Are you using empathy in your marketing?
Because marketing isn’t something you do to people; it’s something you do with people.
You might be wondering: why am I saying this?
The problem with modern sales and marketing
I see this with marketing (and sales): we get clinical and treat our customers as objects to convert rather than people who need help.
We can get off track by thinking, “How do I get what I want?” (revenue, leads, opportunities, etc.)
I recently met with a group of sales and marketing influencers, and we discussed trends and our projects.
We shared what trend is most affecting our work.
As I listened, I realized there’s a greater need for customer empathy.
Why? Because as marketers, we have more marketing channels, content, and technology than ever before. But, it’s become harder to connect and build trust with customers.
Let me explain.
Why do you need to build customer empathy?
Today’s crazy-busy customers are wary of sales pitches, cold emails, and hype-filled messages. The result? They tune them out.
So in our rush to obtain leads, drive opportunities, and move the sales needle, it’s easy to forget that we need to address our customers’ emotional needs (fears, hopes, wants, and aspirations).
Additionally, neuroscientist and USC professor Antonio Damasio made a groundbreaking discovery to which he responded, “we are not thinking machines that feel, we are feeling machines that think.”
Damasio concluded from his findings that when emotions are impaired, so is decision-making.*
What does this mean?
We must go beyond rational-logic-based sales and marketing to understand how our customers feel.
How do we gauge customer feelings?
We can do this by looking into their experience.
The gap between customers and us
So, we want to market and sell OUR solutions.
Our customers aren’t saying, “We need your solutions.” Instead, they’re saying, “We need to solve our problem.” So, what would happen if you focused on helping them do just that?
I’ve learned you can’t answer “how can I help” unless you know precisely what your customers want.
The CMO Council states, “Only 20% of marketers can predict the next best action for their customers.”
Additionally, Forrester Consulting discovered, “65 percent of marketers struggle to employ emotional marketing as they turn to automation to improve customer engagement.”
To understand, you need empathy which, according to Miriam-Webster, “is the ability to share someone else’s feeling.” We need to walk in their shoes to see things from their perspective.
What is empathy-based marketing?
Empathetic Marketing is about codifying our intuition to walk in our customer’s shoes to understand their experience (i.e., how they think and feel about their business). Your goal is to connect to how your customer is thinking and feeling. By doing this, we can better help them get what they want (and increase conversion).
To do this, you must move from business-centric to customer-focused thinking. And you need to speak to your customer’s motivations and from their perspective.
So, where do you begin?
Empathy-based marketing is based on the following ideas:
- The best marketing and selling is helping.
- Empathize with your customer’s feelings and problems by going into their world to understand.
- Think like your clients when they set out to solve a buying problem and discover each step they may take to help them on the journey.
- Look for ways you can help your customers make their lives better.
- Provide your customers with what they want by understanding what motivates them.
- Help your clients identify and solve problems.
- Give customers useful content, hero stories, and expertise that helps them gain clarity
- Empower your employees, especially those who directly touch customers like sales development reps, with the resources, training, and tools to help them
Examples of empathetic B2B companies
The team at Slack practices empathy in their marketing and considers it part of their core values.
Former Slack CEO Stewart Butterfield stated in this interview, “It’s very difficult to design something for someone if you have no empathy.”
Additionally, IBM is gearing up to become the world’s largest design company. As part of their boot camps, employees learn how to apply empathy to connect better with colleagues and clients. They’re learning how to tap into their customers’ and colleagues’ feelings and need to come up with better solutions.
“The need for empathy towards the buyer is huge. It’s a differentiator…” -Doug Brown, former CMO, IBM Systems
Since 2015, I’ve studied the most successful customer-centric and empathetic companies and marketers to discover what’s helping them connect with customers.
Here are seven ways you can apply empathy to your marketing and sales.
1. Put your customers first
Instead of trying to sound appealing to people, be interested in them. Understand your customer’s motivation (what they want) and ensure it’s something you can deliver.
So much of what we see today are product-centric claims aimed at impressing the prospect. The root word of emotion and motivate is the same.
Buyers base most of their actions on feelings and then backfill them with logic. That’s why it’s important to get beyond the product and speak to the results and the feelings the buyer seeks.
Read more about customer empathy and how to solve buying problems.
2. Get into the world of your customer and listen and observe to understand
Most people don’t listen with the intent to understand – they listen with the intent to reply.
Listen with the third ear, which means you want to understand the implied assumptions and motivations behind what a person is saying. That’s empathetic listening. And it’s a deeper level than active listening.
