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How Empathy Shapes Effective Marketing

Written by:

Howard Tillerman is the Chief Marketing Officer for Making That Sale and an award-winning marketing professional.

Edited by:

Sallie, holding a Ph.D. from Walden University, is an experienced writing coach and editor with a background in marketing. She has served roles in corporate communications and taught at institutions like the University of Florida.

How Empathy Shapes Effective Marketing

How Empathy Shapes Effective Marketing

Understanding the emotional heartbeat of your audience is not just a marketing strategy; it’s the essence of building meaningful connections. In a landscape crowded with messages vying for attention, cutting through the noise requires more than just clever campaigns—it demands a genuine understanding and empathy towards the people you aim to reach.

This is the philosophy Jason Miller, a seasoned marketer with a keen eye for the human element in marketing, brings to the table. With an approach that emphasizes the importance of listening, learning, and adapting, Jason demonstrates how empathy isn’t just about recognizing what your audience needs but truly understanding and valuing their experiences and perspectives.

In our conversation, Jason shares his insights on creating marketing strategies that resonate on a deeper level, ensuring that every message not only reaches its intended audience but also speaks to them in a way that’s both meaningful and impactful. From the importance of storytelling to the delicate balance between creativity and analytics, Jason’s approach offers a fresh perspective on how to align marketing strategies with the core values and emotions of diverse audiences, ensuring that every campaign leaves a lasting impression.

Jason Miller Posing in front of camera

Empathy in Marketing

MTS – You emphasize empathy in your approach. How do you ensure that your marketing strategies resonate emotionally with diverse audiences?

Jason – I think empathy starts with choosing to understand who you’re trying to reach and what’s important to them. I say that as a human, as a person, not as somebody who’s trying to sell them something. When you talk about empathy, it’s about what really matters to your target group. As a marketer, 99 times out of 100, you are probably not that target demographic, so it means listening, learning, and being willing to be wrong about your personal biases.

Empathy starts at the human level, not at a business or brand level, and online people expect that. You see it in the comments, and in the way people talk about brands. The brands that do it well seem to fit the empathy seamlessly in terms of what they’re doing, and that’s because they understand what value they provide outside of a service or a product. That value could be philanthropic, entertainment, informative, etc. Ultimately, it comes down to what matters to your community, good or bad, and how you intersect that in a way that adds value.

That might take some trial and learning. You might be talking about a group of people you’ve never worked with or a demographic that is geographically far removed from where you are. I sit in Phoenix, Arizona. We do work with people in Washington, DC. There’s no way I could know as much as some of the people there. So, it takes time, too, especially today.

Nowadays, there is a desire to put more boots back on the ground, to actually visit, listen, and learn. There is a wealth of information and data, but it is contextualized or has no context, so going out there and listening, learning, talking, and understanding how that works makes all the difference in the world.

One of the biggest trends that we see as marketers is the idea of tapping into nostalgia. That goes for marketing as well — there is a nostalgia for prior marketing tactics, which might not be as easy or direct to measure in terms of today’s data and social media. They have been forgotten, but their impact on building a brand and being empathetic over the long term is that people are starting to see that they’ve been missing that.

Emotional Connection Through Storytelling

MTS – How do you approach storytelling in your campaigns to create a lasting impact and have that emotional connection with your audience?

Jason – There are two philosophies when it comes to marketing or advertising.

There’s the traditional advertising approach, built around functions, RTBs, and reasons to believe things of that nature. Then, there’s a different group that focuses on what I call “earned creative,” which is about how to earn your target’s attention and pull them in. You could call it “push and pull” as well.

The storytelling falls in the earned of that pull category. Approaching storytelling, you have to factor in a couple of different pieces.

One, look at how people consume stories today vs. five years ago vs. ten years ago. Many of the stories today are quick and short (less than a minute). Some people watch long-form videos. Marketers need to understand the forms that drive the engagement to that brand from a storytelling component. Storytelling doesn’t always have to be a video. It can be a brand experience or something they experience in a consumer environment, in the wilderness, in the real world, etc. Those are all opportunities to talk to and engage with those folks.

