Empathy Is Marketer’s Greatest Tool For Success

Michael Brenner on May 2, 2016 in Content Marketing

Imagine having to watch a two-hour movie with 30-second commercials popping up every 15 minutes. How would you feel? Pretty annoyed, if you ask me. But this is basically how people experience today’s ad-supported content. It’s no surprise that there are at least 200 million monthly active users of ad blockers worldwide and still growing.

According to Noah Fenn, head of video sales and strategy at AOL, this is largely due to a “collective amnesia” among ad execs. When they walk through the doors to their offices in the morning, something strange happens to these ad execs: somehow, they forget that they are also part of the population that brands are trying to reach with their ads. And with this perspective erased from their minds, people become merely “users” who “consume” content.

Is There A Cure To This Collective Amnesia?

Fenn feels this collective amnesia can be cured if ad execs simply remind themselves that they, like the rest of us, are also viewers – viewers who just want to watch or read their content when and where they want, without the unwanted interruptions. And Fenn believes this points to a major problem in our industry: the need to balance the current top-down thinking with a more bottom-up, consumer-centric and empathetic approach.

But finding this balance isn’t easy. Our industry, in Fenn’s words, is a “complex mesh of technology platforms, data solutions, acronyms, and buzzwords.” There are multiple definitions for the same term. If you don’t believe it, try asking five coworkers to define the word “viewable.” You’re likely going to get a variation of, if not completely different, interpretations.

This complexity is often what leads to the need for top-down thinking, lingo and generalities, for the sake of consistency and efficiency. But Fenn wants us to remember that on the other side of the screen there is a person, a real human being. Adopting this mindset can be challenging, and that is where empathy comes in.

Empathy Is The Antidote

The easiest thing you can empathize with is time. Everyone’s time is precious and limited. And data can prove that a 30-second pre-roll ad before a 1-minute video is just not a fair tradeoff at all. But you probably don’t need data to tell you that.

For Fenn, while the top-down approach can help us see what is working and how well something is performing, it also holds us back from innovating because we may stick to what has worked in the past. But just because something is working, do we really know if it is what consumers want, when they haven’t been given any other choices at all? If you were given the option to skip a pre-roll before viewing a video or piece of content, would you still have watched that ad? Probably not.

That’s why we need to stop thinking in 30-second increments. Digital is not the same as television. We’re not stuck with a 15 or 30-second ad timeslot. Now more than ever, we have the ability and freedom to push our creative boundaries, give people more choices and drive engagement by leveraging different devices and platforms to share tailored content. But this isn’t easy. As Fenn points out, the industry still largely thinks in terms of creative development and media buying when allocating marketing budgets.

The “30-second mania” is even more problematic for mobile advertising, according to Fenn. He can’t understand why our industry would still repurpose TV creative assets for mobile, when clearly mobile is different than television. Over the years Fenn has seen numerous clients spending $50,000 on a 30-second TV ad, but then hesitating to pay an additional $30,000 when suggested to cut a mobile-friendly, 15-seocond version – ironically for a $5 million mobile campaign.

Fenn says that years of research have shown that, for less than 1% of a $5 million budget, marketers can develop creatives that have a much greater impact on their brand objectives. Yet, this investment is often considered too expensive, and the campaign ends up running with a creative asset that doesn’t fit at all.

Marketers, Are You Listening?

The solution to the consumer attention and engagement problems marketers are facing is right in front of us. The people we are trying to reach are telling us they want something different from us. And to reach them, we just need to listen to them and respond accordingly with more relevant, valuable content and experiences – quality content and experiences that people actually want and need.

Adopting a more consumer-centric, empathetic mindset is the secret sauce to connecting, engaging and converting today’s consumers. So, will you be adding empathy to your marketer’s toolbox? If it’s already in your toolbox, what impact does implementing a more empathetic approach have on your marketing success? Please share your thoughts below!

