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What Is Digital Empathy & How To Use It To Connect With Your Audience

10 Minute Read | Content Marketing

It’s not uncommon for people to struggle with the difference between sympathy and empathy. But I heard this quote once, that explained it perfectly:

“If you see somebody begging under a bridge you might feel sorry and toss them a coin, that’s not empathy, it’s sympathy. Empathy is when you have a conversation, try to understand how they feel about life, what it’s like sleeping outside on a cold winter’s night.” – George Orwell

When a business can have empathy for its audience, it can surpass all its competitors – fact. But how often does a brand or business come face-to-face with its target audience today? Rarely – that’s another fact. So these days, brands must have digital empathy.

I’ve spent an entire podcast series investigating digital empathy and interviewing digital marketing experts, distilling their insights into a useful, marketing-focused digital empathy definition. In this blog post, I share it with you.

Jump to highlights

 

Digital empathy is the ability to understand and share the feelings of the person on the other side of the screen

 

Digital empathy definition

People are starting to talk about digital empathy more, but mainly in an academic sense. IGI Global defines it as a “Holistic approach to teach and research media literacy in the Digital Age.”

Jonathan Friesem goes one step further in saying that it’s, “The cognitive and emotional ability to be reflective and socially responsible while strategically using digital media.”

But neither of these definitions really illustrates what digital empathy is in a business and/or marketing sense. As a brand, trying to reach your audience through the internet, what does digital empathy mean?

digital empathy

adjective

the ability to understand and share the feelings of the person on the other side of the screen.

 

Read on to find out exactly how I came up with this definition of digital empathy and who was involved in helping me…

4 tools of digital empathy that you’re already using

I’m going to break down this definition of digital empathy into 16 essential elements; but first, let’s look at some of the tools you’re probably already using that will help you to become more digitally empathetic.

1. Analytics

We all know what these are. Google Analytics (other analytics providers are available) has been helping us for some time now to understand our customers on the other side of the screen.

2. Heat Maps

Heat maps are produced using data analysis software that uses colour as a data visualisation tool. If you’re looking at a web page and you want to know which areas get the most attention, a heat map shows you in a visual way.

3. Demographics & Psychographics

Data like age, gender, income, geographical location and activities help to inform marketing efforts by enabling us to tailor them to our audience.

4. Personas

Buyer personas go beyond the data to paint a picture of the generalised type of person your target audience represents.

So besides the above, what else can we do to go further in our mission to cultivate digital empathy? Let’s ask the experts.

What do digital experts say about digital empathy?

My interest in digital empathy led me to start my podcast, Wojcast. In its first season, I interviewed digital legends including Larry Kim, Moz’s Rand Fishkin, Lewis Howes and Google’s own Gary Illyes to name just a few.

And here’s what they had to say about digital empathy…

To have digital empathy, you must:

 

1. “Have a clear value proposition”

“Because if you can’t make your value proposition clear, you’re screwed, basically.”

Oli Gardner

Listen to the audio clip of Oli Gardner in episode 16:

2. “Be intentional”

“If Apple just threw things together on an iPhone, would you buy it?”

Lewis Howes

Listen to the audio clip of Lewis Howes, episode 1:

3. “Tell a compelling story”

“We’re just trying to get those deep stories. I don’t want the media trained story, I want the meat of it.”

Mike King

Listen to the audio clip of Mike King, episode 3:

4. “Understand the context”

“Our goal was always to provide the most relevant results to our users and that hasn’t changed over the years.”

Gary Illyes

Listen to the audio clip of Gary Illyes, episode 5:

5. “Make people feel something”

“You probably don’t want joy on a bug exterminator’s website. You want some fear. You want some disgust. These ugly mosquitos or crazy spiders. So everything’s different.”

Oil_gardner

Listen to the audio clip of Oli Gardner, episode 16:

6. “Show you care”

“I think you’ve got to really show people you care about them.”

lewis-howes

Listen to the audio clip of Lewis Howes, episode 1:

7. “Give positive affirmation”

“Researchers found that when we’re paying for something, you activate a lot of the same areas of the brain that activate when we’re in physical pain. It’s painful to pay, to part with money.”

Nathalie Nahai

Listen to the audio clip of Nathalie Nahai, episode 18:

8. “Create something people can link to”

“If you have nothing to link to and nothing to talk about then you’re dead.”

Dr Pete Meyers

Listen to the audio clip of Dr. Pete Meyers, episode 6:

9. “Work together to create empathy”

“I’m trying to bridge that gap [between designers and marketers] and help people work together and develop more empathy…so everyone can be happier.”

Oil_gardner

Listen to the audio clip of Oli Gardner, episode 16:

10. “Design for users”

“Focus on the user, try to answer the user, try to satisfy the user, and all eyes will follow.”

