Is Empathy The Secret Ingredient To A Social Business

Michael Brenner on Jan 15, 2013 in Social Media

empathy and social businessWhat separates a social business from a “regular” business?

The truth is, identifying a social businesses and separating those traits from less social peers is not easy.

I have suggested combining the forces of predictive analytics, social media, big data and the cloud to define a new metric of marketing success called “share of conversations.” But I’m not sure that is enough.

In a recent article, Nick Kellet (@NickKellet) asked if passion would be the marketing metric of the future where we measure “share of mind” or “share of heart?”

Whatever we call it, we are experiencing a battle for customer attention. And I believe it is empathy that will separate the companies that are successful in becoming social businesses from those that struggle with the conversations happening in the marketplace without them.

What is a Social Business?

Let’s start with a definition. To simplify, I define a social business as an open, social community of active content producers who are engaged with their content consumers, social connections, customers, partners and employees to exchange value.

I have also seen social business defined as one where the interests of customers and employees are equal to that of the business.

The Social Media Challenge

The fact is that most social media marketing stinks as companies have reacted to their customers and employees use of social media by creating an overwhelming and unsustainable number of social media accounts. According to the Altimeter Group, the average company has 178 social media accounts.

And these accounts are simply adding noise to the content marketing echo chamber because  most of the content coming from these accounts is dreadfully boring.  It makes the biggest marketing mistake of all by only talking about the company, the products it has to sell, and why you should buy them.

And the next generation of employees and customers are even less likely to put up with these overly-promotional lectures. They are seeking conversations with the brands they want to support.

The Social Business Imperative

I believe we need social, content and employee empowerment strategies to move beyond social guidelines and training on the tools.  We need to help the business build an army of brand ambassadors with strong personal brands. And we need to encourage them to engage with customers, partners and fellow employees on the platforms they want.

The process to build these mechanisms is well known and widely discussed. The problem is not “how to do it?”

The problem is that most organizations do not possess the secret ingredient to building a social business: empathy.

Is Empathy The Secret Ingredient To A Social Business?

Search for branded websites that you love and you will find that nearly all of them speak to you (the visitor) and the value you will receive as opposed to being about themselves (what they sell). Look at brands that connect with you and you will realize that they make you feel like they sincerely care about you.

For my wife (@lizbrenner), Zappos and Warby Parker exemplify this spirit by allowing you to return items for any reason on them or order multiple versions of the same items to find the one you might love the most. These companies make my wife feel like they care about her.

I think it is as simple as that. But empathy is hard. Empathy means focusing on the long-term value of customer satisfaction, loyalty and retention. Empathy means you have to stop trying to promote yourself and put your customer and employee needs ahead of the business’ short-term goals.

So how do we get there?

Having more socially-engaged executives might help? Do we need leaders who make empathy a core value of their companies? How do we hire, promote and encourage leaders who espouse empathy?

I’d like to hear from you. Is empathy the secret ingredient to a social business? How do we get there?

Let me know what you think in the comments below. And follow the conversation on Twitter,  LinkedIn, Facebook or Google+.



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 29 comments
  • Phil Lauterjung

    I remember when I was a teenager my Dad tried to explain the difference between empathy and sympathy. I finally got it when I went to work in a supermarket as a box boy (oops, I mean courtesy clerk). I learned very early on to treat everyone as an individual, not as some statistic. That helped me to stand out above the others who just treated it as a job. You can’t fake empathy. It really boils down to the Golden Rule: Treat others the way you want to be treated.

    • Michael Brenner

      Totally agree Phil. I had that job too as a young man. Nothing better to teach you the power of service than working in retail or restaurants.

  • Patti Fletcher

    Empathy is critical, whether you are sales executive, a marketeer or a product designer. Why? In any of these roles, you are providing a unique experience. Not a product to sell. An experience that is valuable to the core of each individual in your target audience (sounds like design thinking… and it is). The Zappos example is a good one. Not only can I return a purchase for whatever reason (or no reason) and they will pay the costs and give me the label, they also make the experience of doing so intuitive, friendly, caring. Returns have a lot of emotions (usually takes too much time, is unfriendly, there’s a less-than feel for both or either of the parties involved). So what happens? I shop at places like Nordstroms or Zappos where the experiences “feels” better. Makes me want to keep shopping with them. They tuned into the experience and shaped their content, process, etc. around it.

    • Michael Brenner

      Thanks Patti, I really appreciate your support! Now if we can just get more companies (in B2B!) to jump on the wagon.

  • Jonathan Winch

    Nice experiment, Michael – let’s see what “empathy” gets us thinking in the big picture of marketing. It makes me think of two banks in Denmark, where I’m based. One is the biggest – Danske Bank (the Danish Bank). It has recently embarked on a path where empathy is the absolute last word brought to mind. The bank’s strategy is all about making the bank more efficient, and they’re closing down branches, dumping “bad” clients and so on. Their new ad campaign is called “New Standards” and basically tells Danes to get used to the new reality of a bank that focuses on products and processes rather than people. Danske Bank has attracted an unprecedented hail of criticism, making the front pages of most national newspapers for exactly what you’re talking about: lack of empathy. The image campaign, in particular, has actually decreased the bank’s reputation in measurable terms. On the other hand, there’s a smaller but still top 4 bank called Jyske Bank. And it’s all about empathy. So much so that my ten year-old daughter actually takes her friends to the bank after school some days to sit in the lobby and drink the free hot chocolate. Empathy is creating the customers of the future for this visionary bank. You can see what their “café-style” branches look like here For me, they are living proof of the power of empathy at a product level – the next step is to figure out exactly how that empathy asset can be properly mined for marketing purposes. Hmmm: “empathy as a corporate asset” – I wonder what that means? How is it measured, protected, grown, what’s the ROI on empathy? Anyone?

