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Get real: moving beyond personas and into empathy with your customers.

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Ah, empathy.

The word that everyone talks about, and thinks they have, but very few are actually able to put into practice.

Empathy, not to be confused with sympathy, is being able to sit in someone else’s shoes, and feel the way they feel about a certain situation. Empathy is feeling without judgement. Sympathy, on the other hand, is to understand someone’s position, but filtered through your own values.

Every day, in this business, you’ll see some expert talking about about authenticity, empathy and vulnerability. They’ll add some persona deliverables to a brand strategy, that glosses over pain and focuses on superficial problems:

“Brad is 36. Brad is concerned that his sugar intake is too high and therefore would like to explore low sugar alternatives”.

This statement. It’s quite…saccharine… don’t you think (ba doom tish yeah I went there)…Yech. That statement is about as authentic as the Louis Vitton bags at a Bali flea market.

When doing a real empathy exercise, we have to be comfortable with digging a little deeper, and feeling their emotions right along with them, not telling them what they should feel.

What is Brad’s real pain?

Brad suddenly feels old. It happened suddenly, the moment he turned 36. He knows he’s not that old, but suddenly, through his children he is starting to see his own mortality. His wife, as much as he loves and appreciates her, is not as affectionate as she used to be and he is afraid that if he doesn’t act with urgency, she won’t find him sexy anymore and will leave him for someone better.

This is the real shit. It’s a bit of a lame example to prove a point, but it digs a little deeper than his conscious thoughts. This is a universal pain, a universal truth, a universal fear. The stuff that we all endure, that we are able to feel the second it is articulated. That is how we get to real empathy.

We all pay lip service to empathy, without actually being willing to feel the deep dark stuff with our customers. We do what’s safe. We keep it above the waist and hope they will buy because they are “looking for a lower sugar alternative”. And then we fall into the trap of playing it safe, with the same old stock photos and the same old clichés and motherhood statements in our marketing. We rarely dig deep into the real motivators that get people to buy: fear, anger, love. Pain. A hell of a lot of marketing is designed to exploit people’s darkest fears on a subconscious level, but nobody talks about it.

The fact of the matter is, if you are not comfortable with humanity, pain, compassion, love, grief, sadness, despair… and are not willing to walk through that journey with your customers… you will struggle to resonate with them in a meaningful way. My counselling skills have made me comfortable in this space, and it is why so many User Experience experts have Psychology degrees: they are willing to cut through the bullshit, feel what their customers feel, and offer them a solution that might help them feel a little bit better.

Empathy exercises are an incredibly powerful tool. I help them build stories about their customers, write up the minutae of their day. Despite being a really fun exercise, it also helps us to relate on a deeper level target market and how they make decisions. They are really powerful. In fact, I have used them in the past with clients, who have an idea about their product or service going in, have gone through the journey and come out the other side with a different, better product that actually solves a real problem, rather than an imagined one.

I urge you, when working on your marketing, to pause. Really get in the minds of your customers. Draw a map of every single step they take to buying your product. Feel what they feel — not just on a superficial, conscious level, but that extra level down: wanting to feel loved. Wanting to ease pain or fear or insecurity. This is what the best advertisers in the world do, and it will add so much power to your brand and voice, you will be unstoppable. And possibly even feel a little more human along the way.

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