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09/20/2010 Empathy: The Key Ingredient to Digital Marketing

In all of my work as an interactive creative director and digital strategist, my main task in every project was to attempt to get into the shoes of my intended audience to imagine how they would use the things we built. In the digital business, we want people to feel emotions (like in traditional advertising) but we need for them to do something right away. 

Click, buy, give us your email, post on Facebook, forward to a friend, or just play; the actions are key in digital since we're creating two-way communications. But how on earth can we succeed if we don't shed our own preferences and embrace those of the people who will use our work?

Peter Drucker: "The number one practical competency for success in life and work is empathy."

If you plan, design, program or write for digital you need to have a high level of empathy. One of the biggest problems marketers have is the delusion that they themselves are the target audience. Even if you use the product or service you're trying to market, once you're on the inside you lose perspective. In fact, declaring, as countless have done, that "I'm the typical client" serves as nothing more than a power grab to own the decision making process.

empathy  [( em -puh-thee)]
Identifying oneself completely with an object or person, sometimes even to the point of responding physically, as when, watching a baseball player swing at a pitch, one feels one's own muscles flex.

There's great power in trying to understand other people. From a design perspective it helps you understand how to create intuitive design. From a development and UX perspective, it helps make things as simple and elegant as possible. From a strategy standpoint, it helps put the customer firmly at the center of the equation rather than the client.

Empathy helps remove the ego from decisions. You become an advocate for someone else rather than simply defending your own ideas. 

So how do you become more empathetic? 

  • More listening, less talking. If you don't listen to other people, you'll never understand them.
  • Get out of your comfort zone. I mean, really, get out of it. You may need to hang out with people you're not really that into, for a while. 
  • Act like an anthropologist. Observe, take notes, and don't interject yourself. If you do, you may end up changing what you see.
  • Read what they read, watch what they watch. 

It won't mean that you'll perfectly understand them. And you probably may not observe them doing the exact thing you're designing for. That's okay. As long as you can get into their heads and wear them like a costume, you can make the conceptual leap to acting like them.

Anyone can develop empathy skills. There are lots of books, including one by author Dev Patnaik called "Wired To Care" that help people and businesses develop those skills.

Or, you can think of yourself as a great method actor like Brando. Brando refused to learn how to rid a horse for the movie "Missouri Breaks" with Jack Nicholson. Instead, he studied people who did know how to ride, and he acted like them. Simply put, he acted like he knew how to ride a horse, even though he didn't.

Empathy is not the sole property of planners and persona developers. They can certainly help a lot, but everyone needs to add their own dose of empathy to the mix.

In marketing, especially digital marketing, empathy is the secret ingredient to great work.


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