To be an effective marketer, develop this characteristic, now

In marketing, and in life, there’s nothing quite like someone else truly “getting” you.

In marketing, and in life, there’s nothing quite like someone else truly “getting” you.

“What is this, hippie marketing?!?” my client growled.

He was glaring across the table at me, holding a draft of my copy in his hand. A former commander of an aircraft carrier, this guy was tough as old shoe leather, and his presence filled the room. The oven-like conference room began to feel like a military tribunal.

He was a longtime client, and we actually liked each other, a lot. He had given me an assignment to write a piece for his customers detailing some new payment policies. He wanted a list of direct orders. I wanted to inform people and not make them feel bossed around. Hence the “hippie” comment.

After some hard selling and a little begging, I convinced him to lean toward my “touchy-feely” approach.

Everything we did for that client was tested by an annual survey. After that piece was published, it had the highest recollection rate, ever, for that information. Touchy-feely worked.

In our follow-up meeting, my client gave me his slight smile, and extended his hand toward me—the understated, yet massive sign of his approval. “Good job, hippie marketer.”

What my client called “hippie,” I actually call empathy. I think it’s the most important trait a marketer can have… more than being a strategist, or creative, or a brilliant tactician.

Empathy is simply the ability to sense and understand other people, including their feelings, thoughts, and perspective. Researchers say there are two basic types of empathy:

Affective empathy – That’s when we mirror other people’s emotions. So, if a loved one is stressed, or a co-worker is freaking out, we start to feel/act the same.

Cognitive empathy – Some people call this “perspective taking.” It’s the ability to identify and understand another person’s emotions at will.

It’s cognitive empathy that makes for a breakthrough marketer. Here’s why:

Empathy gives you insight. When you understand a customer, you know how to connect—and that makes action happen.

Empathy helps you craft killer content and creative. When you see through your customers’ eyes, you totally get what interests or moves them. Words and imagery will come much easier, and you’ll be much more persuasive.

Empathy plots your course. When you think like a customer, you put messages in places they are likely to find them… instead of places you think they should be.

Over the past few years, marketing has shifted to a more empathic approach. You see it in the use of social media, content marketing, and personalized communications and experiences, for sure. But, the experts always warn, for these channels to work you must make it about your customers and their needs, not you. That’s still a hard notion for some marketers to wrap their heads around.

The most progressive brands now actually take up causes or take a stand on issues—some of them controversial, like family planning or gay marriage. You can argue that this is lack of empathy for some, but actually, these brands have chosen to connect even more deeply with a core, devoted audience that shares certain viewpoints and values, even if that means losing revenue from a more general audience. You don’t get more empathic than that.

Some brands’ entire business models are fueled by empathy. A great example is Zappos, the online shoe and accessory retailer. Zappos addresses, directly, all the roadblocks that would stop people from buying shoes or clothing online: Fear of it not fitting, not liking it, or not wanting the hassle and cost of returning it.

So, Zappos includes a free shipping return label in every box and a super-long return policy and guarantee. Problem empathized and solved. Zappos has enjoyed double-digit growth in recent years, and over 75% of its customers are repeat buyers.

Now granted, some of us are naturally more empathic than others. But there are things you can do to get out of your own head and understand others more.

A simple exercise to develop your empathic muscles: Role play.

I often do this with colleagues when we’re brainstorming on a marketing problem for a client. If, for example, we are designing a website, we imagine we’re the customer and experience the site for the first time. We stop thinking like an agency or the client and see ourselves as the customer, in his or her environment, visiting this.

Suddenly, a whole slew of different questions emerge: Is the navigation clear? What does the messaging communicate to me? Is this interesting? Why would I stay here?

Empathy isn’t always easy. Human beings, by nature, tend to be selfish, impatient, and needy at times. Empathy takes more work and a break from our natural tendencies. But being around someone who is truly empathic with us fills a certain void and helps us feel connected and understood. It makes for a richer experience for all of us—as marketers, customers, and as people. Even us hippie marketers.

– Andy Badalamenti is the creative director for CI-Group

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  • Hey Andy,

    Have you found this to be true only in the western culture or have you tested this in the asian culture as well?

    If so, what’s your finding?

    Robin Ooi

    4 April, 2015 at 5:51 pm

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