How Empathy Can Improve Your Marketing Outcomes [Podcast Episode]

In marketing, it’s just as important to understand your audience as human beings as it is to understand it on an analytical level. 


It was wonderful talking with B2B strategist ARDATH ALBEE, CEO of Marketing Interactions, about using empathy in marketing to improve your outcomes. She explains how to understand your audience personas better, how to use empathy to inform content, and much more. 


, How Empathy Can Improve Your Marketing Outcomes [Podcast Episode]


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In this episode, you’ll learn:

  • How to practice empathy when trying to learn about your audience on a human level

  • How to inform your content strategy using empathy and understanding

  • How to create content that helps different audience personas connect with each other

  • How to get buy-in through a mock-up persona that sells from the human perspective

Related links/resources:


Amanda: Hey friends, welcome to Cashing in on Content Marketing. I’m Amanda Milligan, the marketing director at Fractl. And every week on this show, I interview marketing experts about ways to know the value of your work and get buy-in for your strategies. This week, we’re exploring the concept of empathy, not in a psychological and philosophical sense, but in a marketing sense, how we can put ourselves in someone else’s shoes to better serve them. My guest this week is a b2b Content Marketing strategist, and the interim VP of Marketing at Modus, Ardath Albee. Welcome to the show Ardath.

Ardath: Thanks, Amanda, it’s great to be here.

Amanda: I’m really excited about this conversation, because it’s kind of conceptual, just the word empathy, but it applies to so much in marketing. So, I’d like to start by talking a little bit about the fact that you specialize in b2b clients. So, when you have a new client on board, or you start working with a new company or a new person, how do you begin to empathize with new brands or people that you’re just starting to meet?

Ardath: Wow, that’s a unique way to put the question, that’s interesting. I’ll have to think about that for a minute. Essentially, I’d just really asked them to explain the situation to me and talk to me about where they’re struggling and what they’re looking for. You know, because usually, when people call me, it’s because they need to achieve more than they’re achieving now, right? So, they need to do something different. And most of the time, they’ve realized that it’s because they don’t know or understand their audience or market well enough. And so, they come to me to build personas. And one of the things that I found is that there’s kind of a misunderstanding about what personas are. And so, as we work through understanding their audiences, they start seeing them more as people, rather than as the CIO or the director of HR, or the, you know, where there’s a title, or a lot of times, they define them as well, that’s a manufacturing company with, you know, 500 employees, and they’re too small for us. So, we want to go bigger, or whatever, without looking at the details, the firm graphics, if you will, more so than the psychographics of their customers. And so, as we explore all of this, it’s really interesting, because I do interviews with customers, and I have my client sit in on those calls, even though they’re usually muted in the background, whatever and don’t talk, they sit and listen to the calls. And it’s eye opening for them to actually hear some of the things that their customers will say, because they had no idea. And really understanding how your market thinks about the problem thinks, what they think about your company, why they ended up choosing you, right, which is quite often not something that the marketing team would have guessed and helps them really gain that understanding that allows them to communicate better with their target markets, as people, as humans.

Amanda: Yeah, I can imagine that if you’re just kind of guessing at how people feel you can get it wrong a lot of the time with your assumptions. And I love how you had people on the phone, literally listening to what customers had to say. How do you recommend, in addition to that, that marketers find out more about their audiences, aside from I assume directly talking to them is probably one of the best ways?

