The Content Strategist

This Psychological Trick Can Make You a More Empathetic Marketer

Even though I am [redacted] years old, I follow a bunch of trendy Instagram humor accounts aimed at people in their 20s and teens. I’d like to tell you I do this because I think it’s important to keep up with the latest digital trends… but it’s also possible that I just have an immature sense of humor.

Lately, I’ve been paying closer attention to what resonates on my favorite accounts, which include @Betches, @Ship, @MyTherapistSays, and @GirlsThinkImFunny, among others. These accounts tend to play off the very millennial concept of “same” (a.k.a. “so me,” “also me,” and “it me”). For those not of the Instagram and Snapchat generation, all of these words or phrases basically translate to: “This describes me perfectly.” Below are a few examples that are, ahem, so me.

In an article in The New Statesmen, Amelia Tait calls this “relatable content.” Tait interviewed Dr. Grainne Kirwan, a cyberpsychologist, who said: “As we tend not to discuss many of the mundane aspects of life, either because we believe them to be boring to others, or so unusual that others might think us slightly strange, we frequently don’t realize that many others do and think exactly the same things, even in private moments…hence we seldom realize how common the feeling is.”

What’s making these channels so successful—with their hundreds of thousands of followers—is how they display an empathy for the audience’s deepest, darkest feelings. The accounts make people feel like they aren’t alone. And what’s pretty radical is they prove it’s possible to do empathy en masse.

As you know by now if you’ve been following this series on The Content Strategist, I’ve been exploring the concept of empathic marketing over the past few weeks. I’ve dug into existing psychological and marketing research that relates to empathy, in an effort to understand and synthesize this concept for other marketers. In part three, I’m going to look at what happens when companies validate the emotions of their customers.

My theory is that businesses can actually achieve better results by being kinder to their customers. All the research on empathy suggests that acknowledging another person’s pain is a cornerstone of building trust. That may sound like mushy psychobabble, but there are very practical ways to apply the lesson to our own work.

Emotional Validation

The process of reflecting back someone’s feelings has an official name in psychology textbooks: “emotional validation.”

Houston-based clinician Karyn Hall, Ph.D., author of The Emotionally Sensitive Person, has written extensively about this topic. As she defines it, “Validation is the recognition and acceptance of another person’s thoughts, feelings, sensations, and behaviors as understandable.”

But it’s important to note that validation does not mean flatly agreeing with everything someone says. It’s more akin to acknowledging what they say, holding a mirror up to their feelings.

Human nature is such that we find release simply in feeling heard; perhaps it’s owing to our evolution from caveman days in which there was safety in numbers. (Better to have that Neanderthal on your side than his rock between your eyes.)

In an article from Psychology Today, Steven Stosny, Ph.D., explained that people require confirmation that their suffering or frustration is justified. If they don’t get that confirmation, they become “hyper-focused on the pain and the reasons for it. We know that mental focus amplifies and magnifies the object of the focus; the greater the focus on pain, the more intense and more generalized it grows.”

Translation for marketers: If you don’t acknowledge your customer’s pain, their pain worsens. They won’t hear the solution you’re proposing, because the noise in their head about the problem is too loud. So before you tell them about your great solution, you have to show them that you understand the problem first.

Building Buyer Trust

Robin Stern, associate director of the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence, once told The Washington Post: “When someone feels seen and heard by you, they begin to trust you.” As you well know, connection and trust are keys to building relationships.

Here are a few ways to employ emotional validation:

Do a “validation review”

Back when my now-husband and I were doing premarital counseling, we were taught how to quell arguments (much-needed advice for people of Italian and Greek descent about to enter into a life together). The main tip we learned: Rather than immediately responding to conflict with a zinger that escalates the fight, you should repeat back the sentiment of what the other person said in your own words. For example, “I hear you saying that you don’t like when I leave the sponge in the bottom of the kitchen sink.” (Real scenes from marriage.) If the other person then said, “No, I meant…” you then have to repeat back the change. No inserting opinions until you’ve completed this exercise.

