Empathy is one of the most important things you can gift your customers and audience with. It’s the basis for any sustainable and long-lasting brand-to-consumer relationship and so underpinning your communications and marketing strategy with this essential emotive aspect is crucial. Incidentally, your marketing and comms is also where storytelling and storytelling tools fit most seamlessly in – and using stories in a purposeful way will forge an empathetic connection both faster and easier. This is how empathy affects your connection with your customers and how using the right words and stories fits into the equation.
The empathy dynamic between brand and consumer
Traditionally, and still to an extent today, businesses have very different relationships with their customers to what individuals have with each other on a personal level. However, this is changing – and it’s changing fast. While the relationships you build with your customers certainly isn’t the same as the relationships you build and nurture with friends, it’s starting to come pretty close.
Feeling like we’re understood is pivotal to the human experience and one of the main ingredients in any relationship that lasts.
Not to be confused with sympathy, empathy is of a mutual nature. When you are able to empathise with someone who you feel empathises with you, a strong connection is built. As such, the mutuality that we see in partnerships, family relationships and friendships, is one we should aspire to as business owners and communicators. The dynamic shift can be seen globally, and it’s been accelerated by the social isolation during and in the wake of the pandemic. As people were forced to be alone, more and more of them discovered how much they actually rely on human connection.
And they’ve started craving it from the brands and companies they choose to buy from and do business with too.
Making this shift in a business communications context, especially if you’re coming from a corporate background or your company is large, is challenging. It means that you need to rethink the way you form relationships, the way you cultivate relationships, the way you nurture relationships, and effectively how you take a customer through their entire interaction journey with you. But what is certain is that any consumer would much rather form relationships with brands and companies that display empathy – that understand them – than the companies and brands that don’t.
This is partially why we’re seeing a shift in marketing, across a range of different industries and on a global scale, that’s more centred around humanity and mutuality. Effectively, businesses are getting out of their ivory towers and down on the ground.
How stories convey understanding
The human mind is made so that it switches on and becomes more prone to intake when it spots a story. It can be an anecdote, it can be a simple narrative, or it can be a full-length novel. But when we are captured by a writing style and the narrative structure that says ‘story’, our minds turn on. And they turn on in an emotive way. Stories are some of the most effective ways of conveying shared experience, which is what lies at the heart of empathy.
If you can show that you, someone you know, or your company has the same thoughts, feelings, perspectives, or experiences as a person you want to connect with, empathy won’t be far behind.
The reader will be more likely to trust you and to buy from you. This isn’t about tricking your audience, though, because they’ll see right through that. This is about the very powerful relationships that are built between a business and a customer when that business is able to say to that customer, “I understand you and your experience is important to me.”
Stories, and storytelling, can achieve this in a number of different ways, and with a number of different techniques. But the point is that the shared experience, which a story is, is an inevitable expression of empathy. If you choose your stories right, in a way that showcases you’ve thought through your ideal customers’ point of reference, you are displaying empathy.
And because this is such a mutual emotive dynamic, when a reader feels understood, they are more likely to understand you back.
They will automatically be more invested in you, when you show that you are invested in them.
Which is why spending time on your ideal clients’ human experience, not just buyer’s journey, is so critical to a communications and marketing strategy centred around empathy.
The hero’s journey – and other customer journeys
When it comes to the type of narrative structure that works best to convey empathy, there is almost nothing easier to start with than The Hero’s Journey. This seminal work by Joseph Campbell from 1949 maps out the universal structure for the kind of storytelling we know from Disney, Star Wars, mythologies, and many religious texts.
This work has been simplified and repurposed for marketing and sales by Donald Miller’s Storybrand, and is a great starting point if you want to build narratives that showcase empathy around your customer and audience, from your website to your social media posts. Practice with this structure, and you’ll be able to move onto other structures with greater ease down the line.
The thing is, you don’t have to use the hero’s journey to tell a good story and showcase empathy – but you do need a narrative structure.
You need to have a sense of who the protagonist is; what they’re going through; how you’re going to help them. By showcasing and understanding things like their desired future state, and their current pain points, you are showcasing empathy. It becomes clear to them that you’ve sat down, placed yourself in their shoes and crafted your messaging accordingly.
While most readers and consumers won’t be conscious of this happening, they’ll respond to it on an emotional level. They will feel that you are emphasising with them. And so, most likely, emphasise in return.
Empathy, through purposeful narrative structure is also one of the best ways of speaking directly to your ideal client.
The more you sharpen the narrative and the understanding for the people you want to connect with, the more your content will resonate with these individuals.
Your brand story: The empathy fountain
Most businesses make the mistake of being far too introspective when they write their brand story, whether it’s in ‘About Us,’ ‘Our story,’ or ‘Learn more’ format. These texts are typically highly company-focused, and only very generically inclusive of the audience that they are trying to appeal to. It’s true that the brand story needs to be the story of the brand – it’s all in the name – but what the brand story is actually about this showing how your journey has positioned you as the best solution provider for your ideal clients. And in order to pull that off, you are completely dependent on a display of empathy that is genuine and precise.
This is about figuring out which parts of your story corresponds to your ideal clients’ current pain points.
It’s about weaving in your past, with their future. By structuring your brand story around empathetic understanding, it will undeniably appeal to the individuals whose emotive experience you are speaking to. As such, when the brand story is done right, it becomes a fountain of empathy, where every sentence is carefully positioned at the intersection between your customer, and your business.
This means the piece of writing becomes fundamental in your communications and marketing strategy too. You will be able to use it for native platform content, such as your business blog, as well as content for all your social media platforms, simply because it is rooted in that cornerstone understanding of the people you want to do business with.
In order to achieve any of these things, you have to start with a human understanding of who your ideal client is. The traditional marketing ICP isn’t going to cut it. You need to figure out what they’re afraid of, what they’re excited about, what their worries are, what they like to talk about, how they like to be addressed. Only once you understand these people the same way you would strive to understand a friend will you be able to truly empathise with them and broadcast this genuine understanding with resonant narratives throughout your business communications strategy.