Empathy In Digital Marketing


I recently read a book called Age of Empathy that made the case for, you guessed it, empathy. The book argued that empathy is deeply engrained in all of us, is innate and largely subconscious. The author refuted many claims of social Darwinism, survival of the fittest and so on, claiming on the whole that people more or less help each other on instinct.

The premise got me thinking about sales, digital marketing and user experience and how empathy might play a role there. You hear a lot about companies wanting to “listen to customers” and “understand their users”— a kind of empathy. Sure, all businesses want to make money, but most businesses (good ones) also strive to help solve customer’s problem, make people happy and make money at the same time.

Face to Face 

In our work with user experience and design, I can see evidence that empathy is naturally occurring. It is especially obvious when you have interactions with real users, real people. The work becomes much more meaningful. In my experience, connecting with users, clients and team members (or at the very least, seeing and hearing them) is a critical component of understanding users. Is empathy harder to achieve virtually?

A study described in Age of Empathy depicted two lab rats in clear tubes next to each other. One rat was dosed with a chemical that caused discomfort, enough so the rat had a bodily reaction (but was not seriously injured). The other rat was used as a control. When the rats were placed next to each other, the control rat shows signs of anxiety at the sight of its distressed comrade. However, if the lights went out, there was no response. The rats had to literally see one another to provoke a kind of empathetic response. The author argues that these responses are very much a visual thing related to body language. 

Having done focus groups and in-person user testing, I can attest to the impact that seeing someone has when you ask them questions or watch them interact with something. Confused people will tilt their heads, shift in their seats, furrow their brows and exhibit dozens other signs without ever uttering a word. While not quantifiable data by any means, it clearly shows when someone is frustrated. More than that, in these scenarios I can certainly feel they are.

digital marketing

The Problem with Anonymity & Empathy

The problem, of course, is that empathy is much harder virtually. We naturally channel empathy towards our close circle of influence, friends family, or even user test volunteers, if only for a short while. The phenomenon of "in versus out" is often described as tribalism. Age of Empathy posits it as something that derived from a survival instinct. People are naturally suspicious of “others” and can easily detach themselves from their fellow persons while favoring their own, trusted group.

Another study in Age of Empathy looked at a group of theology students on their way to a lecture on "The Good Samaritan." Half were warned not to be late while the other half were not told anything as a control group. Both groups passed what looked to be a homeless man groaning in pain on the street on their way to class. The students who were told not to be late stopped significantly less to help the man, despite the very theme of the lecture they were to attend.

This example illustrates how easy it is for people to turn off empathic feelings with people outside their field of view (even if those people are standing right in front of them) even while heading to a lecture about empathy and helping others!

The problem is magnified virtually in the work that we do. I can attest to how easy it is to get caught up in the process of building things and forget there are real people on the other side of the screen trying to solve problems and get on with their day. We will likely never meet them, never speak to them, yet we are trying to understand their situation and problems, stepping outside of ourselves, if only for a moment.

What To Do About It

I am reminded of the great “Follow the Frog” campaign that describes a do-gooder who takes the idea of “doing something about it” to the extreme. But we don’t all have to become the Dali Llama of customer experience to make a difference. If Age of Empathy has taught me anything, it’s that we all feel empathy naturally and exercise it every day. I don’t believe it’s an intellectual quid-pro-quo exercise. It just happens.

Wherever empathy comes from, perhaps understanding how to cultivate and use it is the key. After all, user experience deliverables are all about this. User personas try to help us formulate a “real” person to empathize with, as does user testing and in-person focus groups. But keeping focus is hard. Six months later, it’s tough to remember how Joe struggled to find the customer support button. Through all the meetings, stand-ups, testing, budgets, timelines, brainstorming, bugs, workarounds, and everything else that goes into making something, we can forget we are in the business of making things for people to help other people solve problems. But we must find ways to stop and force ourselves to remember, to consider the person on the other side of the screen and care.