Two, don’t make it about yourself. If I told you a story and kept telling you my name or the great things about me in that story, you’d lose interest quickly. It goes back to empathy. You already know who I am. We forget that when we put content out there, we don’t give consumers of content enough credit. They see where it comes from. You do not need to reiterate and beat it down. Again, a good story connects to an audience, pulls them in, and brings them along on a journey from beginning to end, whether 60 seconds or 60 minutes.

We look at storytelling as what we want to get across and how it can live in a vacuum. It has to be impactful without context. It won’t be a great story if people need to have seen two or three videos beforehand. It has to be able to survive on its own. But if it can build on other stories that are also independently survivable, then you can start creating some longevity to what you’re doing. Understand where they consume and then make it about them. Find that hook that pulls them in and honestly have a conversation with them. Tell a story.

There is a need for more writers, and this is a great opportunity for the journalistic profession, which is getting decimated. These are natural storytellers who are built around critical thinking. They’re built around hooks and captivating language. We’re seeing some of those people find their way into the marketing world because they have a great way to pull people in and tell a story, make a point from beginning to end, and get an emotional connection.

Balancing Creativity and Analytics

MTS – How do you find the balance between being artistic and analytical in your campaigns?

Jason – This one might be my hardest take. Don’t get me wrong, I love data. We all have to hit goals, metrics, KPIs, etc. Performance marketing, specifically lower funnel work — where you judge specifically on direct sales, return on ad spend, and ROI — which have always been important, were harder to measure in a less digital era.

Those performance metrics that everyone has rallied behind have become an addictive drug, and it’s hard to get past them. People look at data, and it becomes a direct linear correlation: If X doesn’t lead to Y, it can’t possibly work. There’s a short-term mentality, and I think this idea of creativity and data is the natural tension of playing for the long game or the short term. 

When I think about data and creativity, I look at it in two ways.

One, how does it impact the top of the funnel? That data is like road signs. They’re not going to point you exactly where your destination is, but they’ll give you a general direction of where you need to go. Your quantitative and qualitative data are saying these three things, and it’s up to you to roll up your sleeves and figure out which is the most impactful to help your creative team come up with an idea that will be valid and worthy for an emotional storytelling campaign.

Two, you can use it to nitpick creative. This is probably how it’s used now more than ever. It analyzes which word or video performs better in sales, clicks, social engagement, etc., so you can change something to perform better. That’s how you use the analytics and the data in real time to update and optimize creative at the bottom end of the funnel.

You can get to a point where you over-optimize, and, in the end, you might find you’re down to something very small and narrow when you’ve started with a diverse group of ads, messages, people, cultures, or other things in your campaign. Then, you have to rethink who your target market is or who’s interacting with your content from the beginning.

There is a strong passion, at least for myself and my team, and the intuition that comes with that. There is a gut feeling that we’re going in the right direction, and we ask ourselves how to continue to dig deeper and push the idea until it reaches its natural evolution. I don’t think the data can take you all the way there. Data can point you in that direction, but it’s incumbent upon the individual or the teams to figure out if it works through testing and learning. That’s where the balance comes in — data gives you a directional idea of where you’re going and then helps you optimize the bottom half of your funnel.

But if you are living and dying solely on that bottom half of the funnel, and you’re only using data, I think you’re losing out on the uber fragmentation of our audiences. There aren’t just one or two groups; there are millions of subgroups, and they may not always be reflected in the data you can capture. You’ve got to go back out there and learn and listen. The data can be wrong, and I think you have to be willing to accept that with the right context.

Biggest Challenges in Integrated Marketing

MTS – What were your biggest challenges in integrated marketing so far?

Jason – When it comes to these ideas, whether you call them integrated, 360, or whatever, the biggest issue that people have to overcome is the thought that everything needs to look the same on every platform.

