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Why You’ll Never Create Customer-Centric Content Unless You Focus on Inclusivity and Empathy

Which side are you on?

When done right, content marketing can break down barriers, inspire meaningful conversations, and create communities that can learn from each other and grow together.

If you’re not careful, your content marketing can also build walls, reinforce negative stereotypes, and alienate the people you want to serve.

Which side you choose depends on whether or not you approach your work in a spirit of inclusivity and empathy.

Choosing inclusivity and empathy is more important now than ever because everything has changed. Business has changed. Society has changed. You have changed. I have changed. Nothing is the same as it was before March 2020.

Today, buyers (both B2B and B2C) have different expectations and ask different questions before making a purchase. They want to know:

  • Does this company align with what I value?
  • Does it care about what’s important to me?

Yes, they still want to know if your brand has a solution they need and if it will grow with their future needs. But they also want to know:

  • Is your brand interested in investing in my community?
  • Are you helping my people?
  • Are you going to inspire me?
  • Are you going to show me something different? Teach me something, help me grow, and help me have a new perspective.

Brands can’t afford to make excuses about insensitive campaigns or ignore the diversity in their audiences. A 2022 study found that people seek companies that prioritize:

  • Social responsibility (63%)
  • Diversity, equity, and inclusion (54%)
  • Empathy (49%)

Challenge conventional thinking

You need to show your audience that you are inclusive, care about them as people, and empathize with their circumstances. But before you can do that, you need to let go of these common myths:

I’m too busy to talk to my customers

Whenever I work with a new client, I ask: “When’s the last time you talked to one of your customers?” And I get this deer-in-the-headlights look. “You mean, a real customer?  I don’t have time to do that. Customer service and user experience teams do all that.”

But what about the marketing team? Fewer than 20% of product marketers talk to a customer.

How can you be inclusive and empathetic if you don’t talk to the people you want to serve? You can’t. And you can’t be customer-centric without inclusivity and empathy.

Empathy doesn’t matter in B2B marketing

People often say things like, “You know, Sydni, that empathy stuff is all fine and good, but I’m selling to businesspeople. This emotional stuff doesn’t apply to them.”

Inclusivity and empathy apply to B2B as much as B2C marketing because people are people first.

I don’t have enough authority to bring about change

Because of culture or structure, marketers may sometimes feel less than empowered to act on inclusivity.  None of that matters. Your title doesn’t matter. Your job description doesn’t matter. You can choose to lead from where you sit.

You may not convince your CMO to invest more in inclusivity-related initiatives. You may not be able to get hundreds of thousands of dollars to finance some of the things you want to do. But you can control how you approach your work and how you set an example for your colleagues.

A framework for inclusive, empathetic content marketing

Once you leave those myths behind, you’re ready to act from a customer-centric place. And that requires ongoing, tangible, and consistent investments in your audience.

These investments aren’t only monetary. You need to commit attention, interest, empathy, and desire to build a trusted, mutually beneficial dialogue with the people you want to serve. That starts with a commitment to listen to your audience.

I developed a framework built from each letter of the word “listen” to help marketers use empathy and inclusion to become more customer-centric:

  • Learn
  • Investigate
  • Speak
  • Types
  • Empathy
  • No excuses

I’ll walk you through each element of the framework.

Learn with firsthand conversations

Make the time to learn — with no agenda — about your customers as people. What makes them tick? How did they get where they are?

When you’re learning, you’re not trying to sell. You’re not testing messages or products.

Resist the urge to have your user research team do this for you. To create customer-centric content, you must take on this responsibility. Sitting and talking with customers changes how you think about them. It changes how you write for them or create videos for them because you know them as more than personas. They’re real to you.

So, make your customers part of your crew. Let them know you care about their needs, even if you don’t immediately know how to address them. It’s OK if you don’t have all the answers. Humility sets the stage for connection. And you can deepen that connection over time by working together to find answers.

Investigate, don’t assume

It’s hard to avoid making assumptions about people. You can work at it, but assumptions still happen. And that’s fine. Just make sure you investigate whether your assumptions are valid.

If you rely on what you think you know about your audience, you’re setting up your content to fail.

It doesn’t matter how long you’ve targeted the same audience because they change over time. You can’t assume what people needed and wanted six months ago is what they need or want today.

My company conducts in-house training on marketing inclusivity. We go into Fortune 500 companies and teach teams a framework for empathy, inclusivity, and customer-centricity so they can develop these skills and get better results with their marketing campaigns. And as part of that process, we bring and share insights about their customers during the training.

We did this recently for a large utility company that wanted to diversify the marketing for programs that help low-income populations. And we discovered they’d made wildly incorrect assumptions about their audience.

They assumed that because these individuals were low-income, most were people of color. They thought that because they lived in underserved communities, they wouldn’t be interested in sustainability, didn’t have money for solar, and couldn’t afford electric cars. They assumed this audience only wanted to save as much money as possible on utility bills.

That wasn’t true. And they got to hear it directly from their customers. The utility customers told us they have solar on their houses, they have electric cars, and they want to use energy more efficiently. They want to live more sustainably.

The marketing team was floored. They assumed that low-income people had no interest in sustainability. Their marketing campaigns were built on their own opinions and biases. But because of our training, they learned exactly how they were undermining their own content and learned how to fix it.

