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Activating Empathy: How to Manage It, Measure It, and Market With It

Creating empathetic content requires marketers to shift their focus – from making educated assumptions about their audiences’ transactional needs to cultivating a deeper, more holistic understanding of who they are.

But how do content marketing leaders do this? The answer may lie in an unexpected, four-step process to turn your assumptions and biases on their head. Then you can plan, produce, and execute more valuable content for your customers and prospects.

Turn assumptions and biases on their head to create empathetic #content that gets results, says @GBalarin via @CMIContent. Click To Tweet

Empathy is an essential differentiator

Quality B2B content can lack empathy. According to the Content Marketing Institute’s 2019 B2B research, 42% of B2B marketers talk to clients as part of their research.

Yet empathy isn’t just a nice-to-have. Acknowledged as “a key source of business innovation” by Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella, empathy helps you connect with others, lowers your stress, and relieves “burnout,” as well as guiding your moral compass, according to Psychology Today.

But beyond empathy’s aspirational and psychological benefits, it can improve the quality and effectiveness of your content. Even better, it can deliver other positive outcomes for both your business and your audience. For example, empathy:

  • Enables marketers to identify and better understand those who will be most receptive to their content – and when
  • Increases audience members’ trust by promoting a willingness to address their needs as humans rather than as “marketing targets”
  • Raises awareness of the perspectives of others, which can lead to greater marketing-sales alignment

B2B buyers want empathy

At Content Marketing World 2019, April Henderson of Forrester Research made the bold statement that B2B buyers want empathy, not empty promises. After all, B2B buyers are no less human than B2C buyers, they just purchase under a different set of conditions and constraints. Still, marketers assume that logic is the primary driver of their decision-making process.

It’s an unnecessary assumption – and one that limits your content’s ability to resonate with the B2B audience. As April points out, “They don’t turn off their B2C brain when making a B2B purchase.”

Buyers don’t turn off their #B2C brain when making a B2B purchase, says April Henderson of @forrester via @CMIContent @GBalarin. #CMWorld Click To Tweet

I suggest an alternative approach – one that strikes a balance between the rational and the emotional decision-making factors. It starts with revisiting our storytelling roots and, more importantly, tapping into the emotion at the heart of those roots. Only then can our B2B content become truly, deeply empathetic.

Truly, deeply empathetic content is rooted in storytelling, says @GBalarin via @CMIContent. Click To Tweet

Personas are more hindrance than help

If increased empathy in B2B content is a wondrous magic-bullet solution, why do brands struggle to incorporate it consistently and successfully? The fault may lie with some of our most fundamental marketing processes and collaborations. The solution may require a bit of refocusing in key areas – or at least a session or two of sensitivity training.

For example, empathy requires a deep understanding of humans and humanness. Personas – generalizations intended to characterize and categorize consumers into targetable segments – arguably help create that deeper understanding of who we’re writing for and, ultimately, selling to. That’s why sales and marketing departments commonly rely on them as a tool for creating targeted messages and distributing them at the right time and place to influence purchase decisions.

Unfortunately, reality doesn’t always reflect these ideals because personas aren’t designed to help marketers develop empathy. More often than not, personas don’t help marketers convey real human understanding in their content that ensues.

Why? For starters, most personas don’t go deep enough. Sure, they can help us understand that CFO Sam likes to make money; but they fail us in exploring our prospects’ emotional triggers, their hopes and fears, and their personal purchase motivations. In short, they overlook the why behind the buy.

Personas overlook the why behind the buy, says @GBalarin via @CMIContent. Click To Tweet

Of necessity, personas are created by making assumptions about audiences based on their exhibited behaviors or stated opinions. But that focuses on finding similarities rather than exploring meaningful differences.

In my book, The Secret Army: Leadership, Marketing and the Power of People, I argue that the risk of creating these surface-level personas is that marketers end up putting customers in a box and talking to them like they’re all the same without ever really knowing what makes them tick.

Further, even if we gather data using the most “human” tools (focus groups and interviews, for example), any insights gathered may be tempered by biases and groupthink. Sadly, people aren’t always honest or forthcoming in the information they reveal on certain channels, particularly in group settings.

Our cut-and-paste process for applying personas to our content creation efforts is problematic, as well. It can keep the focus on our brand’s priorities rather than on our audience’s. CMI’s 2020 Content Management and Strategy Survey reports that “showing empathy with customers’ values/interests/pain points” is secondary to “driving our brand’s value proposition.” This puts us at risk of becoming so concerned with doing right for our business that we forget to tell a good story – one that involves and engages our audience and compels them to invite us to take part in their journeys.

Investments in empathy pay off in brand trust

Can increased empathy help marketers achieve business objectives, including enhancing team collaboration, increasing productivity, and driving greater ROI? For an answer to this question, I spoke with Daniel Murray, chief empathy officer at Empathic Consulting, who helps companies apply this skill to drive more competitive and contemporary business strategies.

While a clear link between empathy and organizational success has not yet been well researched or empirically demonstrated, the logic is simple, Daniel says. “I know it seems like it’s obvious, and these things should go together, but in chasing the numbers we sometimes forget the meaning that lies underneath. (As consumers) we want to be around people who understand us, whom we like and trust. We want to able to do business with people who understand what we need, who ‘get’ us at a deeper level. We want to have relationships with them – and we are more likely to buy products and services from those who can meet our unspoken needs,” he says.