    • Michael Brenner

      Jonathan, what a great example and case study. I might want to visit to see it in person.

      And you pose a great question. I believe it is an asset but measuring it might be difficult. At SAP, we actually are working on something called “humanizing the brand” and have discussed the possibility of trying to measure it. I’ll let you know what we come up with.

  • Jonathan Winch

    You’d be welcome to visit, Michael – I think, given your “humanizing the brand” efforts, you would get a great deal of inspiration from meeting Frank Pedersen, Jyske Bank’s veteran visionary, to whom much of the bank’s uniquely human style is due. In fact, I recently switched from the non-empathy brand to the empathy brand and can tell you that the humanized experience extends from the CEO and the expressed business strategy right through to the customer experience. Try this link for further insight into the bank’s strategy:

  • Paul Hassels Monning MSc

    Thanks for sharing these thoughts Michael. I sympathize with the concept of empathy to building truly successful social businesses. I wonder why B2B companies seem more reluctant or sluggish in leveraging the benefits of building a social business. What’s your stance?

    A great exception to that rule to my mind is the Netherlands-based company SchubergPhilis. Not only do they live and breathe their claim of 100% (uptime of mission-critical IT applications) in all aspects of their business, they truly co-build a long term perspective and ambition with all staff, customers and partners. ‘A company based on love’, reflects their ambition and clearly builds upon the empathy principle. Should you want to know more, you can visit or read their story in the whitepaper: ‘more revenue, with ‘less marketing’ in B2B’.

    I believe for empathy to be an integral part of a social business behavior, content and communications the business needs to have a very clear-cut higher purpose. An answer to the Why-question. Which is translated into meaningful terms here and now for it to get shape today. everyday.

    PS I’m not sure if I fully agree with you on the definition of social business. ‘Content creation’ is imperative, yet to my mind only a means to this end: generating true value to a business’ stakeholders.

    • Michael Brenner

      Thanks Paul, I think B2B companies struggle with this because we have a tradition of direct selling. I think Marketing in many organizations serves as the support staff for sales and thus the marketing is very directly promotional. That’s my theory at least having been in both sales and marketing.

      Thanks for that example. “A company based on love” sounds like quite an ambition so I will definitely check that out. And great point on higher purpose. I think I read that in a book last year “was it “Grow”?

      On your last point, I’m open to the fact that my definition isn’t perfect. I’d be interested to hear what you would suggest?

  • Jonathan Winch

    Paul, that’s a really good question: do companies need a clear-cut higher purpose in order to have empathy as an integral part of what they’re doing. Borrowing a definition of empathy from Psychology Today, “Empathy is the experience of understanding another person’s condition from their perspective.”, I wonder if it may also have a lot to do with what kind of people are leading and populating the enterprise. Are there some types of businesses/industries that attract more empathetic employees than others? Is empathy, therefore, more likely to be a useful marketing device (sorry to reduce it to such) for a particular set of enterprises? It makes me wonder whether the engineering-based B2B companies that make up much of my own agency’s client base are by nature more task-oriented than people-oriented and thus are poor candidates for empathetic communications either offline or online. That said, I’m sure a higher purpose – if it’s genuinely felt by the organization rather than just management spin – is a plus for companies bent on demonstrating their empathy through marketing activities.

  • Social Steve

    Yes empathy is the secret ingredient. It is the heart of marketing – understanding your target audience and playing to their needs, not yours. Here is a piece supporting “empathy” – “The Most Important Word for Marketing” at .

    Social Steve

    • Michael Brenner

      Thanks so much Steve. I will check it out but unable to load it?

  • Cendrine Marrouat

    Hello Michael,

    As always, I love your insights.

    The problem hasn’t changed. Businesses do not put themselves in their audience’s shoes. They do not spend enough try going back to the basics, which go further than simple conversations. They do not see the big picture and impact of social media.

    To be a social business, you need to have a keen sense of who your customers are. You have to go beyond the metrics and numbers and focus on the human journey.

    Businesses made huge mistakes last year because they did not take the time to get to know their audiences in a way that could potentially change their status quo for the better.

    • Michael Brenner

      You are absolutely right Cendrine. I just wish we could figure out a way to drive change besides examples of companies who do not do it well. I am hoping more companies start to become the great examples that they could be. We need more Zappos.

  • Cendrine Marrouat

    I caught an error in my comment. I meant to say:

    “They do not spend enough time trying to get back to the basics.”

  • Doug Kessler

    Couldn’t agree more — empathy is the secret ingredient of any successful business and it’s definitely the foundation of great content marketing.

    Terrific post.

    • Michael Brenner

      Thanks Doug. Always appreciate your support!

  • Shawn Campbell

    Research firm Focus B2B recently published a study that puts some key differences between business-to-business (B2B) and business-to-consumer (B2C) marketers in perspective. When asked what their highest strategic priority was, the need to “better understand customers/audience” brought a much higher return in the B2C crowd (49 percent) versus B2B marketing professionals (39 percent).

  • Jeff Thompson

    Thanks for the article, I enjoyed it. I thought you enjoy my recent article on empathy:

    All the best,


    • Michael Brenner

      Thanks Jeff, I really enjoyed the article. Thanks for sharing with all of us.

  • professional web

    Amazing post about social media. Thanks for posting.

    • Michael Brenner

      Thanks so much. Nobody talks about Empathy but it is so important.

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