid to keep asking why someone does something.

9. Ask for intros to more people who could help. Chances are this person knows additional people worth talking to at the company or in your field.

10. Write up notes immediately, and don’t stop until you’ve interviewed 20 people. You want to keep it fresh and have a good sample size.

Once you commit to this empathy marketing exercise, hold yourself accountable. You’re going to really, really want to go do your regular day-to-day job. But don’t stop pushing until you’ve gotten to 20 interviews.

I challenge every marketer reading this to spend a month conducting customer interviews. The first 20 people to email me proof of your interviews at will get a free copy of The Storytelling Edgeand in all likelihood, a promotion.

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