Empathetic understanding is not the product of survey data. Too many marketers rely on survey data or focus groups to tell them how customers think and feel, but that’s not enough.
You need to get out of the building and observe your customer’s world. It’s shocking how little of this happens.
Some of the ways marketers can build customer empathy:
- Get out in the field with your sales team and meet customers face to face
- Please pick up the phone or listen to calls your inside sales or sales development reps have with customers (it will be eye-opening)
- Survey customers on your email list to validate what you’ve learned intuitively from listening/observing
- Use empathy maps
It is critical to know what customers want and what motivates them to think about their experience. Once you do this, you can use your applied empathy to consciously and intuitively understand and see the world from their perspective.
It helps you intuitively interpret the context and understand your customer’s pressures.
The key to understanding another person is empathetic listening – trying to understand everything (including the nonverbal signals) the other person is communicating.
What’s emotions motivate them? You listen for feeling, meaning, behavior, and other signals.
3. Stop pushing. Start conversing
Focus on developing conversations, not campaigns.
Don’t err on the side of pushing your agenda rather than extending an invitation to talk and converse. To the customer, it feels like “somebody wants something from me” rather than “maybe they can help me get what I want.” Do this invite, listen, converse and recommend/help.
You need to demonstrate that you’re interested in their world and their motivations as fellow humans. Use empathy maps and personas to understand your customer and how to better connect with them in conversations.
If you’d like more help on this topic, feel free to check out my empathy map checklist, where I’ll walk you through it more thoroughly (download it here).
4. The best marketing and selling feels like helping (because it is)
Our marketing and lead nurturing are anchored on this idea. As customers, we can feel when someone’s trying to push us to do something.
We know when we’re being treated as objects to convert. Also, we recognize when someone sincerely cares. They’re not trying to push their agenda; they’re genuinely trying to help us.
Ask this as your approach your marketing:
Is it how we’d like to be treated?
Is this how we’d like a friend or loved one to be treated?
For more, read 4 Steps to walking the buying path with your customers.
5. Give useful content they want (and want to share with others)
This content organically emerges from the first four points of placing the customer first, understanding them, conversing with them, and helping them. But so much of today’s content does not do that.
Much of the content I see lacks that empathetic context and content without empathy is just noise. And it’s become very noisy in B2B sales and marketing.
Cleveland Clinic is a great example of an organization speaking to patient care and empathy:
According to their video intro,
“Patient care is more than just healing — it’s building a connection that encompasses mind, body, and soul. If you could stand in someone else’s shoes . . . hear what they hear. See what they see. Feel what they feel. Would you treat them differently?”
We’ve become publishing machines, creating content for content’s sake. A friend of mine said the enemy of content marketing is content marketing.
Our customers don’t need more content. They need customer-centric content that helps them and their colleagues choose a different path along their journey. You’re helping people change.
This is why you want customer advocates.
Also, I rarely hear customers use the word content. They call our content based on its utility and how they feel about it; terrific ebook, helpful blog post, useful white paper, fantastic article, excellent video, etc. See what I mean?
6. Support everyone that interacts with the customer
Empower those closest to your customer (your sales team, sales development reps, inside sales, and customer service people) to achieve the points above. We formulate our opinions about companies based on our interactions with their people.
How Drift makes this real
Dave Gerhardt, former VP of Marketing at Drift. shared how his CEO called him one day and told him, “I think we should get rid of our forms.”
Gerhardt realized that marketing was becoming more about getting people to convert, i.e., fill out forms or jump through the next hoop.
Not only that, but according to Gerhardt, we were “treating people like leads and email addresses instead of treating people like people.”
We have access to so much great tech in marketing and sales: analytics, SEO software, site crawlers, automation, bots, AI, and email campaigns; It’s easy to forget that we are writing for people at the end of the day—not just the mighty algorithms.
When you give people what they value or find useful without expecting anything, you build a connection and eventually trust. It’s an open secret. Try it. Think about your marketing purpose.
For more on this read 4 Ways, You Can Humanize Marketing and Build Relationships
7. Apply empathy personally and be an example
Be the change you want to see. Show others by practicing empathy yourself. This idea requires different thinking to drive a different way of doing.
Who needs empathy? Yes, your customers, your team and your co-workers inside your company.
I learned that it’s futile to make changes outside before we first make changes inside. We need to focus inside to make a difference outside our walls first. That starts with us.
Why? Scientists have proven that emotions are contagious (emotional contagion). and can be caught just like a cold. I’ve seen companies that are a mess inside try to make a difference outside. And if it works, it’s only temporary.