Verbal mimicry—known in psych circles as the “echo effect”—is scientifically proven to increase likability and rapport. There’s also evidence that it leads to better financial outcomes. Two studies have found that waitresses receive bigger tips when they repeat back orders to customers.

If you’re in a business with a high-touch sales process, you can use this tactic of emotional mirroring in one-on-one conversations with customers. But there’s also value in evaluating all of your external-facing marketing materials—website homepage, sales enablement docs, UX copy, social posts, thought leadership, webinars, speeches, press releases, et al.—to make sure they reflect your understanding of the challenges your buyers go through.

Let’s say you’re selling marketing automation software. If securing budget is your buyer’s biggest challenge, you probably want to acknowledge somewhere on your site, “We know how hard it can be to get sign off for an investment of this size, and we’ve worked with hundreds of customers to make the case to senior management.”

Act as your customer’s proxy

Contently’s editor-in-chief Joe Lazauskas is always on the lookout for brands doing funny things to engage—and he recently shared this tweet from Hamburger Helper, a brand I hadn’t thought of in years:

What made Helper’s response so amazing was that the doofy dinner-in-a-box mascot took on the persona of its core clientele. I for one felt a feminist kinship with this anthropomorphic glove. It spoke not just for a box of ground-beef accouterment but for women everywhere. The brand stood in to defend its customers. (Also, I don’t like this Chris fellow very much.)

There are other ways to act as a proxy without needing to defend customers or respond to something off-color. After Tom Petty went into cardiac arrest in the fall, Spotify immediately created a playlist of his work. To me, this was a way for Spotify to tell its users, “We get that you’re sad; we can’t solve this problem with you, but we can help you grieve.”

At Monster, meanwhile, our former social media director Patrick Gillooly had set IFTTT software to inform his team when someone tweeted that they were going on a job interview. Our folks would then quickly reply from the @Monster handle with a good luck message. I’ve always loved this one-to-one engagement because it takes a very solitary moment and helps people feel like they have someone on their side. (At the same time, it gets our brand name in front of people at a very crucial time, since those candidates may not get the job.)

Marketers can take a page from any of these examples. Look for moments like these impacting your audience, and respond in a way that shows you hear and support them.

Find an empathic influencer

I’m fairly skeptical of influencer marketing since it can feel unctuous if done wrong. That said, if you can find the right person to represent your brand, this tactic can help you make deeper connections via empathy.

The other day, I was served up a content-driven video ad on Twitter that was produced by Harper’s Bazaar for Dior 999, a red lipstick that supposedly looks good on everyone. First off, sweet job on targeting, HB, because I went from top of funnel to bottom in like 275 seconds. This ad focused on four women of different races who thought they looked terrible in red lipstick (“it me”). Celebrity makeup artist Daniel Martin listened to their concerns, explained why it would look good on each of them, and applied it using his special tricks. Of course, it worked for all of them, and clearly, the whole thing worked for me.

My point is, when you’re searching for an influencer to supplement your efforts, don’t simply look at reach. Also, do the legwork to see if that person has made empathetic connections with the target audience. Do they validate your customer’s problems through their work? A small audience that feels heard can help your bottom line much more than a large audience that’s only somewhat engaged.

In Traackr’s global research report Influence 2.0, Altimeter Group analyst Brian Solis emphasizes the importance of empathy and says, “The digital influencers that everyone covets are human beings who have built communities where others follow their updates for a variety of personal or professional reasons. The ties that bind are the very premises of relationships. These communities are rich with the exchange of mutual value and social capital.” He goes on to note that in order to have effective results from an influencer campaign, marketers need to know what their audience values first, then choose an influencer who aligns.

The right influencer will make the audience care about your message over time through validation. That can catapult you forward compared to where you’d be if you were starting from scratch.

Look no further than those Instagram accounts I can’t get enough of. They’ve built audiences through their empathy—audiences that are now receptive to a new product. Say, like this t-shirt, which is… also me.

Margaret Magnarelli is the senior director of marketing and managing editor for content at Monster. This is the third column in her series on empathic marketing. You can the first and second installments here. The final part will be published on The Content Strategist next Friday.