If you’re doing something on Snapchat for a younger group, there is no way that needs to look like a direct mail piece with which you’re targeting an older group. It’s called integrated because you’re trying to connect us to that brand essence. Again, if you’re looking at it through a storytelling or an empathetic lens, you’re looking at it through the consumer lens. People interact with different channels and expect different things from brands on there. So, as long as you’re acting in good conscience as a good steward of the community, it does not have to look the same on each channel. You can do things that don’t use the same logo lockup or the same language. You do not have to cut and force one asset into multiple channels.

That, to me, is the biggest fallacy: You start with this hero idea in the center, and then everything else has to get cut from that. That’s not necessarily the best way to do things because if you’re developing a hero asset for one channel, it will already not fit the other channel, or you’ll have to shoehorn it or fit it into something. Instead, think of the idea. Is the idea X? How do we tell that story through this platform and only that platform? How do we tell that same story on another platform? If you do one big shoot or a couple of shoots, you get multiple assets you can use.

I think that’s the difference between production and execution. The production side of it is understanding how you can be the most efficient with your resources and how you can move at speed and scale. But turning them into assets that you can use in different channels is for the teams to plan and understand where your audiences are.

If you’re going after a boomer audience, you will tell a different story and be on different channels. You could even think of how you do captions on a video. You may want to do bigger font sizes if you’re targeting an audience with issues reading text on the screen.

When we work with clients (and I’ve been on the client side as well), they look at it and say, “If someone sees this, and it doesn’t look like this, they won’t know it’s the same campaign.” That’s how marketers think. That’s not how consumers think. They don’t look at your campaign on different platforms and say those didn’t look the same. That’s because you’re catching them in the moment and in that channel where they have different thoughts and expectations. So, it does not all have to look the same, but it needs to fit the audience in the channel in a relevant and empathetic way. That means you might have to have multiple ideas, not just one.

Efficient Teams for Effective Campaigns

MTS – If you lead teams or cross-functional teams, how do you ensure that the marketing campaigns you provide are effective and cohesive enough? 

Jason – I see, especially now, that we are all multifaceted and complex. Individually or at the team level, we are accountable. We know which team is accountable for which parts of deliveries, production, execution, results, management, client service, etc. Whatever your area is, you are accountable for that. That said, that does not mean that you are solely responsible for everything.

When you’re talking about cross-functional teams, strategy is everybody’s responsibility. Creative (in the way that you define creative in terms of your discipline) is everybody’s responsibility. Managing cross-functional teams is allowing voices from different teams to speak about things that do not fall into their direct accountability. If you work in media but you have an idea for social, I think it’s good because you are an active participant in that community. You need to let ideas come from anywhere, and you need to let accountable teams evaluate all of those ideas to find the best possible way to bring something to life, hopefully with the most unbiased nature possible. That’s the way you build trust.

This is a situation you don’t want to happen: Everyone is working in a silo where you produce assets, and then you give those assets to the media team, and then the media team says it would have been great if they could have had X, Y, and Z because this is where this audience is, or the opposite. So, the media team wants you to make only certain assets, but the creative team comes back and says they’ve got some really interesting ways to do things that have never been done before. I think it’s important for those groups to be able to work together and figure that stuff out. 

Your job as a leader (and you can lead from the middle of the table; you do not have to be given the title of leadership to be a leader) means being able to cross over and pull other thoughts in and be able to be open about a discussion and be willing and able to put yourself, your team, or even your team leader in the backseat for the benefit of the idea or the client. Our job is to facilitate those discussions or nip conflict in the bud as quickly as possible. It’s idealistic. It will never work exactly like that, and there will always be tension or something you’ve got to deal with. But I look at my job as connecting dots and ensuring that everyone is talking to everybody to get the best possible ideas.

If we don’t do that, it may lead to resentment, or people start to question their value, and they may hold back valuable feedback. The idea is to hold people together, have them share ideas, and collaborate as best as possible, but then hold every group accountable for creating the best possible idea, strategy, work, plan, and execution, knowing that they’ve got all of those components built in.

Upcoming Trends in Influencer Marketing

MTS – What trends do you see regarding influencer marketing this year?

Jason – There’s so much happening. I love that there’s a spirited debate across the industry about how it’s going to continue to change. There are four things that are really worth keeping your eye on. 

