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3 Ways Empathy Can Help You Build a Killer Strategy

Feeling what your audience feels is the ultimate insight

Get away from fictional personas and get to know the real people you're trying to reach. Getty Images

I'm sure by now you've heard about Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg's announcement that the company is creating a dislike button, or something similar. Sure, I'm curious to know what it's going to look like, whether people will use it and how. But the thing that caught my attention—and has sparked the most conversation among my fellow strategists—is how Zuckerberg described the intent of the new button and what it might mean for users.

Walt Barron, chief strategy officer, McKinney

"What they really want is an ability to express empathy," said Zuckerberg during a Q&A at Facebook earlier this month. "If you're expressing something sad ... it may not feel comfortable to 'like' that post, but your friends and people want to be able to express that they understand."

Are we living in an age when we think we can express empathy with the click of a button in the shape of a thumbs-down? After all, empathy means not just that we care about what another person is feeling. Empathy means that we understand and feel what they're feeling. It means hurting like they hurt.

This got me thinking about the important role of empathy in strategy, and while it's easier to understand the people you're trying to reach, it's harder to feel what they feel. That requires putting yourself in someone else's shoes.

As enamored and amazed as I am with the power of real-time data today, strategists need to go beyond this if we want to empathize with our audience. Here are three ideas.

Kill the persona, embrace the person: We need to be able to relate to the people we're trying to connect with. But the people our industry unfortunately calls "targets" are only ideas of people. They are carefully constructed personas with clever alliterations—like Football Fanatics or Millennial Moms. You know what I'm talking about. And you know that they are, by definition, fictions.

For a recent client, we identified a group of 22 million potential customers, but we brought them to life through an actual person named Rachael. We introduced the client to Rachael. We briefed the creative teams about Rachael. And in every presentation, everyone was focused on how our ideas would resonate with Rachael. It's tough to connect with a fictitious persona, but we can actually relate to a real person we all feel we know.

Study them. Then be them: We also need to go beyond our current approach to researching our audiences. Yes, we'll always write surveys, listen on social media, go on shop-alongs, invite people to focus groups and conduct ethnographies. We'll study them in their "natural habitats" of work, home and school. But we're not invested in their stories. We understand, but we don't empathize.

The work with Rachael helped us go from understanding to empathy. Because we had built a relationship with her. We spent a lot of time in her home with her and her family and became Facebook friends with her, and we had some context about how shopping fit into her life. So we asked her for a shopping list and told her we'd do the shopping for her. This forced us to realize that she shops not for herself, but for others. That it's often a stressful and frustrating experience, but it's also an act of love. We were thinking of her children, and their particular tastes and wants and needs. We felt just a bit of the weight of those decisions, the responsibility she bears. But it made a huge difference to communicate that to the creative teams.

An art director told us afterward, "I felt like the work wasn't just about growing a business. It was about furthering lives."

Be vulnerable: This level of involvement is hard. A new strategist came into my office earlier this summer to say that she hadn't counted on connecting so deeply and personally with the folks she met. I told her that it means she's doing something right. We have to feel the joy and hurt with them. And maybe we should've done even more to empathize with Rachael.

We could've brought her children with us to the store to better understand how they influence the entire experience. We could've cooked a meal for the entire family while some of the kids studied and others cleaned their rooms. We could've stayed after the meal to clean up and help with bedtime. And we could've gone back down to the kitchen afterward to help look online for more meal recipes and deals at local stores.

This stuff isn't rocket science. But it is work. It requires getting out of the office. Getting out of yourself for a moment and embodying someone else. It's more than an empathy button. And it's worth it. Because when our work is created for Rachael, all of the Rachaels win.

And so does the client.

Walt Barron (@waltbarron) is the chief strategy officer at McKinney.

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