Ardath: Well, it is but you know, I do things like listen to recorded sales calls, right. Lots of sales organizations record their calls, so they can coach their sales reps, right. Well, I want to hear what their prospects are saying, you know, I’m interested in what their sales rep say too is a response to that, but I really want to hear what their prospects say. Now, there are a couple of reasons for that, at first, I want to understand perspective. But second, I want to understand the words and phrases they use, how they’re comfortable describing the problem they’re having or the solution they’re looking for, or even just a day in their life. Because, you know, a lot of my clients are in tech and it’s like acronyms Seussville, they talk all these big words and these acronyms. I have to go look them up because as I change clients, the same acronyms can be used for totally different things, right, depending on different industry and whatever. But I mean, how do you think your audience feels for having these, you know. So, there’s a point to where you want to use, sure there are terms that go with the industry, but it’s more effective to use the words that they use, right. So, if you really understand what they’re talking about, what their context is, context has a lot to do with getting to that emotional aspect of marketing. So, for example, understand the difference between empathy and sympathy, okay. So, empathy is really the ability to walk a mile in your customers shoes, right? Because you understand them, and what they’re going through and those kinds of things, sympathy is kind of feeling the same as the customer and agreeing with them, like I feel your pain, right. Empathy is something you kind of share, you know, more than feel. So, if you understand the context of the problem somebody is going through, and you can write with that in a relevant way. Because you understand the words that matter to them, and how they look at something, then you have a much higher chance of resonating with them and engaging them than if you’re just talking at the issue. And what I mean by that is, a lot of times you see Marketing Content that’s trying to talk about an issue, but they haven’t done the work to understand it. So, they’re just kind of talking at the issue, instead of getting to the meat of it, because they’ve taken the time to understand the impact of it on their audience. There’s a whole different level of emotion or empathy in content that understands and relates to the context properly. Does that make sense? 

Amanda: Yeah, I think that makes sense. Do you have an example of maybe something you’ve seen, like, topically that kind of gets empathetic, but isn’t really empathetic enough? And how you can revise that, and I know I’m putting you on the spot, if you don’t have anything off the top of your head, that’s totally fine.

Ardath: The one that’s most obvious to me, is, you know, during COVID, what do you see at the top of every email, hope you’re doing fine and your family is safe. And then the next sentence is, my company sells X and blah, blah. So, it’s thrown in there as just a cursory attempt at empathizing with someone, they don’t mean it. You know, every email started with that from like, late March till, you know, July or August, and I still get them today. But you, it’s obvious that they don’t mean it, because there’s not even an attempt at transition. It’s just like this obligatory, you know, hope you’re safe and fine. My company sells blah, blah, like 15 minutes of your time to talk to you about buying it or whatever, right, and then they get straight to what they want. So, it’s what I call fake empathy, right? They really don’t care. They’re doing that because they think it’s politically correct, if you will, or whatever, because everybody said, you know, when the whole pandemic thing was going on, that everybody’s in this more emotional place, and you need to show empathy. So, that was how they decided to solve that problem. And I just shake my head every time I see one, because it’s like, what do you think that’s really doing for you, it’s just showing you how shallow you are, and you really only want to talk about selling your product to me. But they’re trying to pretend that you care about somebody when you don’t, is, you know, when it’s not demonstrated anywhere else in that communication is a sure example of empathy that’s not working. On the flip side of that, I’ve gotten some interesting communications from people that talk about, you know, zoom fatigue, and the hate to ask me for another meeting, because they know I’m in too many of them. And, you know, here’s what I think would make it valuable for you to give me 20 minutes of your time, you know, but really empathizing with the fact that we’re all tired, we all have zoom fatigue, and it’s all in the way that they presented it. So, it’s like that thread round throughout the communication, rather than just being kind of the opener and then tossed aside for the sales pitch.

Amanda: Right. It feels like full sincerity, like a line that they’re just copying and pasting in every email they send to you, everyone under the sun.

Ardath: Yeah, exactly. Template. 

Amanda: Yep. So, I can already hear a lot of the practical applications of gathering this kind of information. You mentioned using the same language that your potential customers or audience uses. And then when you listen in on the sales calls, or get information about your audience, you’re able to kind of get a sense of where they’re at and what their challenges are. Are there any other kind of concrete applications for this kind of work, so if you’re collecting, you’re building these audience personas, your understanding your audience, how else can you inform your content marketing strategy with this information?

