Empathizing with People, Not Consumers: Growth through Human Connections

In marketing and advertising, we love targeting consumers, segmenting customers, generating leads, and then qualifying the leads. We love debating the difference between a buyer, a customer, and a consumer. We love thinking about our customers as big blobs that sit around on couches and just wait for us to shovel our messages down their throats to make them buy, eat, or otherwise consume our unbelievable, life-changing wares. The truth is, no matter how convincing you are, you really can’t MAKE any one do anything.

For decades, or even a century, we’ve been broadcasting commercials, dropping direct mail campaigns, rolling out print ads, building websites, and more just to get our messages out to these consumers. We’ve tried to understand them, we’ve tried to learn their drivers and hot buttons, we’ve tried to segment them, and more. But, it’s an ongoing issue that every company has and continually argues about.

If you’re having trouble understanding your consumer, you need to stop trying to understand them and start trying to empathize with them. It’s a subtle difference in phrasing, but it’s a huge difference in perspective. Stop thinking about them as “consumers” and start thinking about them as “people.” They aren’t your customers, they aren’t your potential customers, they are a person. No one can fully understand a consumer because you’re not in that consumers place at that time. It’s hard to visualize a consumer, but it’s easy to visualize a person.

The problem with applying a label like “consumer” to a person is that they fade from being relatable. But, you’re a person, they’re a person, you should be able to relate to them in some way. Take, for example: road rage. A lot of people find slipping into a state of road rage very easy. You honk, you flip cars off, you cut them off, you get angry at them, and so on. But, if you’re walking through the mall, the chances are you aren’t going to act the same way when someone steps in front of you. I see and hear people flip out behind the steering wheel all the time, but I rarely hear someone yell at some “moron” while walking through the mall.

Why? Because of barriers between you and the other person. When someone is in a car, they lose relate-ability to you. They are no longer a person, but they become a car. There’s also space between you – space you can hide behind. You’re also confined to your car, so in your privacy you can act out how you truly feel. It’s normal to feel angry or frustrated when people don’t act the way you want them to, or expect them to. But, in your isolation, you start to lose respect for the other cars on the road – meaning, you are losing respect for people.

So, when you hide behind closed car windows, labels, distance, and isolation, you start to lose respect for people, and you start to lose the perspective that those cars are actually people. It’s the same thing in business. When we put labels on people, isolate ourselves from them, and get frustrated when their behavior doesn’t align with our expectations, we have lost respect for the people that create our jobs.

We cannot live only for ourselves. A thousand fibers connect us with our fellow men; and among those fibers, as sympathetic threads, our actions run as causes, and they come back to us as effects. – Herman Melville

It’s understandable how it happens, so don’t feel shame. We get so lost in what we are doing, our goals, the expectations put upon us, that we have trouble gaining global perspective.

For example, a marketing director at a large sunglasses manufacturer, let’s call him Paul, loves his sunglasses. He truly believes in his product and he wants to get his message out to everyone so they can experience the benefits of his company’s sunglasses. He lives and breathes sunglasses; knows everything about them. He can’t wait to start an awesome campaign that’s going to get a billion impressions and sell 100,000 sunglasses in the first month to his consumers. Everyone is just going to want his sunglasses. It’s going to be amazing. He’s going to make a bunch of sunglasses content, he’s going to build a campaign microsite, he’s going to make everything. He’s hired an agency that has expertise in website design, paid search, and social media. He’s ready to go.

But, he failed because he’s so engrossed in his product that he assumes his consumers are going to care as much as he does. It’s great to believe in your product and be engrossed in it, but he’s lost sight that not everyone thinks about sunglasses 10 hours a day, 5 days a week like he does. His inward focus has caused him to develop an inward message and self-serving tactics. His agency failed him, too. Why? Because every solution they offered was either websites, paid search, or social media because that’s what they know – they’re incapable of taking a bespoke approach.

Now, of course, it’s stupid for us to assume that all brand managers, marketing executives, and agencies are like this, but we can see how it does happen. It’s easy to get lost in what you offer when you obsess over it constantly. Similarly, it’s easy to forget that your “consumers” are actually “people.”

People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care. – Theodore Roosevelt

If we only think about our consumer audience as “consumers,” we lose a critical component that’s going to lead to our success with them as marketers: respect. Our consumers are people, some of them are smarter than we are and some aren’t, but either way they deserve our respect as people. If we build all of our strategies and campaigns around respect for people, we’re going to create win-win scenarios every time. We can’t think of advertising as making consumers buy. Rather, we’re just trying to find the right people at the right time, and offer them the right message. Or, we’re creating such an awesome experience for them that they want to have that experience all the time, or maybe they just want to support a company that is as cool and respectful as your company.

You always need to put yourself in the place of the people buying your products. If you do, you’re going to be much more creative with what you can do. It’s not about what existing channels and tactics we can chuck at them, it’s not about what customer journey path we can force them down, it’s about connecting with people authentically.

The aim of marketing is to know and understand the customer so well the product or service fits him and sells itself. – Peter Drucker

Going back to our issue with Paul and his agency: we are what we repeatedly do. With that in mind, we need to shift our perspectives to obsessing over our customers as people instead of so much on our products. That way, when we’re thinking about strategy, we’re thinking about our customers first; what they want, what they need, who they are. We become obsessed with them and we can service that person so much better, because we become them and therefore love them.

We need to stop selling at people and start having conversations with them. We need to empathize with them. We can still do everything that we’ve typically done; like create personas, but be flexible. Do traditional research, but truly listen to their hot buttons, don’t force fit a solution. Stop trying to predict what they’re going to do, and start trying to predict how they’re going to feel. Feelings are what drive ongoing relationships between people and brands. If you made them feel good, they’ll remember that.

The easiest and most powerful way to increase customer loyalty is really very simple. Make your customers happy. – Kevin Stirtz

No matter what you do in marketing or any other field, respect people first. If it’s all about making money for you, then you might want to reevaluate whether or not you’re a supervillain.

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