How Empathy Helps You Hit a Homerun With Your Marketing Plan (And Why Many Businesses Strike Out)

Michael leans back in his office chair, arms folded. A white “World’s Best Boss” coffee mug is parked on the corner of his desk. On the other side of his desk stand Kevin and Andy. They press in with the energy of a Black Friday crowd waiting for the doors to open. The tone of their voice matches their body language. They launch into their egregious complaint. You can see the alarm bells ringing in their heads as they describe the offense. They are at Defcon 1. The source of their horror? A construction crew working on the building has gobbled up not one, but two Dunder Mifflin assigned parking spaces. Kevin and Andy have been forced to park in the satellite lot. But they will not be exiled without a fight. So they implore Michael Scott to pity their plight.

At first, Michael swats their grievance away like a bothersome gnat. “Look, I have an assigned parking place in front, so….”, he snorts. But then he lifts his head up. His eyes lock onto two troubled faces. His stiff posture relaxes. His eyes close, and after a brief meditative silence, Michael says…

Ok, Uhm. Let me try to think about what it would be like to not have one. –Michael Scott

Michael has just taken the posture of a keen marketer. He takes a swing at the best possible pitch—empathy. If he connects, there is grand slam potential. But like in baseball home runs, empathy has two parts. And if you miss how both parts work, your marketing plan stumbles and falls. Swing and a miss!

Is Empathy Really Strategic for Your Marketing Plan? (I Thought It Was Just a ‘Feeling’)

Yes, empathy is a feeling. In the periodic table of emotions, you’d find it as a combination of the Greek en + páthos. But don’t judge. Because empathy has strategic marketing power. It’s like a rudder to your marketing ship. It’s like the protein powder in your marketing smoothie. It’s like the wedgie to your…ok, I’m stopping here to avoid junior high PTSD.

You want your business to grow. Maybe you’re just starting out. That feeling of excitement as you barrel down the runway. You’re working out a marketing plan to help you take off like a rocket.

Or perhaps you’ve been at it a while in your business or personal brand. You’ve had a few base hits, but the home run eludes you. So you’re out exploring. Turning over different marketing rocks in search of treasure. Panning for gold.

You offer people a great product or service. But they’re not getting it. You’d love waves of customers but you’re getting a trickle.

Well, my friend…Empathy is like a rudder with the power to steer your marketing plan speedboat. Stick with me kid. I’ll learn you how.

In this series, I’m showing you: 

  • why empathy gives your marketing plan irresistible power and authenticity, (part 1)
  • how empathy is a two-step dance so you don’t miss its power, (today’s article)
  • and the dark side to empathy in a marketing plan so you don’t misuse its power. (coming soon) 

In part 1, I argued for ONE essential in marketing—something we are all drawn to. And that is Empathy for your customer. We saw empathy hard-wired into the human story from the beginning.

When you frame your marketing plan with genuine empathy, you tap into Beauty. And we are all drawn to Beauty. When your marketing plan flows from empathy, you bring a human connection to your business and brand. You move beyond a transaction.

The next question is—How does empathy work?

If we don’t understand the dance of empathy, we can stumble and fall. We can short-circuit empathy’s power, leaving your customers in the dark.

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Empathy’s First Step in Your Marketing Plan

The opening scene of this article comes from The Office tv show. I loved it when it appeared on network television. (For the young lads and lasses, network television was the predecessor to Netflix. You gathered around a box in your living room with family and friends. Shows aired weekly. There were commercials. And it started when it started—8pm, ready or not. When it was over, you talked about it for the next seven days. And waited. You all waited until next Thursday. And like clockwork, another episode would appear.) 

The genius of the show has reached my teenagers. I watched them burn through episode after episode on Netflix.

I was looking on with them recently when the scene in question came up. It’s Season 4, Episode 10. And it’s the perfect illustration of the two-step dance called empathy.

Boss Michael Scott learns of the parking lot plight of his employees Kevin and Andy. He responds with the first step of empathy…

Ok, Uhm. Let me try to think about what it would be like to not have [a reserved parking space near the building].

This is the first step to empathy. It requires something of you. And the requirement goes against the instinct of entrepreneurs, startups, and personal brands. Empathy requires you to STOP!

You never plow into empathy.

marketing plan tip quote card stating empathy requires you to stop

Empathy comes from a walk in the woods, not a race car around the Daytona 500. Real empathy needs some space to grow. And if there’s one thing we stink at when in ‘growth mode’ for our business, it’s this.

Stop. Put down your goals. Set the marketing books aside. Close your social media reports. Relax your anxious posture. Breathe.