So, stay humble. Investigate and validate your assumptions. Be willing to learn and develop the skillset of inclusive marketing.

Speak to problems your audience faces

Once you understand your audience’s interests and information needs, you can shape your content to speak to them. In your listening and investigating, you should have uncovered:

  • What matters to them
  • What they worry about
  • Terms and vernacular they use when describing what matters and what occupies their thoughts

Now, you can plan how to show them you understand and want to help in a meaningful way that goes beyond selling a product.

Acknowledge all types of diversity

Too often, people think of diversity, equity, and inclusion as only a race issue. It isn’t. You need to also focus on other types of diversity in your audience — such as age, gender, educational background, language, and physical ability.

Including all types of people goes much deeper than the color of someone’s skin. Inclusive, customer-centric content requires that you pay attention to many diverse attributes. Inclusive content shows the variety of people in your audience that you really understand them.

Empathy requires deep understanding

Here’s an example of why empathy is so important in content. In fintech, there’s been a lot of interest in supporting minority-owned (and particularly Black-owned) businesses over the last two years.

But few fintech marketers know one of the many reasons Black people in this country don’t have access to the resources other people have.

They don’t know the story of redlining. One of the multiple programs a newly elected Franklin D. Roosevelt established to stimulate the economy offered home-buying aid for Americans — but only white Americans. The assistance program established and then reinforced housing segregation in the United States. It drew lines between white and Black neighborhoods that still exist today.

The term “redlining” originates with actual red lines on maps that identified predominantly Black neighborhoods as “hazardous.” Starting in the 1930s, government-sponsored agencies used these maps to deny lending and investment services to Black Americans. The Fair Housing Act of 1968 sought to end these discriminatory practices but didn’t completely end federal redlining — the denial of services, like loans, based on race — or address the negative effects that decades of discrimination and segregation had already had on Black Americans. In 2022, the homeownership rate for Black Americans — 43.4% — trails behind that of white Americans (72.1%).

Generational wealth was lost. People who had just started earning money lost their houses and businesses. So, there’s a severe lack of trust in financial institutions among the Black community.

If you work in fintech, and you’re trying to create content or market products to Black people, how can you be successful if you don’t know this history?

That’s one story about one group of people. But the point extends to any segment of your audience. Do you understand the historical context, culture, and attitudes that drive their beliefs and behavior? You need that deep empathy to ensure your audience feels understood, realizes they’ve found a community and thinks of your brand as more than just another company trying to sell them something.

You may not be the person you’re marketing to. You may have nothing in common with them. You may not even need the product or service you’re marketing. But you can put yourself in their shoes if you invest the time to get to know them at a deep level.

No excuses

Changing your approach to be more customer-centric, inclusive, and empathetic isn’t easy, but no brand can afford to avoid it.

I know you have constraints. I know you don’t have limitless budgets. I know you answer to many people. I know this is hard. But don’t let these constraints become an excuse.

Not listening to customers could cost your company millions of dollars. It could cost your reputation. It can cost people their jobs. Take these steps to put the LISTEN framework into action:

  1. Expand your personal network. Get to know people who look different from you, speak a different language, and come from different backgrounds. Be humble and open so you can learn from them. Then, as you do your work, you’ll have folks you can tap into to offer different perspectives.
  2. Regularly allocate time to talk to your audience and customers. Don’t leave that work to someone else. It can be an hour a month, one lunch a month, or an informal meetup a month. It can be whatever you want it to be. But make sure it’s consistent (quarterly at a minimum). Talk to people who love your brand. Talk to new employees within your company, new customers who are figuring out how to use the product, and new audience members. And most importantly, talk to someone who has canceled their subscription or returned a product. You’ll get great insight into how you can better serve your customers better.
  3. Stop talking about your products. Put your customers first. Tell their stories. How are they winning? How are they shining? What impact are they creating? That’s something you’ll gather if you’re regularly listening to them. When you’re talking to them, don’t grill them. Just ask to hear their stories. That provides great insight into how you can showcase that wisdom to others in the community.
  4. Diversify your current spending. Even if you can’t get a bigger budget, you can diversify the money you do have. So, if you have $150,000 a year and always spend it with the same people, change that. Start distributing your budget to different vendors. Go looking for diverse-owned businesses, consultants, writers, photographers, and videographers to support your projects.
  5. Partner with supplier diversity. Diverse suppliers bring their experiences, insight, and expertise to your brand. Look for vendors, businesses, freelancers, and consultants from businesses owned by people of color, women, people from the LGBTQ+ community, disabled veterans, and so on. Need a place to start? Use this list of diverse vendors in the marketing space from the Association of National Advertisers.

No one has all the answers

I often hear from people who worry that their efforts to create inclusive and empathetic content will fail or that they’ll say the wrong things. It’s OK to be scared, but it’s not OK to not act because you’re scared.

Acknowledge the fear, then figure out how to take action anyway. You’ll never have it all figured out, but you can make progress.

This work isn’t easy. But if you show up every day with a spirit of inclusivity and empathy, imagine the impact you could have on your teams, your audiences, and your customers. Everybody wins.

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Cover image by Joseph Kalinowski/Content Marketing Institute