The Content Strategist

The One Marketing Buzzword You Should Actually Care About

Think back to the last time you had a terrible-no-good-very-bad-I-want-to-move-to-Australia day at work and needed to talk to someone about it.

You may have turned to an amazing partner or friend who let you ramble on near endlessly and incoherently, asked appropriate questions at appropriate intervals, handed you Kleenex when needed, periodically interjected with horrified guttural sounds and nasty names for your boss (“The Kim Jong Un of the SaaS C-suite!”), and only when fairly sure you’d gone through the complaints at least 15 times, said something gently solutions oriented like “Have you thought about…”

Most likely, that’s the same friend you went back to the next time your toxic boss hit the nuclear button. Empathy is everything when it comes to friendship—maybe it should also be everything when it comes to marketing.

Between wacko despots, natural disasters, human-caused tragedies, and political divisiveness, 2017 has been a pretty bad year for a lot of people. So I’ve been thinking a lot about empathy and how brands can be better at it. We’re living in an era of unprecedented data and automation, which should skyrocket our business results forward, but I have a sense that in this crazy world, we—and our customers—need human-to-human contact even more.

So I started digging into some research on empathy to see what I could learn. I now feel even more convinced that through “empathic marketing,” we can build real relationships and be the good friends that will make our customers come back.

What is empathy, anyway?

First, let’s make like marketers and level set on what I mean when I talk about empathy.

It might surprise you that the word “empathy” didn’t emerge out of psychology or sociology, but from an 1873 German philosophy Ph.D. candidate referring in his dissertation to the emotional connections people have to art. Using the age-old academic trick of trying to impress his profs by creating a new word, he referenced “Einfühlung,” which translated from German means “feeling into.” (Drop that little piece of trivia the next time you take Aunt Lucy to The Met.)

Today Google reports a staggering 53 million results for the definition of empathy, and I would wager that very few of them are about art. Over the past 144 years, the word has come to represent connections between people. And after trawling through a few of the search results, I went rogue in SERP to find the one I liked the best: Empathy is “an affective response that acknowledges and attempts to understand individual’s suffering through emotional resonance.”

The reason I like this one? It comes from the mouths of people who know better than anyone: cancer patients. It’s from a study, published in the journal Palliative Medicine, attempting to get those dealing with the disease to identify the differences between sympathy, empathy, and compassion. The more colloquial definition of empathy is something like “being able to walk in another person’s shoes.” But to align that to the above, I’d add “no matter how much those four-inch heels hurt you”—because the difference between empathy and sympathy, according to that study, is the act of truly experiencing someone else’s pain.

The more colloquial definition of empathy is something like “being able to walk in another person’s shoes.” But to align that to the above, I’d add “no matter how much those four-inch heels hurt you.”

And I’m not being not figurative here. The area of our brains responsible for empathy is the insular cortex, which is also the part of our noggin that connects information and emotions, as well as the area of our gray matter where we experience physical pain.

A plethora of studies have found that empaths have particularly responsive “mirror neurons.” In these experiments, scientists hooked people up to MRI machines and other brain scanning devices to see what happens in their brain when, say, they see other people being touched. For highly empathic types, the same part of their brains light up as do in the people who are actually being touched. In other words, when you’re empathetic, you actually feel something.

Some people have more natural inclination for this than others (e.g. Mother Teresa vs. psychopaths). The good news for marketers (and humanity in general) is that empathy can be taught. The plasticity of the brain allows us to become better humans. And I’d like to think that better humans make for better marketers.

Why should empathy matter to marketers?

Most of us in marketing recognize the importance of understanding our customers—we drill down to their every last action to come up with a detailed journey map that includes what they ate for breakfast and their final word before purchase. (“Rosebud…”) But while we’d like to think that customers make decisions on facts, that’s patently untrue.

While we’d like to think that customers make decisions on facts, that’s patently untrue.

Case in point: I’m currently staring at a box of organic whole-wheat ranch-flavored crackers I bought not because I believe in GMO-free ingredients and recycled packaging (though I theoretically do) but because they reminded me of Doritos, which I desperately want even though I know they’re terrible for me. So yeah, I brought some emotional baggage to this $4.99 cracker purchase.

Empathic marketing consultant Brian Carroll put it in more coherent terms in a podcast: “If you ask customers what steps they went through in the buying process or you do focus groups, you find that customers actually don’t fully understand how they make decisions. In fact, up to 90 percent of our decision-making is unconscious. We often make our decisions emotionally, and we backfill with logic. The better we can understand the emotional side of our customer in their world, the better we can help them have an amazing customer experience.”

So we can use empathy to better feel for our customer; that’s benefit number one. Benefit number two: We can use empathy to better connect with our customer.

In a Harvard Business Review article called “The New Science of Customer Emotions,” Scott Magids, Alan Zorfas, and Daniel Leemon of consumer intelligence firm Motista write about the financial value of customers who feel an emotional connection with the brand. On average, these people bring in 52 percent more value for the company than the typical “highly satisfied” customer. And in some buying categories—including, weirdly, household cleaners?—these buyers can deliver 103 percent more value.

I’m going to guess companies that have lots of fully emotionally connected consumers haven’t unlocked this achievement by accident. They’ve purposely taken steps to make a connection, most likely using empathy.

How can we use empathy as a business advantage?

This all sounds well and good in theory, but in practice it can be a bit more challenging: How do you institutionalize something as human as empathy?

I don’t want to oversimplify it. But I do love former Olsen chief creative officer Kevin McKeon’s thoughts in AdAge on this topic: “Use empathy to power action. To go make things. Things that serve people’s needs. Things that brighten people’s days. Things that add value. Things that make people love your brand, because your brand is thinking about them.”

I felt a kind of “yassss!” empathy reading that because it’s exactly what I think we should do too. Let feelings be a catalyst as much as we let facts be a catalyst. Yes, embrace your big data; you need it in order to compete. But also hug your customers; you need them in order to win.

Yes, sure, embrace your big data; you need it in order to compete. But also hug your customers; you need them in order to win.

I think that being an empathic marketer comes down to the same three steps necessary for being an empathetic friend: Listen to the person’s pain, show that you understand, and then propose solutions.

As I’ve been immersing myself in the research, I’ve developed some practical ideas on those three areas, and over the next few weeks, I’m going to release articles on each of those topics with my solutions baked in. I hope you’ll also add yours, too, on social media and email so we can turn this into a conversation. Part of empathy is listening to people, and I’m working on being a better human—and a better marketer. Want to join me?

Margaret Magnarelli is the senior director of marketing and managing editor for content at Monster.