Ardath: Well, I think one of the things that marketers miss a lot is addressing needs and context at the different stages of the buying process. And so, if you look at it, a lot of companies just push out more content for content sake, right. We need a new white paper to generate leads, or we need to publish on the blog, because it’s Tuesday, or whatever it is. But when you think about how people learn about your products, or the problem that they need to solve, especially in the outcomes, they should look to gain. Content has to move with context. So, what I mean by that is, let’s say, and I’ll just use bonuses and, you know, example, they sell a sales enablement platform. So, let’s just say that somebody comes to the website engages with a piece of content that answers the question, what is sales enablement? So, now they’ve read that, they’ve learned about it. And so, perhaps the next thing we offer them is, how to evaluate what tools you need from your sales enablement platform, right, instead of something else that just talks about why sales enablement is important. So, because they learned that, they learned about what sales enablement is, so what’s the next thing they want to know? And so, when you plan a content strategy, you know, in order to move it along, addressing the context where the person is, you have to think about, okay, if they engaged with this piece of content, what did they learn? So therefore, what question might they ask next? And so, the content has to grow and develop, it’s like telling a story, right. You’re not going to read chapter one eight times. So, if you’ve read chapter one, then what should come in chapter two. And so, if you look at it as a progression that aligns with the way people’s context shifts, given what they learn at each step, then your content evolves along with it. 

And so, one of the things you try to understand when you’re building personas or doing customer research is, first of all, what triggered your need, how did you go about solving it? What were the important things for you? What did you really feel like you had to learn? How hard was it for you to learn those things? So, you kind of follow that process and help them walk you through how it evolved for them, and then your content should really match that. And so, when you look at any of the research, like Content Marketing Institute, I think their last year survey found that marketers spend 50% of their time creating top of funnel content, that’s beginning like, what is sales enablement content, and you know, only about 15, or 20% is spent on bottom of the funnel end stage content and maybe 15 or 20%, on mid stage, right. So, we’re not spending time understanding what our audiences need to know every step of the way, nor are we spending enough time supporting our salespeople who get in conversations with them, and tend to start over instead of picking up where the person is, given what they’ve been exposed to already and carrying that conversation forward.

Amanda: That’s really interesting. Oh, that was interesting, that last thing you just mentioned about supporting the sales department, so that it’s not redundant. It sounds like this is a really good case, again, siloing, where marketing and sales have more of a connection where they understand where potential clients and customers are at, because you’re absolutely right. It might be frustrating for somebody in the sales pipeline to be hearing the same thing that they just spent time reading on your website.

Ardath: Yep, exactly. But a lot of times, it’s reps will step into the conversation from what they know how to start, and they start their process from where they’re comfortable. And so, they started over again, and your prospects don’t need that they’ve already been there. So, what we’ve really got to do is orchestrate this and with all the data and the platforms, we all have there, there’s no way we shouldn’t know these things. So, when we pass an account or a lead on to the sales team, we should be able to tell them, they’re here in the story. Next best things are these content assets, conversation starters, questions, they might have a look like this, go for it and have them stepping away that’s relevant. But I think what we miss a lot of times is we think, okay, well, this particular person content is something they need to know, great, but where does it fit in that story? Where do we make the best use of that information given something else they learned along the way? Where does it fit, instead of just pushing content out there, because we think, well, this is good content, you know, it’ll be great. But if we don’t connect it in context, to wherever they are in the process, or what it makes sense to go with, where it extends from, then we miss an opportunity to connect that story, right, and get them more engaged.

Amanda: Yeah, I really love that we went down this path of discussion, because you hear about the funnel all the time, and you hear about audience personas all the time. But I don’t often hear about the two in combination, which is basically what you’re talking about. Some people might go as far as saying, these are our personas and creating content for those personas. But not thinking about how just in that persona, that type of person with those types of challenges, still has to go through a funnel of understanding, they’re not going to see one piece of content necessarily understand everything you offer as a brand, or how they’re going to solve their problem. So, that fusion, I think, is really interesting.