I wanted to share a practical empathy example with email because we are now sending emails.
Here’s a case from an A/B test conducted by MarketingExperiments. It’s an email sent to potential customers who began a form but did not complete it. Note the difference in tone: control versus treatment.
The email on the left was “sales speak.” The email tone on the right was changed to be more empathetic and yielded a conversion rate of 7% versus 1.5% for the control email.
What’s the bottom line? By just addressing the customer’s anxiety (with empathy) in the email tone, they saw a 349% increase in total lead inquiries.
For more, check out 7 Tips to Boost Lead Nurturing Email Results Immediately.
You may also like this interview I did with Michael Brenner, the CEO of MarketingInsiderGroup.com, on Empathetic Marketing: How To Connect With Your Customers.
I know this may seem touchy-feely, but it’s not. It has an economic benefit.
Empathy is a part of the unique human experience, and if you avoid it, you prevent marketing in a way that genuinely connects with people.
Empathetic marketing is not just about “creating emotional responses” in customers.
Instead, it’s about understanding their current emotional state at that moment and being able to meet them there in an individualized way.
If we can emotionally connect and give customers what they want, we can create a lasting competitive advantage that will reap more revenue and profits.
I fundamentally believe that empathy is the most powerful force in B2B marketing – Alan Cohen, Chief Commercial Officer, Illumio
IDEO’s Empathy on Edge puts it this way, “When organizations allow a deep emotional understanding of people’s needs to inspire them—and transform their work, their teams, and even their organization at large—they unlock the creative capacity for innovation.”
It starts with your empathy to get out of the mindset of being company-centric (how do I get what I want) to become customer-led (how do I help them get what they want).
In summary, the best marketing and selling feel like helping (because it is).
It’s your turn
I’d love to hear what you think. Do you have a story to share? Let me know.
If the science-y stuff I mentioned earlier fascinates you as much as it fascinates me, I encourage you to look into Damasio’s proposed Somatic Marker Hypothesis.
You might also enjoy checking out works by Neuroscientist and Professor Edmund T. Rolls.
Rolls is well known for his books Emotion and Decision-Making Explained (2014) and The Orbitofrontal Cortex (2020).
You may also like
How customer-hero stories help you connect better
Why purpose matters to marketing: growth, revenue, and profit
Podcast: Why Empathetic Marketing Can Give Your Customers An Amazing ExperiencePodcast: 5 Ways to Immediately Boost Account Based Marketing (ABM)
How to Put the Customer First in Lead Generation
It's an honor to be here, Brian! Thank you for sharing this one.
Quite an interesting article Brian!! I completely agree with you on the viewpoint that to solve a problem properly, you have to understand a customer’s feelings and their unique situation, and we need to have empathy which empowers a customer service agent to deliver an excellent customer experience. Salespeople who lead with empathy, rather than competency, will outperform their peers. Here are a few links that can give a better understanding, https://www.yesware.com/blog/sales-empathy/ and https://www.navedas.com/ai-empathy-customer-experience/
This is a thoughtful post that got me thinking about how some kinds of marketing force you to be more empathetic.
For instance, one of our clients, Journey Sales, has built a sales engagement app on Salesforce where the sales team can easily put together a personalized microsite for a specific customer or opportunity, curate content geared to that customer’s needs, and get people on the buying team and sales team to collaborate. You need empathy to do it right. Here’s a video about it http://journeysales.com/product-tour/.
Another area where empathy can pay off is interactive video. You’re adding clickable objects that allow the viewer to navigate to “chapters” in the video, or to display content from outside the video. You can’t do that unless you think through what’s important to the viewer in the first place.
Understanding people and their experiences will help you to improve on what you do. You will make a decision to make your brand to satisfy what really people wants and needs. This will help both you and costumers. Interesting article! Thanks for sharing.
Nice post !
Empathetic Marketing will provide untold value and wisdom for you and your customers.
how it Helpfull in Small Business growth?
Bruce, thank you for reading and sharing those examples with us. I agree. We need to try to understand what our customer is thinking and feeling (seeing, doing, etc.). When we understand our clients perspective, we can better know what would be relevant and help them.
Good question. Data from APIs and real-time info are helpful. That said, unless you use empathy to help you to intuitively understand the context, the reasons and drivers behind the customer behaving a certain way you’ll miss the bigger picture. Data with out empathy is just information. Using data with empathy is wisdom.
Interesting, do you think that APIs and data can help getting to know more our users by fetching in real time information on their profile. Automated personalization can be the first step to empathy?