The belief that being empathetic means being emotional is not actually very empathetic. Marketers often misunderstand customers when crafting messaging and marketing content. How can marketers be genuinely empathetic?
Today’s guest is Megan Thudium from MTC - The Content Agency. Megan discusses how to adjust, adapt, and authentically understand the needs of customers from different cultures and countries.
Ben: Hi, Megan! How are you doing this morning?
Megan: I’m doing well. Thanks for connecting.
Ben: I’m really excited about this episode because I think this is a really important topic just in general, but probably now more than ever. Before we get too far along in this conversation, would you mind taking a moment just to introduce yourself to our audience and explain what you do at MTC?
Megan: My agency is called MTC | The Content Agency and we are a B2B content marketing agency based out of Berlin, Germany. We work specifically with German clients who are going into the North American market. In a lot of ways—which we will dive into this conversation—we have to be empathetic in our market but also our clients. That is what we do at MTC. Everything we do is for B2B companies and we do only organic marketing, so we are specialized in that.
Ben: I think you’d be well-prepared to answer this question even if we weren’t in the middle of a global pandemic. I think if you’re in a somewhat unique situation where you have to be mindful of cultural barriers, cultural differences, language differences and so forth, then empathy is going to be very much at the front of your mind all the time.
In your view, why do you feel that it’s important for marketers to really understand, though, that empathy means more than just emotion? Especially in situations such as the one that we’re in right now with COVID19, but also more broadly in general. Why is it important to understand truly what empathy actually means?
Megan: You are 100% correct to say that empathy marketing is a long-term game for marketing. It is not something that needs to be discussed now, it’s something that always has to be discussed as part of our marketing playbook. The reason why it’s really being emphasized right now is because it’s the most needed. Our world is a little bit crazy. If you haven’t noticed, a lot of things are going on. Emotions are high. That’s what empathy is very important in understanding so that we can remain connected to our audience during these tough times.
When you define empathy, how would you define it? How you define empathy is understanding your audience at a level that has a deeper understanding of what they need; developing in a context of marketing and content, developing your messaging, your marketing, your content to help them, so it’s them-to-you and not you-to-them–type of process. Something we should always be practicing in marketing.
Right now, during COVID, when people are very emotional and things are tough, this is even more important to remain relevant with your audience to keep connected to them. This is something for us to keep in mind because if we make a mistake, this is where you don’t want to mix up just being emotional, monopolizing off of the emotions that are happening, but taking a step further, being understanding, and empathetic with where they are coming. If you miss this mark, you’re going to isolate your audience. They’re going to step away from you, they’re going to disconnect, which is the worst thing that we wanted in marketing because then we lose customers.
Ben: We certainly don’t want to be losing customers. That’s literally the opposite of all of our jobs. Beyond being good for business, do you feel that businesses have any ethical or moral obligations to make their marketing messaging genuinely empathetic in times of crisis?
Megan: This is a very interesting question. If I look at it from the business side, I would say absolutely, if you want to remain relevant to your audience. Yes, you have to take and understand that the positioning that you’re taking as part of your messaging and the position as to how you are presenting yourself during this COVID time is going to have a direct impact on your bottom line. Kind of like what we already played into, so there is a business.
Ethically and morality side, actually, if we want to take COVID out of the picture, it goes into the much bigger picture of where marketing is evolving in general. Marketing our audience is looking for more authentic, communicative, engaging, and empathetic conversations on marketing from companies. They’re not looking for sleazy situations with salespeople, they’re not looking to feel disconnected. We’re looking for different experiences.
Overall, the audience’s needs, pains, and things that they’re looking for are adjusting overall. COVID, of course, plays into that. But if you look at it as a bigger picture, if you want to remain relevant, past COVID, going to 2021 and beyond and beyond, you have to think a little bit more about how you are ethically marketing because even if we go deeper into what the audience is demanding—younger people, this next-generation—they want to know if a company is being sustainable, for example.