Number one, do influencers actually influence action? I think that’s a big deal. I saw some programs where influencers were given specific direct codes for purchase to see if they could impact sales (those lower funnel metrics). We’ve always known that they can drive awareness about a product. Going back to the very beginning of our conversation about the idea of brand building, that’s less measurable, and people really wanted to drive home if influencers impact sales. I think that will continue. So many people have “link in my bio” because they need to show they can get the clicks, the link, etc. I think marketers will start demanding that, and they will try to understand how to leverage that going forward.

Number two, I think the industry has become oversaturated. Consumers are well aware that influencers have been hawking goods on social media for years. Some promote a different item two or three times a month, and there has been an effective burnout. I think the key trend is that those influencers who want to continue making money are going to do less partnerships, but hopefully, they’re going to do more content with fewer brands. That’s probably the best way. It’s not all that dissimilar to where back in the day you’d find a big name person to star in a TV spot, pre-social media. You’ll start seeing influencers find those brands with product categories that they’re big in.

This isn’t new. This has been happening for a long time, but it’s been very niche- or community-driven. If you work in the outdoor goods space, you’ve always worked with people influencing that community. But you’ll see more of that in terms of mass-market media things, and for CPG brands, stuff you sell at the big stores, not just the niche or the particular stores.

Number three, the influencer is going to start coming in-house. Brands have finally realized they need to humanize their content, and to do that, they need to put a human, or a group of humans, on the other side of the cable. You’ve seen it with Duolingo and what they’ve done. Having someone on the other side of the camera has been amazing, and there’s a lot of risk for brands to do it. However, I think you’re going to start seeing influencers, social media teams, or even executives in certain companies flip to the other side of the camera and become internal influencers where they act as the voice and the spirit of the brand, effectively trying to humanize what they’re doing to make their storytelling feel more authentic and less like a brand video.

Number four is the pricing. I don’t know when the pricing has gotten out of hand. When you reach out to people and they want to charge $50,000 or $60,000 for a TikTok, how do you validate that? I can’t spend $120,000 for an Instagram reel. Nobody has the budget for that anymore, so the trend will be affordability. There’s just been an explosion of that.

There needs to be a market adjustment in terms of the value they bring, which goes back to the beginning, how you’re using them, and your goals. If you’re looking for sales, you’ll probably look for somebody with better numbers at driving links. If you’re looking for overall reach, you’re looking for someone who has an engaged, large audience. But if you’re looking for creativity, you’re probably looking for somebody who fits your brand and allows you to tell a story you’ve never done before.

You need to understand the right price for the goal you are effectively trying to reach. I don’t think that it can be sustained at this level. Brands just can’t afford to do that anymore. Certain brands in certain industries (like beauty) can because they know they live and die in the influencer space. However, there are a lot of CPG brands that are oversaturated. Recipes are among the most oversaturated ones. There must be billions of recipes, and you must see if that person is worth the cost of what you’ll get.

Measuring Campaign Success

MTS – How do you measure the success of a campaign?

Jason – Measuring success starts with aligning on the campaign’s goal (to drive awareness, sales, etc.) and understanding what KPIs you can measure. If you’re thinking about digital campaigns, there is a specific set of KPIs that are more closely aligned with awareness than they are with sales, depending on how much first-party data you can pull into that and how much attribution you can connect back to a sale, whether online or in-store.

It starts with aligning on those goals because the worst thing you can have in six or nine months when things are done is that one party (brand or agency) says it was great while the other party says it was a bust for them. Then you didn’t align, meaning you probably weren’t buying the media correctly, or your creative was off.

So, measurement starts at the very beginning, before anything even happens. From there, how you measure success is a litany of different tools. Every agency has their own KPIs depending on the first-party data. If you’re an online retailer, that’s fantastic. If you only sell in brick and mortar, that’s important too. If you’re doing events or having experiences, what does that mean? What is the number of people that attend? What are you doing to promote that? If you’re doing six months and doing a roadshow of different events to showcase new clothing for summertime usage, for example, you might have metrics for that specific event. Then, you might look holistically at the entire event and see the total number of people you touched and how many sales you’ve seen over the last months, giving it time to breathe.