Gary Illyes

Listen to the audio clip of Gary Illyes, episode 5:

11. “Be creative”

“There’s just so much nuance to the human experience that I don’t believe [AI] will ever replace everything that we do, especially creative things.”

mike_king

Listen to the audio clip of Mike King, episode 3:

12. “Reduce ambiguity”

“If you reduce ambiguity, people are more open to having a dialogue with you.”

nathalie-nahai

Listen to the audio clip of Nathalie Nahai, episode 18:

13. “Understand that people are more than personas”

“Personas are just a hypothesis.”

mike_king

Listen to the audio clip of Mike King, episode 3:

14. “Realise that you can’t automate empathy”

“Empathy is very subjective, just like morality.”

mike_king

Listen to the audio clip of Mike King, episode 3:

15. “Value human interaction”

“Search engines are thinking about the humans. I mean, they’re watching what the humans are doing, and they’re seeing how they interact with it.”

Melanie Spring

Listen to the audio clip of Melanie Spring, episode 17:

16. “Talk to the people behind the screen”

“The phrase that I try to use the most is ‘audiences over algorithms’. It’s like, let’s take time to just humanise the people behind the searches, man. Just talk to some people.”

Wil Reynolds

Listen to the audio clip of Wil Reynolds, episode 19:

In follow up interviews since Wojcast was launched, we asked for people’s definitions of ‘digital empathy’

 

Paul Shapiro

“It’s straight to the point …there is a user in mind, there should always be a user in mind. And you need to connect with them. And however you do that, you need to just make sure that at the end of the day, that’s something that they want.”

paul_shapiro_digital_empathy

Read the full interview with Paul Shapiro 

Ella Huisman

“As we become more digital, consider the type of user who isn’t digitally savvy.  We need to design and communicate with empathy for the user in everything that we do.”

Ella_adelaide_fringe_digital_empathy

Read the full interview with Ella Huisman

Lily Ray

“We can lose sight of the user’s experience because of how involved we are as SEOs. It’s important to question, ‘What are we doing? Did we think about the user’s journey to the site? “

lily_ray_digital_empathy

Read the full interview with Lily Ray

Jeff Sauer

“Digital empathy to me would be trying to take authentic human conversations that you’d have in person, and to try to make it the equivalent in a digital world. And so if you’re, you know, trying to take your authentic self and match it in the digital world.”

jeff_sauer_digital_empathy

Jeff Sauer

Using digital empathy to connect with your audience

These 16 elements helped me to define and get to grips with the concept of digital empathy. Here’s that definition again: the ability to understand and share the feelings of the person on the other side of the screen.

Digital Empathy Diagram by Woj Kwasi
Digital Empathy Diagram compiled using ‘Wojcast’ interviews with industry leaders.

Now, let’s expand this definition to touch on all 16 elements:

A digital empathy manifesto

We’re not communicating to Google or Facebook or some other digital entity. We’re talking to the people behind the screen, because we value human interaction and so we always design our interactions for the users.

We appreciate that people are more than personas and that you can’t automate empathy, so we want to show those people that we care by first understanding the context.

We want to make their lives easier by reducing ambiguity for them and make them feel something by being creative and/or telling a compelling story.

We know that humans crave community, so we work together to create empathy and something people can link to, to create a network of positive affirmation.

We can give people what they want because we’re intentional and we have a clear value proposition.

What’s the outcome of digital empathy?

I investigated this further in a recent interview with SEO legend Jon Henshaw.

“I think it really comes down to this: I want to know enough about that person to have an idea of what their interests might be and how they might see me. And I also like the idea of efficiency; so, if I have a good idea of how they perceive things and what they want, and what they don’t want, then we can just kind of get to the point. And to me, that is also showing respect.

Digital empathy is… I would say, understanding what you think their perception is – so things can get real deep, real fast.

I think the outcome though, what you’re really going for, is definitely respectful, efficient communication.”

 

What I really like about Jon’s response is that it perfectly reflects the digital empathy definition I developed during the podcast.

Not only that but it actually reveals the ideal outcome that, as marketers, we’re looking to produce: respectful, efficient communication. We want to be efficient in giving the audience what they’re looking for, which shows that we respect their wishes and needs. The path to purchase is increasingly more complex for people, with more touch points across multiple devices and screens – so let’s make their life easier… and less frustrating!

And if you think about it, isn’t that what all effective communication is about?

To dive deeper into what digital empathy means and understand how to harness its power for your business, follow and listen to Wojcast on Spotify or on Apple Podcasts.

Here’s the first episode with Lewis Howes, host of The School of Greatness Podcast:

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