For example, Patagonia—I’ll throw that brand out there—does a great job at marketing their communication on where they stand, not just in sustainability, but also across the board—their stands on feminism, equality, and age gap. These things are becoming more important to younger generation audiences. We’re seeing it at B2C. B2B is always a little bit behind, but I think it’s definitely going to come. This is really where having a moral and ethical stance in your marketing is going to be important for you to remain relevant in the future.
Ben: I think that makes sense. I think that we can establish, as marketers, as communications professionals—whatever specific title any of us might have—being empathetic with your audience (obviously) is an essential but perhaps overlooked component of actually meaningfully connecting with your audience or with your customers. It’s very important.
As we all see, sometimes brands don’t get it right and they don’t get it right because it’s not easy. What are some of the possible negative consequences for brands missing the mark or getting this wrong? In terms of now (the pandemic), we’ve all heard a billion ads just generically reminding us of the “unprecedented” nature of the times that we’re in. That is a copy-paste boilerplate at this point. Beyond being just annoying, I think it’s more damaging than that at this point. That doesn’t feel authentic, like this car company doesn’t care about me. They’re just trying to make it look as though they’re acknowledging the situation.
In your view, what are the possible negative outcomes if you try to appear empathetic but you’re very transparently not being empathetic at all?
Megan: I really think you hit the mark, actually, and what you said. When you fail to do the right messaging, right now, this empathetic approach or you use the same cookie-cutter structure of a sentence in messaging, you’re not going to stand out and it’s not going to feel authentic and you’re not connecting specifically towards your audience.
If they see the same content, tonality, structure across different companies, how does that feel authentic? How do they feel like they are actually being spoken to as a person or even as a community as a whole? Who are your customers? Your customers are your best friends, they’re the ones who are buying from you and you want to keep buying from you. You should be adjusting (at least) that messaging to their voice and their needs.
That goes into the other thing. I think this tonality, this structure that a lot of companies are hitting the mark because it’s so generic and it’s not specific. Your audience is screaming out, we all are worried about the same things, but depending on your specific audience, there might be specific needs. That comes from talking to your sales team. What are the things that people worried about now?
In B2B, it’s the bottom line. Am I going to make all my revenue targets? Am I going to do these? I’m worried about losing my job. That’s actually where it gets a little bit more emotional in B2B. I might be losing my job soon. These types of things. Or on a CEO level, how am I going to connect my team remotely?
Reevaluating, talking to your audience, to your sales team, to these people, to understand where their current needs and the emotions that they have at this point, and then adjusting all your marking to fit that.
Ben: If you’re still wondering why this is so important, consider the cost of not infusing your marketing messaging with genuine empathy for your customers' pain points. You’re not going to fully understand what problems they are trying to solve, what motivates them to find a solution, or even be able to identify and accurately articulate how exactly you solve those problems or how you could motivate them to make a purchase.
You’re also liable to come across as a little bit tone-deaf. If you’ve ever seen a brand just get roasted for an inappropriate social media post that was trying to show how much a company cares about a given issue or circumstance, or if you’ve ever rolled your eyes at a TV commercial from a brand claiming to care about you in a way that is obviously a little disingenuous.
To take an example that I saw a lot of the spring where car dealerships trying to tell people, like now is the time to buy or now is the time to get where you’re going when everybody was staying home early in the pandemic. Maybe that wasn’t the best messaging to go with. Wasn’t really empathetic with my situation, I can say that for sure. But if you’ve ever seen anything like that and you’ve seen first-hand what no-empathetic marketing looks like, it’s not good and you don’t want that to be you. Now, back to Megan.
Ben: If there are downsides to not getting this right, there must also be upsides for really understanding this well and executing on this idea in a way that is genuinely effective. Looking at the same questions just through a different lens a little bit here, what are the potential benefits to really infusing your marketing messaging with more empathy for your customers?
Megan: How to be more empathetic with your customers. What’s the practical takeaway? The practical takeaway, I already mentioned one. Connecting not only to your audience but to your team, and the key people in your teams that are connected to your audience.