Beyond sales, within engagement metrics, it’s also about looking at all of the sub-metrics in terms of contextual vs. that particular piece of media. When talking about integrated, look at how every individual channel performs vis-à-vis itself. You have to benchmark against yourself. When it comes to media, no one else is sharing their level of data with anyone else. It’s like running a marathon: You can look around you and see other people running faster than you, running slower than you, wearing better gear than you, drinking more water than you, getting hurt faster than you — but the only thing that you can ultimately control is yourself.

You should understand how each media channel experience works, whether it’s influencers, direct mail, or text messages, and build a set of benchmarks aligned with the goal. Is it awareness? Is it engagement? What’s a primary? What’s a secondary? Do you use secondary metrics to evaluate the success of primary at a deeper level? Was this about generating sales over the long term?

Sales ultimately have to be a part of every business, but you must understand what that timeline to success looks like. If you’re only giving something four weeks and it is a high purchase price or it’s not an impulse purchase, I think you have to understand what your timeline to success looks like as well, and then start looking at all of the small aggregate wins and then build them up into one big complete picture at the end. When you measure in the small pieces, especially if you can do it with some sense of speed and agility, and you can optimize or improve an experience or change out a piece of creative, it’s not getting as many view-throughs as you wanted that helps you over the long term. You can’t just set your media and forget it.

To sum it up, measuring success starts with understanding each medium, its role, its content, and how it plays into the bigger picture over the longer timeline, and then setting that timeline and aligning on those goals. It’s a lot, but that’s how you get everyone on the same team working towards the same goal to mitigate the knee-jerk reactions. If, for example, you don’t see any sales after two weeks of a nine-month campaign, don’t pull the rip cord too quickly. Give your creative and your media enough time before making any immediate decisions that might do damage over the long term. 

Examples of Successful and Innovative Campaigns

MTS – Can you give us some examples of innovative campaigns that really hit it off?

Jason – Throughout my career, I’ve done a few. Over the last couple of years, we’ve done phenomenal campaigns with an economy-based value brand that is well-penetrated in the United States.

For us, this was about aligning on goals. The brand and the client ultimately wanted sales, but they also wanted to see lifts in brand perception and how people work. Those are two very different things. To change perception takes a long time. It doesn’t happen on a dime unless you catch lightning in a bottle.

We worked over summertime campaigns, creating these fun, nostalgic, just-over-the-top parody music videos that would run for an entire summer. Their sales are all from brick-and-mortar stores. We don’t have direct access to sales, so we knew we wouldn’t get the sales results, the brand study, and the perception results till two or three months after the campaign ended. So, during the campaign, we had to ensure that our media was optimized to hit our benchmarks for cost per thousand and views to completion or total video views. That was the best that we could do in real-time so that we could continually try new content and post new things built around the idea of summertime, grilling, and fun, depending on the genre of music we made the video around.

How do you get influencers to talk about a music video and brand they’ve never heard about before? We fitted a guitar case with a motion-sensitive speaker so the song from the video played when they opened it. The case also had a built-in with all of the products and schwag for them to put on. All of those things drove awareness.

We built a total funnel with everything we were doing to drive the awareness and engagement parts of it. We say how media impacted them. We could measure our cost per thousand, our engagements and video views were going up, and we didn’t see oversaturation or too much frequency. We hit all of those little subparks, the KPIs. We measured, optimized, and reported every two weeks.

At the end of the summer, the campaign ended, and we got the sales results in a rolling eight-week analysis in November-December to look at the holistic performance.

MTS – On which social media platforms did you advertise it?

Jason – We’re on all major social networks like Facebook and Instagram. We tested TikTok. This is a brand where the audience is probably starting to grow on that channel, but we knew we needed to attract some younger eyeballs. Culture starts on that platform as well. So, we used the channel as a test and learning opportunity. We use YouTube and tested CTV (connected TV) or streaming video (like Hulu and Peacock). We also had static social content. We had influencer components as well.

