Data vs. Empathy: The Marketer’s Dilemma

Recently I wrote a piece for Matte Black’s Shapshift Report. Here it is…


In 5th grade one of my best friends was our pool vacuum. I had cleverly named it Ray, because the brand name on it was Stingray. Ray had feelings, if he worked too hard, he needed time to rest in his watery abyss, if he ate too much he ended up choking and would suddenly shut off, if he got too hot, he needed the dr.(our pool cleaner) to come and replace his parts to reduce his fever. You see, Ray exposed one of the beautiful gifts we have as humans and something I am constantly focused on honing, our level of empathy.

As I look back on these moments, though they are very strange, that level of empathy is one of my greatest beliefs marketers need to have in today’s fragmented & data driven world.

As the world’s innovations become more commoditized marketers tend to be focused on the quantitative data that their Google analytics can spit out. And though I do believe these numbers are important, it’s more about how we understand the human emotion and qualitative information behind these numbers. Its easy to cite conversion statistics, look at open and click-through rates, ask Facebook to target that man who is 28 years old, in Los Angeles, and likes to drink artisan coffee, but it takes a deeper dive to understand their values, motivations, and desires for life. And lets be honest the greatest challenge once understood is creatively meeting them at the appropriate moment in the most relevant way.

But where it all begins is building a greater level of empathy within your organization and your team. As the next generation continues to pour into the workforce I have been curious as to their innate level of empathy, with all of this technology have we lost a piece of our humanity?

To find the answer I jumped in my favorite time machine, Google. It led me back to 2011 where the

“University of Michigan Institute for Social Research, found that college students today are 40 percent less empathetic then they were in 1979, with the steepest decline coming in the last 10 years. But even more troubling, Konrath noted, is the drop-off the researchers have charted in empathic concern, often known as emotional empathy. This is the ability to exhibit an emotional response to someone’s else’s distress.”

Though this is one research study, and one approach to understanding, it begs the question: How do we win our empathy back in the work place and reintroduce it to the next generation?

Systematically it starts by changing the way you talk about your business. Lets change customers to humans, conversion rates, to life adding moments, content strategies, to dialogue, and open rates to welcome mats…well maybe not the latter. Lets change the way we first think about the numbers on a page. If humans are numbers on a page you will only ever get conversions…or maybe not. Now, many would argue that conversion is the last step of the purchasing funnel, but I would argue advocacy is the last step in communicating with your human(customer). If you want more on advocacy and virality read Seth G or Malcolm G, note not brothers.

To inspire advocacy we must understand our fellow man. One approach is to build empathy maps and inject design thinking to uncover what Google coins “Micro Moments.” Understanding a person’s day-to-day begins by understanding what moments of the day are most important. How does your brand help them in these moments and more importantly why is it relevant for your brand to show up for them in the first place?

Now I could write at length about all the tools, approaches to take…etc. And if you want my thoughts on this feel free to email me and we can grab a cup of coffee.

But I will end on this.

Marketing starts and ends with empathy. If you can master this, understand this, and genuinely want to pursue it not for the sake of business, but because it’s the right thing to do, then the world will be your oyster.

Just remember…be responsible with the knowledge you gain and use it to do good, and if you happen to meet a pool cleaner named Ray, let me know, as we haven’t talked in years.

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