In general, marketers should be more connected to our audience in one-to-one, getting on sales calls with the sales teams, having been in the conversation with those people, understanding what is happening. But if you can’t do that, if you’re busy with issues, meeting up with the sales team on a weekly basis to understand and hear the patterns of things of how the market is changing. I think that’s one practical step. Just being connected to the marketing team, keeping this conversation going between marketing and sales, hopping on sales calls, if you can, is always ideal. Really talking to your audience.
What are the things you can do in marketing? For example, LinkedIn has a great pool feature. Social media provides us a great outlet to engage and connect with our audience and to get their feedback. I do believe, especially in the B2B world, if you ask for people’s feedback, they will definitely give it to you.
If you ask these types of questions in an open way, I think that’s key in this whole empathy matter is how you present the questions, how you present the information. It’s not a yes or no question; it’s open-ended. The way that you’re messaging your content on LinkedIn in these pools is open-ended questions. Something that’s specific towards the pain and the points of your audience. I’m not going to put an example in there because that’s specific to you and your situation, but making the question open enough to where you can start a conversation with the people on LinkedIn.
Ben: I really love that point of making it specific and just not wanting to throw out a generic example. That’s exactly what people need versus just looking at what other brands are doing and copying the same message because you feel like that’s what you’re supposed to do. Treating it like a line item in a creative brief instead of an actual, sincere desire to actually address those pinpoints. I think that’s fantastic.
The last question I’ll throw your way—we talked about this before the interview here a little bit—what’s an example of a brand that you really feel understands this concept well and really embodies empathetic marketing messaging in a way that our listeners could go out and they could check them out and be like, oh, I see what they’re talking about here?
Megan: This is a great example question. This is where my living in Germany rubs off on me, this cultural aspect as nope, no company is perfect. I’m going to give you two examples, but take it with a grain of salt. A B2C example, I’ve already mentioned them. I would say Patagonia. I think we all heard about Patagonia, we’ve read many articles, but they really are hitting the mark across the board on not just how they’ve approached COVID, but also how they approached different important pieces that are developing in our society—politics, society, feminism, on the Black Lives Matter movement, these things. Understanding how they’re approaching, how they’re adjusting that messaging, even how their CEO is leveraging his personal brands in the marketing aspect to push that empathetic marketing and that messaging. That’s a great example.
On the B2B side, Slack is a great example of COVID in general and how Slack has overnight adjusted pretty much their messaging on how their platform can be now used for remote teams. It was always for teams. It was always about collaborating and bringing people together. It felt like overnight, they went to now we are the platform for remote teams, now we’re connecting you as a CEO or connecting your team from all over the world because we’ve been pulled apart by COVID. Slack is what’s bringing us together. I think those two on B2B and B2C are definitely hitting the mark you can learn from.
Ben: Very cool. I would agree. I think both of those companies are really great examples that our listeners are probably already familiar with, but maybe they’ll want to go take a little closer look at each of those companies and really dissect what they’re doing in this area. As I said, that was the last question I had. This has been a really great conversation. Before I let you go, I just like to give you the opportunity, if there’s anything that you think is really important in this topic that you haven’t had an opportunity to bring up, is there anything else? Any parting thoughts you like to leave our audience with?
Megan: I think my parting thoughts would be going back to the basics because we don’t really touch on that yet. We talked a lot about COVID and how empathy, marketing, and all that’s playing into it, but this is a long term thing. In general, you’re marketing should be empathetic. Gave you lots of practical examples, but even before you get to actually putting an action, you have to understand your audience.
How do you do that? You do it through the most basic buyer personas. I’m bringing it up because people are still not doing it. I guess that’s one of my big takeaways is you need to be doing the intelligence gathering, the understanding of your audience for your marketing in general. It’s going to help you with COVID, it’s going to help you to stay relevant in 2021 and beyond everything. Understanding your audience, doing the investigation and like work. That’s not just you and marking, looking through the data on your site, it’s also talking to people. That’s where empathy marketing is going to come in. Talking to people, talking to sales teams, talking to your customers.
Ben Sailer is the Inbound Marketing Director at Automattic. His specialties include content strategy, SEO, copywriting, and more. When he's not hard at work helping people do better marketing, he can be found cross-country skiing with his wife and their dog.