Ardath: Again, and the other point, too, is that a lot of times, let’s say you have three personas. And so, a lot of times you’ll create content for each of them separately, right. But here’s the thing about your personas, they’re a buying committee, they talk to each other, right. So, how do you create content that helps them to have those conversations with each other? So, they all get on the same page, you know.

Amanda: No one has ever said that. Can you go more in depth about that, like what that actually looks like?

Ardath: Yeah, so quite often, if you do the work to understand your personas, right, and let’s say you have those three, whoever they are. And you’ve in the process of understanding these three personas, building these three personas, you figured out what’s important to each of them. And then you look at the overall situation, how they interact with each other. Like, let’s, you know, buying is an exercise in change management, essentially, right. You’re going to have to change the way you’re doing something because you’re buying a new system or whatever you’re buying, right. And so, how does it affect the other three personas, because if it didn’t affect them, they wouldn’t be in the buying committee, right. And so, one of them may say, this is great, this is just going to make my team really efficient, we’re going to be more productive, it’s going to be wonderful. And another persona may say, but wait, if you do that, my whole team has to change what they do, and do it differently, because it no longer intersects the part that we are used to. So, I have to withdraw my entire work force, hold on I’m not up for that. And then third one says, well our priority leans this other way. So, I’d rather see the money invested in this direction, right. And so, now you have this whole bunch of conflict, And so, how do you get it back together? How do you take the person who feels like their world’s going to be disrupted because this other guy’s going to get all this efficiency? And, you know, help them understand, really, there’s a way around that, it doesn’t have to be like that. Or how do you get that person who says, I have a different priority, I think is more important to understand the value and outcomes of solving this other problem, in his context, what does it he and his team get out of it? Right. How do you help them understand now, so that they start coming back together and say, well, maybe this is a good idea, and that’s the challenge with trying to help people get on the same page? But, you know, the thing is, is that research shows that buyers spend 17% of their time, that’s less than a fifth of their buying process, in conversations with vendors. That means all vendors, not just you, right. It means if they’re considering three vendors, you’re each getting maybe five and a half percent of that buying process time to interact with them. So, the onus falls to marketers is more and more b2b buyers want to self educate and all the rest of this, to really put that process together and do this consensus building through content by exposing you know, there’s areas where I’ve helped clients say, okay, the persona who engages with you the most is let’s just say the director of I.T. But you’ve got these, you know, a couple other personas that need to have this information about the solution in order to get on board. So, how can you expose that person to this content and say, hey, this is what your director of HR cares about in relation to this and this is what your CIO is going to care about in relation to this and allow them to be the conduit for the content and pass it on. But the the whole thing is about enabling them to have better conversations with each other using your ideas, right and talking about the way you’re recommending solving the problem. And that’s a big deal that not a lot of people do.

Amanda: Yeah. I’m really glad you broke that down, because I personally find it really interesting. And hopefully, it’s really helpful for people to have that perspective. One of the other questions I had, when we talked about empathetic content, obviously, the intent of it has to be empathetic. Are there formats or types of content that lend itself more to being helpful? I think, typically, we think of blog posts, especially for like middle or bottom, we think of like white papers and case studies and that sort of thing. The answer is probably, it depends, but I wanted to throw the question out there to see if you have any insights.