And like Michael Scott—the world’s best boss—close your eyes. Think about what it’s like to be your customer. Soak it in. Identify with their feelings and frustrations.

(Doesn’t this sound remarkably simple? Yes. But don’t confuse simple with easy.)

This is the first step of two involved in empathy. We saw it in the garden story from part 1. In that story, it comes from time spent together. God walked with Adam in the cool of the day. And he cultivated empathy for Adam in the soil of relationship. God sees Adam.

The first of empathy’s two-step dance in your marketing plan is this—you see your customer. And I’ve got a secret to tell you. We ALL desperately want to be seen!

marketing plan tip quote card stating every customer wants to be seen first

What does it look when you miss this step in your marketing plan? And how does it short circuit empathy’s power?

How You Face-plant Your Marketing Plan On The Dance Floor If You Miss Empathy’s First Step

A good friend reached out to me recently. This friend has a track record of successful startups online. She’s no newbie. On this occasion, she asked a few friends for feedback on her new endeavor. The new pet project had the fingerprints of a classic entrepreneur—from idea to iteration in no time flat. Her sales page had a lot going for it. Clean. Well-designed. Punchy. It was great marketing wrapped around her great idea. But one thing was missing.

The message of her sales page, although clear, raced right past empathy’s first step. The message jumped straight to the solution to her customer’s problem. 

And don’t miss this—it’s a killer solution to her customer’s problem. It’s a solution already affirmed by my friend’s network of relationships. A solution her customer wanted.

But nothing on the sales page said, I see you. It’s like my classic ‘husband’ response to my wife when she shares a problem or struggle. I run headfirst into ‘fix it’ mode. The 6pm nightly news teaser version goes like this…

Breaking News. This Just In! Wife of 24 years still doesn’t want to hear husband’s solution to her problem when she hasn’t even finished sharing it yet. We hear her disappointment and disgust at feeling ignored—and his clueless response, tonight on the 6-o-clock news.”

Your customer is the same way. He or she wants to be heard. First. Your customer wants you to see him or her. Then we can talk about solutions.

And the way you see someone on a sales page—inherently a one-way conversation—is with empathy’s first step. You state your customers’ frustrations. That way they know you see them.

Back to my friend and her sales page. I suggested she add a small section near the top of her page just below the hero section. There, she could tell her customer, I see you. This stinks. 

As entrepreneurs, startups, and personal brands excited to ‘get to market’, we can run straight to solutions. In the case of my friend, she had empathy for her customer. But in her excitement over her solution, she skipped over empathy’s first step in her marketing plan.

Here’s The Unwanted Vibe Your Customers Get When You Misstep Here

To summarize, here are the two vibes weakening your marketing plan when you miss empathy’s first step.

  1. You leave your customer feeling unseen or unheard. (This always causes friction!)
  2. You put off the ‘too eager to sell’ vibe. (That’s the same cologne the used-car salesman wears.) 
marketing plan tip quote card stating if you bypass empathy in your marketing plan you appear overly eager to sell

So let’s recap.

I’ve already suggested empathy is the most powerful way to frame your marketing plan. Empathy is the one thing we are all drawn to in marketing. And now I’m saying there are two parts to how empathy works in your marketing plan. The first step is where you stop and see your customer.

This, Michael Scott does well. But…

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Empathy’s Second Step in Your Marketing Plan

The scene in Michael Scott’s office continues. After pausing to ‘think about what it would be like to not have his reserve parking space ’…he continues…

Ok. Yes, that would be bad!

Michael says it with resignation. Kevin and Andy pulse with excitement at his response, punctuated with “Yes. Yes.” Their faces now wear a smile. They have been seen.

With eager presumption, they tell Boss Michael Scott, “Okay, so help us out.

And this where Michael stumbles and falls. He misses empathy’s second step. To the shock of Kevin and Andy, Michael replies…

Wish I could help, but I can’t. Well…CAN, but won’t. Should, maybe, but shorn’t. Look, I could probably handle it, but…I don’t care.

Ouch!…but hilarious. (Especially his delivery of “shorn’t”.) This is the nature of the 30-minute sitcom. Michael Scott is regularly saying and doing the absurd. And no, we don’t often pull a full Michael Scott in our marketing, but we can make the same empathy mistake. Maybe not in degree, but in direction.

The “Can…But Shorn’t” Tragedy of Missing Empathy’s Second Step

Here’s what it looks like to stumble over the second of empathy’s two-step dance.