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Michael Brenner
Michael Brenner
Michael Brenner is a globally-recognized keynote speaker, author of The Content Formula and the CEO of Marketing Insider Group. He has worked in leadership positions in sales and marketing for global brands like SAP and Nielsen, as well as for thriving startups. Today, Michael shares his passion on leadership and marketing strategies that deliver customer value and business impact. He is recognized by the Huffington Post as a Top Business Keynote Speaker and a top CMO influencer by Forbes. Please follow him on LinkedIn, Twitter, or Facebook and Subscribe here for regular updates.
Showing 5 comments
  • @Michael, thanks for emphasizing the (desperate) need for more people-centric thinking among marketing executives. Prior to digital social, we individuals were relatively isolated, so we gritted our teeth and accepted these interruptions. Now, though, we individuals produce more “content” that all brands together, but our “content” is personal and often interactions among individual. We are re-personalizing business, so brands that persist in 20th century marketing show how clueless they are.

    However, I would rethink the assertion that empathy is a “tool.” In my client work, I mentor teams on how to develop empathy with stakeholders, and it’s useless unless it’s authentic. People feel it when teams approach interacting as a tool. Having been the chief marketer several times, I understand that this is a major change, BUT marketers that go there will be far more successful. Here’s a post on re-personalizing the economy in case useful:
    => https://rollyson.net/digital-transformations-personal-issue/

    A new era of marketing awaits CMOs who ask themselves, “How can we empower the outcomes of our most profitable customers when our product is most impactful?” Empowering people in digital public triggers network and annuity effects. We all know that people buy holes, not drills. So use ads to empower outcomes!

    • Michael Brenner

      Thanks Christopher, I agree it’s more a cultural shift than it is a tool. Another way to think about it relates to the journey I took as head of marketing for 3 startups with no money for ads: I learned very quickly that marketing that helps the customer, helps the business much more effectively than marketing that sells features and benefits. Th promise of empathetic emotional content is to attract readers on their terms, to engage them with helpful content.

      The “hole” is an outcome but behind that customer outcome is something deeper and typically more emotional. Emotional empathetic marketing simply works better than promotion. And too few CMOs possess the courage to focus on marketing that drives real impact. Every business in the world was started to solve a customer problem. Understand that problem and you own the key to unlocking the potential solution. And then, you’ve earned the right to explain your solution.

      Also, I’ve never seen an ad in my life that empowered an outcome. We all avoid ads, on every screen. But we seek out content that helps us. I saw your tweet about the irony of my subscription pop-up. I have written more than a few posts on the trade-off of that interruption and the value of subscribers. In summary, subscription conversions tell me which content people want to opt into. Inboxes are crowded. But when someone endures the subscription offer, I know I’m doing something right relative to other content topics, types and formats. It is not an easy decision for a content marketer. I hope it is seen as a service for a loyal reader to more easily get updated on the insights we share. I don’t send spammy emails to my subscribers. Just more (hopefully) helpful content.

      To manage the understandable frustration that pop-ups can create, mine only pops when you are 75% down the page (a very small percentage of readers on any site), it never pops on mobile, and only pops once every 30 days. I think that’s a fair deal and apologize for the inconvenience. I don’t mind sites that pop up subscription offers. But I hate interruptive ads I don’t want or need. So I feel your pain. See…empathy 😉

      • @michael thanks for your thoughts! My experience with CMOs corroborates your comment about the courage gap. I empathize with them, too, but digital public doesn’t forgive the interruptions. Since I started in business in the 80s before pervasive digital, I remember the mass comm era and how it used to work. Marketing now is just a matter of being a dinosaur. Although that’s an overused metaphor, I think it captures the depth of transformation required. Years ago, I wrote a post that showed how to pivot ads to empower users/viewers: ad creators need to start thinking like software developers: https://rollyson.net/mobile-advertising-is-flawed/

        My crystal ball says this will be the new normal; ad blockers are only the beginning. Time to pivot to warm blood!

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