Ardath: You know, I always kind of get stumped with this. How many times have you sat in a meeting where somebody will say, we need a new white paper. And they start talking about the white paper before they even talk about, why is it a white paper? Why couldn’t that topic be showcased as an infographic? Why couldn’t it be a webinar? Why couldn’t it be a series of blog posts? Why couldn’t it be, you know, that kind of thing? So, format is hard for me, because I think one of the things I do and is I believe in repurposing content every way you can, if you have good content, then people have different preferences. So, how do you turn that content into all these different formats, right, so you can engage a wider swath of people. So, for me, it’s more about that. I think the thing we have to think about is that there’s a combination of thinking that goes on, right. So, if you think about it, we’re both logical and intuitive. So, intuitive, is kind of that fast, automatic emotional knee jerk response, you have to something, which is like, when you see a search result, and you think, okay, this might be interesting, you click through, you read the first paragraph, if it doesn’t hook you, you hit the back button and go to the next search result, right. So, it has to be kind of a fast hook engagement to get them to read more, there’s a lot about the way you format your content online with enough whitespace headers, bullet something so that you can get skin value, and then something hooks you and helps you decide I need to read this. And then there’s a rational side of you, which is the one that most b2b marketers focus on. Because they think, okay, we’re buying for a business, we’re going to be rational, which means slow, deliberate, logical, but that kicks in afterwards, right. And so, you have to kind of combine things together. In order to hit that right, empathetic note, to me, that’s more important than format. Because when you look at the research about perception, and what you find out is that perception really comes from the memories you have of the experience you had with a brand. So, for example, when somebody makes a decision, it’s not because the brand in quotes, if you could see me, I have quote marks up above my head. In quotes it’s not the brand that influences you, but the emotion that you feel associated with the brand. So, when people come out and read your content, you hook them in that first paragraph, they’re engaged, and they think, God I learned something, that was a great experience, the next time they see your content, they’re more likely to engage. And that is a combination of both the intuitive and the rational, right. So, there’s a motion in there, but it uses both sides of your brain, if you will. Does that make sense?

Amanda: Yeah, it makes total sense.

Ardath: Yeah. So, you can do that with a white paper, with an infographic, with a video, right. So, it just depends on your audience’s preferences. And the problem you have with a persona is that, you know, persona is kind of the compound view of a segment, if you will, rather than one specific person, there’s going to be auditory people, kinesthetic people. So, they’re going to just prefer automatically different forms of content, right. And so, I think you have to think about more of the context and the way it’s presented than the format.

Amanda: Yeah, I like that you framed repurposing and using different formats as an exercise in empathy, like you said, because it’s understanding that people just prefer to digest content in different forms. Not everybody in your persona is going to love video and not everybody’s going to love reading an article. So, I think that’s a great point. Ardath, in our original correspondence, you mentioned that you created a persona for your boss at one point, in order to better understand what your boss’s challenges were and get buy-in for a project. Can you tell us that story?

Ardath: Yeah, well, it wasn’t my boss, it was a potential client’s boss. So, I was working with this director of marketing for a tech company and her boss didn’t believe in personas. And she was trying to get him to approve budget to hire me to help her build some personas, we were trying to just get into a great deal of proof of concept, let’s build one and show you how we can increase engagement, that kind of thing. And he wasn’t willing to approve the budget. And so, what we did was, we sat down, and I just had her tell me about him. And we kind of mocked up a persona of him. And then we structured some communication, some emails where she could send to him a conversation she could have with him to build the case for personas by focusing on what he cared about. And she got budget, and then after we proved content, he bought into a much bigger project. So, it was really effective. But it just goes to prove, and it was a huge proof point for him. Because he started looking at her differently because of the way she was talking to him. And she focused on everything he cared about in relation to personas. And I just kept kind of evolving the conversation. It took her about a month and a half. But it was it was really kind of fun.

Amanda: Yeah, I think you’re right, that’s a testament to how it works. And to people listening to the show, care about getting buy-in for their ideas and their projects, and a lot of people have come on and said you have to explain it in a way that makes you excited. Anybody else aside from the people, you know, your customers, makes them excited, and your boss likes framing it from a perspective of this is why you will want to improve this because it’s going to give you XYZ,

Ardath: Right, and we’re all marketers, you know, we think about it in relation to the job we do, but we don’t think about it for internal company communications and things. So, we really should, you know, that same principles apply.

Amanda: So, Ardath I’m ending every episode that I’m recording in 2021, with kind of a random question. And this year, the theme is creativity. So, what I’m asking people is, how are you able to kind of get your creative juices flowing? Or what do you do to kind of get inspiration for the work that you’re doing?

