Making the Case for Empathy-Based Content

If you're trying to talk to everyone, you end up talking to no one.

At its core, social media represents a gathering space for people to connect with one another, to get information, and to be entertained. As such, no one wants to hear from your brand on social media if all you do is talk about yourself. Social media marketing requires an emotional connection - an ability for you to form a bond with users in the context of community —otherwise, you waste a great deal of time and money on conversation pieces that no one cares about.

In the biz, we call this “empathetic content marketing,” and the only way it works is if you fully understand (and appreciate) your target’s specific needs, wishes, pain points, interests and activities. After all, buying decisions are based on 20% logic and 80% emotion - how are you tapping into theirs?

I should warn you: it’s not always easy. It takes a lot of discipline to keep listening, and to test and learn based on what you discover. It’s tempting to stick to what you already know - your subject matter expertise, your news, your events, your people. While you certainly shouldn’t ignore what makes you remarkable, being relevant and engaging means your starting point should be their world filtered with a lens for how your brand can fit in.

What is Empathetic Content?

Empathetic content marketing includes posts, articles and other media that creates a meaningful bond between your brand and its audience. At its core, this type of content goes beyond the typical informational or salesy content. These posts connect with people at an emotional level.

Examples of Companies Doing Empathetic Content Right

Honesty and humility are required before you can create a genuine connection online. Unfortunately, many brands don’t really know how to let their guard down enough to do it.

FC Cincinnati is one brand doing it right. Cincy’s favorite soccer club, the #FCCincy team is only a few years old but has enjoyed riding a huge wave of support that has been amplified by their social media presence. D.J. Switzer (aka @wrongsideofthepond) is the team’s head of social media, and he has deftly established a unified online presence for the brand while also encouraging fan participation. (He also spoke at our Show & Tell event a few months ago.) The fact that DJ is a player and a huge soccer nut himself has made all the difference. You can sense the soccer fan personality in their content, so it’s no wonder FCC fans love engaging with the account.

Lesson learned: it’s vital that you identify shared interests within the community you’re a part of, and that you speak their language. If this knowledge or capability doesn’t exist inside your organization, bring someone in or at least curate the expertise in fun and exciting ways. Ask yourself: if we don’t know a lot about what makes our target audience tick, who does?

Here’s another winning local shoutout for you: The Simple Portrait Project.

The Simple Portrait Project is a family portrait “experience” aimed at capturing families and all of their imperfections. The 20-minute sessions are described as an “act of trust, collaboration and vulnerability.”

That’s why I think the video above is such a perfect way to reach the families TSPP needs to connect with. The images and the narrated letter tell the story of a strong but imperfect family—and not only celebrating those little imperfections, but cherishing them. And what better way to cherish those moments than with a family portrait?

Lesson learned: consider what's messy about your business - or in the lives of your consumers - and really bring that to light. People crave the what's raw, especially in a space (social media) that we tend to only show the best part of our lives. Show off your imperfections, what you're learning, and even what you're struggling with. You'll discover people who are going through the same thing and willing to jump in and engage.

The Danger of NOT Being Empathetic

There are countless examples of brands missing the mark on social, but Dove is one recent story that really stands out. In case you missed it, the body wash company released an ad in early October depicting a black woman turning white after washing. Dove quickly took down the video and apologized on Twitter, saying the ad had “missed the mark in representing women of color thoughtfully.”

Would a company that really understood its users have made such an error?

What can we do to (A) create content that resonates, and (B) avoid creating content that will alienate the people who matter?

How to Create Empathetic Content

To create empathetic content, you need to go beyond your assumptions. What you already “understand” (or think you understand) about your audience isn’t going to be good enough.

Here are a few techniques you can try to start empathizing with your audience:

1. Get off the stage.

We often use words like “audience” or “followers” to describe the people we’re targeting—in fact, I even used those terms in this article! However, words like these tend to encourage thinking that envisions the brand as an actor on a stage or a professor in a lecture.

When you’re in your research phase, make an effort to get off the stage and sit right next to your target users. You can start to do this by referring to them as “partners” or “participants” or “friends” or even just “people.” The words we use in these exercises matter, and anything you can do to help yourself (and your team) get in a mindset that makes you equal to the people consuming your content will go a long way.

2. Observe your “partners” in real-time.

“Fly on the wall” observations are an attempt to gain key insights by simply watching someone’s behavior without participating in the situation. For your research purposes, a good bet is to either observe how your participants interact with your service or product, or to find a place where your typical demographic likes to hang out (maybe at Starbucks, or even hashtag-driven chatter on Twitter?).

Visit these spaces, and then just watch. Sit quietly and keep yourself removed from the situation as much as possible. Take note of what people are doing (or not doing). Write down what they say. Most of all, try to understand their needs. What are the pain points? Afterward, brainstorm ways your brand (and your social content) can help solve those problems.

3. Engage directly with your partners.

If you can’t physically go on location, invite a customer to come to you. Offer up a sweet reward, and prepare some questions that will help you understand their desires and emotions when it comes to what you offer. Encourage them to be as honest as possible.

Another option is to send out a survey. You can offer a raffle entry to each person who participates, and afterward you will have rich data to help tell a story about your target users’ needs and wants.

4. Immersion: Walk a mile in their shoes.

Another great strategy is to actually “become” the people you’re writing the content for. Now that you’re getting a better idea of who your typical customer is, find ways that you can immerse yourself in their lives. It might be as simple as flipping through a magazine they might read, or as elaborate as spending a few days in a wheelchair. Whatever strategy you choose, take notes of what you notice, such as the points when you need help, what you’re doing when you feel like you need more information, etc. These are all topics ripe your content funnel.

5. Use the data you already have.

While hands-on research is important, don’t forget about the data you already have available at your fingertips. Look at your website analytics and social media insights. What content do your visitors read and engage with the most? What do they share? Also consider monitoring online chatter for additional insights, and checking reviews your users write about your brand (and about your competitors).

Final Steps

Once you’ve done your research, create a persona (or multiple personas) that captures the goals and values of your ideal audience member. This tried and true technique lets you put a name and a face to your overall audience.

Then comes the fun part: Create the content.

Your finished empathetic content should meet these criteria:

  • Does the content stand for something? Just like a brand, great social posts need a reason to exist. Why should people give this content their time?

  • Are you setting minimal (but clear) expectations? Don’t give your users a 12-step call-to-action. Now that you’ve inspired them, what do you want interested people to do right now to continue along their journey? When asking customers to take action, it makes a difference when you can identify the minimum they must do to make a difference.

  • Are you going above & beyond? It’s actually pretty easy to fill a content calendar if you don’t care about the quality of the content. So ask yourself if you’re exceeding your audience’s expectations. If you can truly surprise and delight your followers, the rest will take care of itself.

  • Are you having a conversation? Great social media marketers need to care enough about their content to not just push it out, but also engage around the reaction to it. Make sure you’re taking time to not only read but also to respond to any and all reactions to your posts. Remember, it’s not a stage but a conversation.

  • Are you admitting to honest errors? Mistakes happen. When they do, let customers know you’re still in control, you care, and you’re not prone to excuses.

Over to You

What empathetic branded content have you connected with? Have any ideas you want to run by our team? Hit me up!