Back to a simple marriage analogy. This is the spouse who listens well, enters into your emotional predicament, and sits with you. You cry, your spouse cries with you. You get frustrated, your spouse is right there with you.

And then…

Nothing. No solution gets offered. No, “I can help with that.” If all I ever did as a husband was ‘emote’ with my wife…she would NOT feel loved.

After feeling seen and heard, it’s time for decisive action!

Think back to the garden story from the first article in this series. Imagine God, through empathy, seeing Adam’s problem…and never creating Eve.

This is Michael Scott. He pauses. Considers Kevin and Andy’s plight—step one. But, in comic fashion, says he understands their problem…he can do something about it…but won’t.

A Full-Length Empathy Mirror to Spot If You’re Missing This Step in Your Marketing Plan

Want to see if you’re missing empathy’s second step in your marketing plan? Then you need to hear this story…

I learned this from my days in full-time paid ministry from a great leader. It’s genius. And I’ve used it in my own marketing ever since. 

The leader gathers his large staff in a long meeting room. Everyone takes a seat. In his right hand are several sheets of colored construction paper. He asks his team to think about the organization’s onboarding process. Then he asks them, “How does someone go from guest to member here?” He gathers a smattering of feedback.

Then he starts walking. On one end of the long room, he lays down a piece of bright construction paper. He turns and walks to the other end of the room, stoops down, and drops another sheet of paper. He tells his team, “Imagine if the length of this room represents how someone plugs in here. And these pieces of paper represent our onboarding steps. What’s wrong with this picture?”

“They are too far apart,” his team answers.

But are they clear?” he asks them in response.

Yes,” they chirp back.

Next, he takes a stack of construction paper and scatters them all across the floor. Now it looks like a game of 52-Card Pickup. Papers are everywhere.

How about now? Are they close enough together now to get from one end of the room to the other?” he poses.

Sure.”, says his team.

So what’s wrong with this picture?” he urges.

The steps are close together now, but the path isn’t clear,” they say.

BINGO! In empathy’s second step, you need both. Your marketing plan demonstrates real empathy when how you help your customer is clear and manageable.

If your steps are close, but they’re not clear? Your customer feels overwhelmed.

marketing plan tip quote card stating your business overwhelms your customer if your marketing plan has steps that are not clear

If your steps are clear, but they’re too far apart, too big of an ask? Your customer feels scared.

marketing plan tip quote card stating you leave your customer frightened if your marketing plan has a call to action that is too big of an ask

4 Common Ways I See Businesses and Personal Brands Misstep Here and Nullify Empathy’s Power for Your Marketing Plan

Here are some common ways I see businesses and brands missing this step:

  • Hiding how people can hire you, buy from you…or donate to you if you’re a non-profit. Make it clear!
  • Heading for the ‘sale’ too early, particularly in the service business. If you expect a customer to go from stranger to signing a $3K or $30K contract based on just your homepage, you’re deluded. Higher-priced services need a body of work to build trust. Blog articles, white papers, value-packed lead magnets, an insider Facebook Group, etc.
  • Honing in on the non-decision maker with your empathy is offering help to the wrong person. Empathy for my kid’s teenage woes might endear me to you, but his wallet is empty. Empathy for my plight as a parent trying to guide my teenager through his woes can open my wallet. (And if you can get to it before my teenager, there might be money in it.)
  • Heaving too many solutions on customers is like caring too much. Customers feel smothered and overwhelmed. Empathy in the Garden was God giving Eve to Adam—NOT God giving Adam a hundred choices!

Putting It All Together: Turn Your Empathy into a Homerun for Your Marketing Plan AND Your Customer

At the outset, I connected empathy’s two parts as analogous to a home run.

Here’s what I mean…

To hit a home run, Step 1 is to crank one out of the park. Crack! You stare at the rising ball screaming towards the sky, frozen at home plate, with the bat dangling in your off-hand. As you take in the roar of the crowd, you toss the bat aside in a gesture that says, “I was planning that all along.”

But Step 2 is just as important. You don’t get credit for a home run even if your ball rockets out of the ballpark and bounces on row 10 in the parking lot. You have to round the bases and come home.

Empathy in your marketing plan works the same way. Boiled down, empathy’s two-step dance with your customer goes like this:

Step 1: Identify with them. Step 2: Advocate for them.

Or we could say it this way too…

Step 1: Feel their plight. Step 2: Relieve their pain.

Do that and you hit a home run with your marketing plan. And like a home run, it’s a win-win for the home run hitter and his teammates. Your business and your customers enjoy the spoil.

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