Ardath: I try to go look for new ideas. So, for example, just yesterday, I had a conversation with a friend of mine, who is the director of strategic research for a big tech company, and he’s a speaker and author, whatever. And we get together a couple times a year and brainstorm like, what are the latest ideas? What’s going on? What do you see coming down the pipe, because he spends a lot of time doing research? And then he asked me, what are your clients talking about? What’s happening in motors? What’s going on in different areas, because we’re both looking for what’s coming next. And so, I think the exciting thing for me, is not just doing the day to day, but looking at how things are changing, how things are evolving, like this focus on empathy, right, where I talked about it in the past, and nobody really cared. But all of a sudden, in this last year, people have cared a lot, right. And so, I’ve been talking more and more about it. And an example of a new idea I’m now pondering is that, and the person I was talking to yesterday is Matt Sweezy. He’s the director of market strategy at Salesforce. And he just came out with a new ebook that talks about how experience is really just a method, right. But what’s important is focusing on the outcome that people are going to get from the experience. And so, if you string together the outcomes, then that moves them to become your customer, to solve their problem, etc. So, instead of thinking about how can we create a better experience, how do we create experiences that produce outcomes that help people move towards something they want? And it’s kind of one of those, for me, it was kind of a slap on the forehead moment, you know, like, of course, that’s why you create an experience. But until he said it that way, it hadn’t really occurred to me that that’s what we’re doing, because a lot of times we focus on how compelling is the experience we’re providing, right. Is it interactive? Is it engaging? Is it all this stuff, instead of looking at, okay, but what do they get from it? Right, what’s the outcome of that? And so, for me, that’s now got me all energized to kind of think about how do I need to reframe the way I’m talking about experience or thinking about it. So, I’m just always looking for new ideas. That’s what inspires me.

Amanda: Yeah, staying in touch with the industry and what other people are, what ideas that they’re coming up with and how they can apply. I think that makes a lot of sense.

Ardath: Probably the curse of being a speaker too.

Amanda: So, knowing the objective of this show, do you have recommendations on who should be guests for future episodes?

Ardath: Oh, yeah, lots of opportunities. April Dunford is somebody I’ve been listening to lately, she really talks about positioning for companies in a way that just makes so much sense. She’s great. I think Carlos Hidalgo has a lot of things to share about demand that are interesting. And given the work he’s done and in work life balance, I think some of that has kind of mushed over, technical term, mushed over into the marketing work he does. So, he’s got kind of a unique take on that. I think you know Pam.

Amanda: Yeah. If anyone hasn’t listened to that episode, I’ll make sure to put it in the show notes, because she is the one who recommended Ardath to be on the show. That’s why I asked this question, I get to meet so many other people.

Ardath: Yeah. So, another one is Andrea Fryer, who’s doing a lot of work on agile marketing, she’s written a couple books, and she’s now got a course out for it. And agile is something we all need to be as marketers because our purview keeps getting bigger and bigger, right, as we take on more responsibility, as buyers go into this self-education mode kind of thing. And we need to now support sellers and even customer success, right. So, at Modus, I’m responsible for not just demand generation, but partner marketing, customer marketing, sales enablement, content and campaigns, all of that. And so, as our marketing purview expands agility is a good thing. So, Andrew is a great resource for that.

Amanda: Awesome, thank you so much for those recommendations and for coming on the show and sharing these fantastic insights. I really appreciate it.

Ardath: You’re welcome. It’s been a fun conversation. Thanks for having me.

Amanda: If you’ve listened to this and want even more tips, sign up for our podcast newsletter by going to the podcast page on the Fractl website. And if you’ve learned anything from this show, we’d love it if you’d subscribe on your favorite podcast platform and leave a review. Finally, if you have any feedback, suggestions, ideas, ice cream recipes for my new ice cream maker, rants about how the chilling Adventures of Sabrina ended or anything you’d like to share with me, shoot me an email at, [email protected]. I’m a shameless extrovert who would love to hear from you. Thank you to Sean Kelly
  for podcast music and editing and to Joao Pereyra for the logo design. And thank you, dear listener. I hope you’ll join us next time.


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