Empathy and Social Media Marketing

Empathy is a foundational principle of social media marketing, and as we’re in the midst of a global pandemic, the need for empathy is more apparent than ever. We often see the recommendation for marketing to convey empathy, but what does it actually mean? The word is used a lot in regard to social media marketing, and today I want to share how we think about empathy at Sociality Squared.

The Alchemy of Empathy

The Alchemy of Empathy

We believe that empathy is the alchemy of the power of story, listening, and imagination that connects humans to one another.

We believe that empathy is the alchemy of the power of story, listening, and imagination that connects humans to one another.

At its best, the promise of social media is to connect people and reinforce relationships that add meaning to our lives. People connect through the power of story, and connection is formed when someone’s story is listened to and heard.

We hear people on social media through social customer service and social listening (and I would be remiss to say never, ever reduce someone to a data point). We show we understand in our responses and through the stories we publish.

Imagination is listening’s bridge for connection.

When people can see themselves reflected in stories, they feel seen and heard. The beauty of art can be found when a story more eloquently expresses a feeling than a person can describe in their own words. This is both our task and challenge as social media marketers. We have to have empathy before we craft stories, and imagination is listening’s bridge for connection.

The Power of Imagination

The Power of Imagination  

On hearing a heartbreaking or uncomfortable story shared from a friend, I know that I’ve personally caught myself starting to say, “I can’t imagine what it must be like.” While this is commonly said to recognize that the person’s experience is unique and hard to understand, this line of thinking actually serves as a roadblock to empathy.

Empathy invites us to imagine someone else’s experience.

In J.K. Rowling’s Harvard Commencement Speech, she poignantly shares the power of imagination related to empathy:

“Though I personally will defend the value of bedtime stories to my last gasp, I have learned to value imagination in a much broader sense. Imagination is not only the uniquely human capacity to envision that which is not, and therefore the fount of all invention and innovation. In its arguably most transformative and revelatory capacity, it is the power that enables us to empathize with humans whose experiences we have never shared.”

J.K. Rowling challenged that Harvard class of graduates to exercise their imaginations and not stay within the comforts of their own experiences or what can also be called echo chambers. For we know that these are still chambers and not the keys to connection with our communities online or offline.


Understanding and Action

For someone to be heard, empathy requires us to listen to their story and use our imagination to step into the other person’s shoes to understand their experience. Empathy can lead to action, and we’re seeing heroes step up to the plate, like Chef José Andrés, founder of World Central Kitchen, whose non-profit is devoted to helping feed Americans in the wake of this pandemic after helping feed people after Hurricane Sandy, Hurricane Harvey, and Hurricane Maria.

There are some misconceptions about empathy that Anne Bahr Thompson, author of “Do Good,” shared this week on a panel on corporate citizenship. Empathy doesn’t mean that we have to agree with the person we’re listening to. It also doesn’t mean that we have to fix their grievance. Empathy isn’t necessarily doing what someone wants, but is truly showing that you understand and acknowledge their point of view. This requires compassion for that understanding, and showing that you care.

Using your imagination for empathy is an action everyone can take.

We can all feel insincerity when someone doesn’t understand our situations or get where we’re coming from. We’ve also seen the importance of how we let people go which Julie Bauke speaks to: “How you handle your people-related decisions now will affect your brand and reputation for years ahead. You have an unprecedented opportunity to show what leadership looks like.” Of course no situation is black or white either, but if there’s not a clear action that can be taken to resolve a painful moment, showing empathy and sincerity is the most needed action to keep dignity and human connection.

Connecting through Empathy

As Brené Brown beautifully shares, connection is the essence of the human experience, and it is our ability to forge meaningful, authentic relationships with other people. She uses a continuum to illustrate connection — empathy anchors one end of human connection and is what moves us towards deep and meaningful relationships.

As brand marketers – and humans connecting to one another – we have the opportunity to imagine beyond our own experiences. We can add value to the lives of those in our communities by having their stories acknowledged and heard, and by creating stories that reflect the full spectrum of the experiences in our communities.

Empathy is a principle of social media marketing because at the end of the day, we’re connecting people to what they value and love. We build communities of people connecting with one another, connecting through stories, listening, and imagination— connecting through empathy.

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Written By:

Helen Todd

Helen Todd is the co-founder and CEO of Sociality Squared, a full service social media agency based in New York City since 2010 who understands the magic of people coming together around what they value and love. Helen is an award-winning marketer, international speaker, and also an advisor and speaker for SXSW Interactive. Helen holds a Master's degree in Integrated Marketing Communications from Emerson College.