When Empathy’s At A Premium, How Do You Make People Feel?

Empathy. The ability to understand what others are feeling. That which (probably used to) separate us from the animals.

Empathy. A core part of every undergrad’s philosophy theses.

Empathy. Why we cried at E.T.

Empathy. Because we wonder if they know it’s Christmas time at all!

We are all suffering from empathy deficit disorder, but who can blame us? From every angle, in every country, we are assaulted with stories, both good and bad—currently mainly bad—that extract us from the tedium of our day-to-day life into an endorphin-fuelled drip feed of distraction. We all know this. That is “today.”

“Today” is a melange of critical thumping, impassioned pleading, and the rampant overexposure of the privileged. We are bankrupting morality, being ethically discordant, and, ultimately, becoming empathically depleted.

In the marketing world, it’s all about mind share. Mind share is how much of your alpha brain (most evolved, top of the food chain, circle of life, and all that) is actually spending contemplating the banal. Do you currently “love” Crest toothpaste but subconsciously feel you need to open your mind and embrace the Colgate, or maybe even go wild and do Aquafresh just to annoy your parents? As marketers, it’s our job to find and communicate subtle differences to change perceptions about what is often the same thing, at least since the creation of the deodorant—the original product which was pretty much created by advertising the concept “you smell.”

We are trending towards a world where brand loyalty is judged by the second, and real, hard, difficult issues are “sadded,” “angried,” “wowed,” “hearted,” or “haha-ed,” because who needs language when you have verbage (redefined as “visual garbage”). 

It’s hard enough for brands, but when it comes to charities—those who rely on good will—this is severely problematic.

End rant, return to your normally scheduled programme. Let’s think about the implications of this in a bullet-pointed list.

  • Empathy is defined as quotient these days. That means you only have so much of it.
  • Every minute that any consumer looks at a feed, they have a positive abundance of empathy vampires (their friends) and, occasionally, your messaging.
  • Your message may be slick but doesn’t compete with “grassroots activism” and, therefore, takes less of a slice than your mad friend who obsesses about the Oxford comma.
  • You are, and have been, competing against cats for some years now, and, to this day, they are winning. 

We are living in the film “Memento,” where all we can remember is the last dozen or so things on our feed and have lost the ability to feel. Data in “Star Trek” had an easier time processing this random bombardment of emotion than we do. The 23rd century seems positively tame compared to “today.”

Sadly, there is no silver bullet. We are too far gone. There is, however, some basic hygiene that may help whatever it is you are doing. This may seem obvious. Common sense, if you will. So why doesn’t everyone do it?

Call it what you want—research, segmentation, insight, whatever—knowing who you are talking to, how they talk to each other, what makes them tick, and what makes them talk.

Once you’ve established the who, now spend a ludicrous amount of time, money, and brain space pondering what other things they are thinking about. That’s the part that most brands miss and, certainly, a lot of charities. The vast majority of feeders do NOT spend all their time thinking about how to save the X. Really appreciating where their heads are allows you to move on to …

Where are they most active, what are they doing? How can we insert our worthiness into their narcissistic world? Laziness dictates for many charities daytime calls and direct mail because these are old people. It’s that kind of arrogance that sends you the way of the dodo pretty quickly these days.

Much of the charity industry relies on legacy donations. That means, in effect, market to the old and hope that they give something in their will. Times have changed, however, and waiting for people to die isn’t a viable growth strategy anymore. We need to engage the young.

Creating messaging, engaging with them directly—where they are already doing it—is kind of a no-brainer, yet doesn’t happen enough because of bizarre, OK normal, downward pressure to do, not feel.

How much is too much? Little and often or large and imposing? Depending on which channels your audience is consuming online versus offline, Facebook versus Snapchat, etc, building a methodology around deep understanding of the behaviour, testing out assumptions, and learning how to fit in will help shape how often and in what format you need to talk to them. Ever heard anyone say that X is “spamming” their feed? No? Well, you probably need to get out more. Bombardment might drive awareness but doesn’t help if you genuinely want people to care.

So what exactly do you want me to do? Really? That sounds hard!

In the brand world, a call to action is a rainbow of “buy me.” In the charity world, the actions vary somewhat from gimme, to share me, to sign me, to march for me. Me, me, me, me. Therein lies the problem. When they are the centre of their own universe, they simply haven’t the energy to do much more than most trivial action, which is, frankly, pretty pathetic.

Unless …

You ask them to do something that fits within their “reality matrix” and allows them to express themselves as themselves, giving them some level of “ownership” of the cause. Forcing or inspiring them to think creatively about how to communicate and solve whatever the issue is, in the right context, at the right time, is as close to “good” as you are going to get. That’s how you make advocates. Less of the telling, more of the asking. It’s a “nice cup of tea” for the soul. 

Well, that’s one approach anyway. It’s a tough one. There isn’t an easy answer to any of this, and, realistically, the cosmic forces that are pulling us away from our ability to feel, consistently and coherently, are just going to get stronger and more insidious. It’s our responsibility to at least appreciate that and, perhaps, try to improve the situation—or not. Cats are cute.

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