How to Get Empathetic Marketing Right

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Empathy is the foundation of an effective marketing strategy. But it’s not always channeled tactfully. Almost immediately after the pandemic hit, marketers rode the “unprecedented times” wave, deploying message after message in support of frontline workers and banding together. Two years in, however, this kind of mass messaging among compounding collective grief rings hollow. But that doesn’t mean emotion and connection from brands isn’t necessary — quite the opposite, actually.

Being truly empathetic means being genuine, and emotional marketing campaigns created to seize cultural moments come across as insincere at best and manipulative at worst. Authentic empathy begets authentic connections between brands and customers.

Nike and Ikea stood out for particularly powerful storytelling ads at the onset of the pandemic. But plenty of other brands — fashion companies hawking new clothes for swankier “staycations” or Loon offering a 20% discount on e-cigarette purchases with a “staysafe” promo code, to name just two examples — awkwardly attempted to wedge their way into the “we’re in this together” conversation with little to no success.

To that end, these three strategies can help you personalize your messaging, evoke genuine compassion, and forge powerful customer connections:

1. Keep one ear to the ground.

If the past few years have taught you anything, it should be that a lot can change in a short amount of time. With that in mind, you need to keep a consistent pulse on your customers’ wants, needs, and pain points. Otherwise, you will seem utterly out of touch.

The ways you engage customers to gather this information will look different depending on various factors, including your specific industry and whether you operate in the B2B or B2C space. However, make sure to balance so-called “anecdata” (i.e., evidence based on stated personal preferences as opposed to real-world behavioral data) with data on actual decisions people make.

Sometimes, people’s true preferences differ from their declared preferences because humans tend to answer questions based on idealized versions of themselves. It is why someone might claim to be an avid NPR listener (stated preference) when they actually jam out to Britney Spears on their morning commutes (revealed preference).

For example, if you are a pure-play e-commerce company, you might employ focus groups and ask users to take surveys, but you should also monitor actual website users’ behaviors and compare the results. Additionally, consider adding interactivity to learn more about your customers’ browsing and purchasing habits. Being able to truly understand another’s perspective is the foundation of empathetic marketing. Seeing the world from the user’s point of view puts the customer at the center of your strategy and its execution.

2. Give customers the power of choice.

Holiday campaigns are a valuable way to get your brand out there and highlight its personality. Unfortunately, holidays like Mother’s Day and Father’s Day can be painful reminders for some people about lost or estranged loved ones. That’s why marketing teams for brands ranging from Pandora to the Democratic National Committee have recently been experimenting with “opt-out” emails for major holidays. Consider, for example, this message from Etsy:

“We understand that Mother’s Day can be a difficult time for some. If you’d rather not receive emails from us about Mother’s Day this year, let us know by removing yourself below. We’ll still keep you in the loop about one-of-a-kind finds we think you’ll love, just without the Mother’s Day messages.”

Though some might argue that offering an opt-out option  triggering than the traditional marketing emails usually sent, I firmly believe that allowing customers to choose how they interact with you is the ultimate act of empathic marketing. Plus, marketing technology has advanced enough that it is easy to segment your audiences to send or withhold specific messaging.

Although this was the first year luggage brand Away offered an opt-out choice on Mother’s and Father’s Day emails, it will not be the last. According to company representatives, more than 4,000 Away email subscribers opted out of the holiday emails, and another 250 sent the company messages expressing thanks for its thoughtfulness. Expect more brands to follow suit.

3. Set the tone with visuals.

The last thing you want is for target audiences to perceive your empathetic messaging as shallow or phony. To minimize the possibility of your messaging appearing shallow, use visual design to set the tone. And whatever you do, make sure it aligns with the brand you have created.

A wonderful example of visually authentic design is the professional services firm Ernst & Young. The subject matter is relatively pedestrian, but when you visit its website, you see photos of diversity, nature, and aspirations — all of which pair well with the brand’s empathetic tagline: “Building a better working world.”

Additionally, ask yourself: Can you rethink your design to be more accommodating and tactful? Three-quarters of people use some sort of vision correction, according to The Vision Council. So, a more accommodating approach to design that isn’t cluttered and doesn’t strain the eyes can position your company as an empathetic and collaborative one.

Again, authenticity is key. Steer clear of visuals that promote toxic positivity (which will come across as insensitive) and definitely avoid Hallmark-esque stock footage. Ensure your brand’s visuals account for the manifold experiences people might have: the good, the bad, and the ugly.

The ability to understand others’ perspectives has always been paramount in marketing, and that rings especially true during the moments it feels like we all will be swallowed by collective grief. To get empathetic marketing right, however, it needs to be personalized and genuine. There is no such thing as faking it until you make it, so get to work.

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