Unlike its competitors, this brand had a much smaller media budget, so we had to find a way to be the most impactful with fewer assets and fewer media dollars. It wasn’t an easy goal to accomplish. 

Advice for Future Marketers

MTS – What advice would you give entrepreneurs who want to start a business in marketing?

Jason – The number one thing I look for, and I see it in many young people working in our agency, is this idea of critical thinking and taking yourself and your own biases out of the equation, which no one is perfect at. I will be the first one to admit my biases creep in from time to time.

If you are trying to sell something to someone, you probably aren’t that target demographic. That said, if you live in the mountains and create something for mountain people (e.g., clothing or food), you probably are that person. But the worst thing you can do is let your bias overcorrect or become an overthinking mechanism. You must be able to think critically about how you, as a marketer, tell your story to people and how you purposefully grow your brand and your story without compromising who you are or what made you who you want to be.

I have so much love for entrepreneurs and the founders. They’ve done this a few times, and they had the willingness to roll up their sleeves, get out there, and do what they needed to do. There is hard work and a grind mentality to get businesses going, but they’ve always done it with a sense of purpose. They’re out there not trying to grow for the sake of growth. They’re trying to grow for the sake of reaching more of their audience in an impactful way. When you try to grow for the sake of growth, you quickly become a brand for nobody.

Brands are great because they appeal to an audience. Young marketers must figure out how to understand what that brand is and how they continually create and drive relevance around it. What worked for people yesterday won’t work today. It’s important for people to start doing, testing, and learning and not feel like they’re handcuffed to ideas that worked yesterday. Those ideas may be a great start, but you might find that there’s a better way. Be willing to push those boundaries. When I see people bring those big ideas to me, I may say that it is wild and crazy, but their strategy is on point. They clearly understand the audience, the tactic, the creativity. Just because I don’t understand it doesn’t mean it won’t work or that it’s not a brilliant idea. So fail big, don’t fail small.

Staying Updated and Motivated

MTS – How do you, as a leader in this field, stay updated with all the trends, including AI? How do you stay motivated? 

Jason – I love watching inspiration videos. Motivation is like a big Trojan horse. Motivation is doing something you don’t want to do because you know it’s for the best or delaying gratification for something bigger tomorrow, or in the future. To me, motivation is almost like if I feel like I don’t want to do it or I’m forcing myself to do it, then I’m probably doing the right thing.

From that standpoint, I stay motivated and do things I don’t necessarily want to do, particularly regarding technology and social media, by putting myself out there. I have no desire to be a TikTok star, but I will use my house, myself, and whatever it takes to practice shooting and editing videos. I’m spending time on the platform, looking at creators who are good at making videos and watching them from a study perspective. I’m motivated because my team is incredibly articulate and smart, and they grew up with these platforms. I’m also willing to listen to that younger generation as social media is ingrained in their culture.

It goes the same with AI. If you just use ChatGPT as the reference point, AI has only been around for about 18 months. It launched on Thanksgiving of 2022. There isn’t an “expert,” but some people spend a lot of time testing and learning. I want to hear what they have to say, but I’ll test and learn it on my own. I’ll use it for personal reasons, like to help me make a better recipe for something. I don’t need to research 19 food bloggers.

As a leader in marketing or just a leader and a human being, I still like to read regular books, but I love nonfiction books, like books on writing or stand-up comedy. If you think about stand-up comics, they are probably the greatest insight writers in the course of human history. They get to a tension point in one sentence and use it for entertainment and shock value, but they’re also very good at understanding how to take something and flip it. That’s essentially what marketing is — taking an insight and either playing off of that tension or leaning into that tension. I also love reading personal growth books that challenge me to think about things differently. 

It’s just like your own physical and mental fitness. You have to be willing to put in the effort, whether trying the tools or asking the younger folk who are into these newer channels to explain or give you the 411. Yesterday, somebody gave me a 30-minute tutorial on using all the new iPhone 15 features. I didn’t know how to do any of that stuff. I learned a ton about photography and videography that will ultimately make me better in getting 1% better every day.

It’s a multifaceted approach, but that’s how I stay connected with everything.