Plus, feeling someone really gets us makes us feel better. And if it works for us, you can bet it will work for those who read or engage with our content, too.

Empathy delivers internal benefits

“I can hardly think of an interaction between humans where empathy won’t add some benefits,” says Daniel. Think about the relationship between sales and marketing teams. Challenges often arise because both groups must become experts in their field, which requires developing specialties. Each team doesn’t focus on what the other group does. As they develop specialized skills, particular viewpoints, and a certain focus, they lose touch with what they have in common, he says.

How do we change that? Daniel suggests focusing on the common denominator that drives our success – our customers:

“Let’s really dive into understanding the customer: not from our world, from our perspective, but from the customer’s perspective. Let’s sit in that place with them, or imagine how it is in their world, and discuss what their needs are, what they love, what they fear, what’s important to them. Then, we can step back to our frameworks and think, ‘How can we best serve these needs with the toolsets we have?’”

How marketers incorporate empathy

“When I think about empathy, it’s really about trying to understand what drives people. What makes them work?” Daniel says.

The direct approach is often the best: Ask. But Daniel urges us to remember it’s not only about what you ask, but how you ask.

“There is nothing better for connecting with a human than starting a direct, human-to-human conversation,” he says. “Deep psychographic research or research that’s based on understanding human stories is critical.”

To set the stage for more emotionally open conversations, content marketers must sharpen their interviewer skills – learning to be comfortable asking uncomfortable questions, listening to the answers without judgment, and following up when the response is not fully understood.

There also is an art of observation that lies beneath great interviewing. Daniel believes the best way to get a true, deep understanding of your customers is to see them in their natural habitat. “Much as animals behave differently in a zoo than when they are in their natural habitats, so do humans,” he says.

Daniel suggests content marketers can achieve this by asking to visit customers in their office or sit and chat with them in their workspace (teleconferencing tools like Zoom and Microsoft Teams make this an easier ask today). As you chat, observe their surroundings and ask questions about the things you see – what’s on their bookshelves, what artwork or memorabilia they have on display, or which people (or pets) might pop by in the background. Even if these conversations happen virtually, getting a sense of place for your audience provides an invaluable opportunity to truly contextualize the information your customers share verbally.

Getting a sense of place for your audience provides an invaluable opportunity to truly contextualize the information your customers share verbally, says @GBalarin via @CMIContent. Click To Tweet

“That’s the trick with empathy,” Daniel says, “it’s not necessarily what they say that’s important. It’s what they’re feeling. The challenge is to get past their façades and (get invited) into that space.”

Peel away the façade

Shrek was half right. It isn’t just ogres that have layers like onions. Humans do, too. To get to those deeper layers of meaning, we use empathy to peel back surface expectations, behavioral norms, and boilerplate responses until they trust us enough to reveal their true selves.

It’s not always easy to achieve, but it is possible. Daniel’s four steps (below) for unpacking empathy in a leadership context can help, but, as deeply curious humans, content marketers must get out of their own way to get to the crux of a great story.

“The biggest barrier to empathy,” says Daniel, “is assuming we already understand.”

Step 1: Be consciously curious

We have unconscious biases and preconceptions. When you enter into a conversation thinking you already know the answers, you can’t fully listen to the responses. Making a conscious effort to park your biases during the discussions, you’re more likely to learn new and valuable insights that reshape your customer vision in a more empathetic and resonant direction.

Be OK getting challenging answers to your questions and responses that conflict with your point of view. That’s a desirable situation because it can unlock new ways of seeing the world through your customer’s eyes.

Step 2: Explore openly

Once you consciously put aside your biases, you can ask open-ended questions to explore a topic in richer detail. Daniel’s tip? Learn to say, “That’s really interesting. Tell me more.”

Being genuinely interested, shutting up long enough to let people tell their story, and asking questions that probe areas where things don’t make sense, you can discover unusual insights that can turn into powerful and uniquely original content.

Step 3: Challenge your original model

By listening with curiosity and openly exploring the reality that someone else inhabits, you can create a new mental model to make decisions (or produce content) with a newfound understanding. In other words, you start to see what life is like for the person you’re interviewing, which helps you write for them with greater empathy.

Think of the acronym IRATE: If what you write is interesting, relevant, appropriate, timely, and entertaining, educational, or engaging for that person, it prevents them from feeling irate while consuming it.

Step 4: Inspire curiosity

Rather than encouraging everyone to get enthusiastic about the things you (as a brand marketer) love, inspire curiosity by helping your audience step into a consciously curious place and providing an environment for them to think about things in a different way.

Once you live inside your prospect’s world and have demonstrated that you know and understand them, you, as a business they trust, can subtly suggest solutions to their problems to satisfy their curiosity. You earn this right by sharing stories of people like them (especially using real-life customer stories, quotes, and case studies) or providing them with evidence that they’re not alone.

Extend your empathy strategy

Practicing empathy and listening to your audience allows deeper understanding that better informs your content marketing strategy and even improves conversion rates. “The more we can dive into the world of the people we want to do business with, understand their needs as people, and meet those needs in a meaningful way, the better,” Daniel says.

What are you waiting for? If you aren’t being consciously curious, openly exploring, challenging original models, and using this new depth of understanding to create satisfying storytelling experiences, what’s stopping you?

Remember: Facts tell, but stories sell.

This article is part of CCO magazine. To subscribe to the digital edition, sign up here.

Cover image by Joseph Kalinowski/Content Marketing Institute