When Marketing Feels Shallow, Go Deep

To Understand Your Customers, You Need a Healthy Sense of Empathy

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David Armano David Armano also writes the popular Logic Emotion blog.
These days, I find myself in a unique position. I talk and people listen. Don't get me wrong, I get challenged fairly regularly (thankfully), but for whatever reason, people are willing to hear me out. Sometimes I wonder why. But then I think about one of the stories I once told during a few of my earlier speaking engagements. In the movie "The Doctor," William Hurt plays a smart and capable hospital physician with terrible bedside manners. Then his world gets turned upside down when he gets terribly sick. His story unfolds as he undertakes a journey as a patient, seeing and experiencing things from the other side of the bed. His whole perspective changes once he knows what it feels like to be sick; as his body heals, he contemplates his past actions. Needless to say, when Hurt's character returns to full health and begins practicing again, he comes at it with the empathy that one can only have when you've experienced something for yourself.

The problem with marketing is that it often doesn't allow marketers to go deep, to gain an intimate understanding of human behavior. We're strapped for time, spread thin and torn between making our clients or bosses happy while trying to do what we think is right. We've got access to the latest trend reports, market segments, personas and metrics. We're surrounded by smart, capable people who, like William Hurt's character, know what they are doing. But there's a question we need to ask ourselves. Are we making the time to walk in the shoes of the people we market to? Are we willing to swim in the deep end?

In February of 1996 I "launched" Logic & Emotion, my personal blog. I did it mostly as an experiment, because I wanted to better understand the blogging phenomenon. Like many things in a digitally fueled world, the results of your actions can often be unpredictable -- you can plan for multiple scenarios but you have to be flexible enough to improvise along the way. I had no idea how much traction would be gained in a relatively short time and I learned as I went.

But more important, blogging and participation in multiple networks has given me a near endless supply of insights that could have only been gotten through firsthand experience. I would spend hours studying the linking patterns between myself and others, I understood what it felt like to become a "content" creator, an "uploader." I began to understand the concept of community and bonds that happen through connecting with like-minded people. I wouldn't have understood any of these things beyond a superficial level had I not done some of them for myself.

To be clear, this isn't about blogging, or even social networks for that matter. It does, however, relate to the shift in media consumption and participation, where and how people spend their time and the differences between them. If your target consumer is 18 to 22, it wouldn't hurt to do some of the things an 18- to 22-year-old does. If your target is baby boomers, and you're spending most of your switching from iPhone to text to chat, you'll need to understand first hand that not everyone lives like this, even though you might be. Maybe increasing your face to face interactions is needed; you might need to step outside of your own behavioral patterns.

I've never considered myself a marketing expert or really even a marketer for that matter, but there's one thing I do know -- a healthy sense of empathy is essential in a topsy-turvy world designed to reward short-term spikes in sales and banner click-throughs. When the majority of a user's time spent online is moving in the direction of video platforms we didn't build, photo-sharing networks we didn't dream up and classified services we can't charge for, it's time to admit that our world's been turned upside down. We've become the patients. It's time to leave the shallow end and and swim toward the deep. In the end, we'll likely be better marketers for it. And what the heck, maybe even better people.
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