Could Empathy Teach Marketers to Cease Fire?

As the father of a fifteen-month-old, I marvel anytime I hear people describe their hatred of children. After all, weren't we all once children ourselves? Such passionate self-loathing from—let's say—professional business travelers who otherwise seem to have a quite healthy hubris confuses me.

But I am even more perplexed by marketers who seem to have little to no respect for their audience. Because, while our time spent as a child might now be a fuzzy memory at best, advertising and corporate communication professionals are simultaneously "the marketer" and the "marketed to." Ideally, we work for companies for whom we would be a potential customer, the best type of ethnographic knowledge possible. But, even if we are not the potential customer of the brands we market for, we are someone's potential customer, and we find ourselves actively or passively on the receiving end of marketing pitches on a constant basis.

Despite that fact, I hear marketers constantly say things that defy all logic. Like circus impresarios or professional wrestling promoters of yesteryear, they talk about their audience as if they are dupes or "marks," in carny or wrestling promoter speak: the aggregate of passive numbers (not people) that these marketers barrage with their "crap." These professionals brag about the most people they can hit with direct mail campaigns, the return-on-investment of blast emails, the potential of nefariously infecting large groups of people with "marketing viruses" that will bring them powerlessly to a brand's products or services; how long their list of blogger emails can get to spam with a pitch; and the large numbers of impressions or clicks that they can generate in order to have "sticky" and profitable sites, sometimes through programs meant to confuse people into clicking things, pressure them into accepting something they don't need or even want, etc.

I'm not arguing that direct mail, email blasts, Web marketing, or other related fields are unethical or irrelevant. There are ways to conduct all of these types of marketing in a manner respectful of audiences. But the reality is often far from the ideal.

Take, for instance, this statement from a story on marketing a few years back that has stuck with me: "ubiquity is the new exclusivity". In this case, the marketer was talking about a desire to barrage the audience at every moment, not to make the brand available for them to come to but to get in their face. In marketing, we apparently should want to be the bully.

And perhaps I should understand why. It's largely driven by measurement. After all, we all do our jobs based on how we are going to be assessed. And, like that used car salesman who will say anything to get you to drive out of lot with that lemon, marketers find themselves subscribing to the Glengarry Glen Ross logic of ABC: "Always Be Closing." ROI is so often measured without concern for the damage done to those who don't end up a "return." Hounding one's audience might increase sales, but to what degree might it also increase deterrence among those who don't buy? Measurement in many marketing circles doesn't spend so much time concerning itself with that question, which is the only reason I can imagine why marketers would do everything in their power to harass the people with whom they want to engage.

Most marketers distance themselves from spammers, but the same ROI argument is an explanation as to why we get blasted with emails or blog comments for erectile dysfunction and fake designer shoes. After all, they must make some money at it, or else they wouldn't do it. But, while spammers might not care so much what the world thinks of their products and services as long as they make a few bucks, I can't imagine that the stakeholders of major brands feel the same way. And, as entities such as The Reputation Institute encourage us to look beyond momentary ROI and think toward long-term corporate reputation management, I hope that executives are becoming ever-more-sensitive as to how their company is being represented at any touchpoint with the audience.

People like Dev Patnaik and Peter Mortensen at Jump Associates have argued that businesses need to become Wired to Care, to put empathy for their audience at the core of their practices. In marketing circles, I must agree. I think that, if marketers were to think more often about how they feel as the "marketed to," some of the most blatantly disrespectful marketing practices would not make it any further than the brainstorming chart (and, ideally, not even that far). But, meanwhile, marketers continue all-too-often blasting audiences with the same types of messages they lament as audience members. And too many, for some reason, seem unable to connect the dots between the telemarketer harassing us and the role we play with the audiences we bombard from our cubicle or office. We can only hope that our less empathetic brethren will somehow see the light and eventually cease fire, lest they slowly bring our brands and our profession down with them.

Sam Ford is Director of Digital Strategy for Peppercom, a PR agency, and a research affiliate with MIT's Convergence Culture Consortium. Ford was previously the Consortium's project manager and part of the team who launched the project in 2005. He has also worked as a professional journalist, winning a Kentucky Press Association award for his work with The Greenville Leader-News and publishing a weekly column entitled "From Beaver Dam to Brooklyn" in The Ohio County Times-News. He also blogs for Peppercom's PepperDigital. Follow him on Twitter @Sam_Ford.

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  • Sam Ford

    Thanks once again for the insightful comments, Carol. While quantitative research can be quite useful, as you point out, it provides many gap that more qualitative processes and certainly ways to listen to people in a target audience can provide. We've seen, in so many ways, how relations with customers/potential customers becomes skewed and quite dehumanized in the process of standardizing corporate behavior, whether that be the often deplorable state of customer service which Emily Yellin writes about, the sorts of "worst practice" marketing tactics I'm targeting here, or the desire to look at the audience only as data points, without listening to their concerns, which happens all too often in market research. Through tactics like netnography (see Rob Kozinets' work), I think we have to find ways to advocate how qualitative research still matters and how some of these blanket approaches often miss out on how we are actually listening to culture.

  • Carol Sanford

    One of the major disconnectors of empathy is the use of surveys and market research that aggregates gathered information about customers or employees and pass on the abstractions created to people in the company.What really works is connecting every employee in a meaningful way to real people and their real lives. Customer, suppliers, communities and the Earth. Companies that do this lead their markets. Apple got rid of market research as the decision making tool and Google uses the daily use of searchers to know what works and they need. No surveys to abstract the empathy from the information. Empathy means actually caring about their lives and hopes.

    I put together several case studies of such processes, which I think also suggested this is a case of corporate responsibility— to customers— by really empowering every one in the business to know customers as real people. The folks who do this have more creative employees, happier customers and people who are more engaged in life outside of work. It is good business and good ethics.

  • Sam Ford

    Good points, David. The question is the concern of repeated interactions. In a system where all people are viewed as impressions/eyeballs, relationship management is not as key--it's generating a certain number of masses each time. How we measure and how we talk about our work absolutely affects the approach we take to our audience, and I think empathy can play an important role not in just the momentary effectiveness and ROI of something but, on a larger scale, the sort of reputation a brand is cultivating for itself among the audiences it seeks to reach.

  • David M. Kasprzak

    Interesting article, Sam. I think whether or not empathy is invoked has to do with the likelihood of repeated interactions. If you're focusing on simply closing the deal, or getting your marketing campaign in front of someone's nose at all costs, you do considerable damage to the likelihood that the same person will ever do business with you again. yes, you may very well clsoe this deal, but youwill constantly be searching for the next rube to serve as your mark.

    Look at the most successful companies, sales people, or even ad campaigns. Do they bounce constantly from one target to the next, expending trememdous amounts of energy to find that audience and then even more energy to convince them that they must have something they don't need, want or have any use for? No, of course not. They spend their energy once developing a relationship that keeps that same target coming back to them.

    There's very little need to waste precious energy finding the next mark. It's so much better to take a long term view, invoke that empathy and have the target keep returning to you.