Content Systems Academy

Empathy and Marketing: Connecting with Your Niche Audience

 In General

During my years at Emerson College, I was enrolled in a screenwriting course. A requirement was to complete a feature-length screenplay and bring it to the first day of class. I still remember the late-night printing and collating followed by hole punching and binding with brass brads. The tedious, time-consuming and expensive task didn’t matter because I had a masterpiece that was going to blow away everyone. This stack of screenplays represented a summer sacrificed for a creative work that was going to get me representation. This was the 90s, and the post spec-script era of the 1980s meant that you needed an agent to sell your script. My instructor had an incredible reputation. He had connections in the industry and was known to get meetings for students who showed promise.

During that first class, we distributed our screenplays to everyone. Our assignment was to read the screenplays and come to subsequent classes with notes. Each screenplay was going to be workshopped in class. I counted down the days until it was my turn. The day finally arrived and as you can most likely guess, rather than adulation, I got skewered. The instructor tossed his marked-up script to me. He said, “this is simply wrong.”

This is simply wrong note

The note couldn’t be any clearer.

I got that plunger feeling in my stomach. You know, the kind of feeling when someone punches you in the gut behind the dumpster at the local Red Lobster after the Sox lose a game in late September. He went on to say that I didn’t research my characters and that they were flat and two dimensional. He couldn’t connect with anyone in my script. He didn’t care about the characters or their story.

I was speechless. I wasn’t being polite; I was literally speechless. How could this be? He instructed the class that they were not to share notes on my script because it was a page-one rewrite. I looked down to the script cover and there it was (among other notes): Page 1 rewrite.

Page 1 Rewrite Note

It took me days to recover from this experience because during the prior spring I petitioned to get into the class and worked my ass off all summer on that screenplay. My disappointment turned to anger, and I was debating dropping out of his class. After all, I gave up my summer to develop and write this thing and my instructor didn’t have the courtesy to give me notes.

A few days later (and after consulting people way smarter than me), I realized he was testing my resilience and I needed to get back to work, so I scheduled a meeting with the instructor. During that session, he stressed the importance of creating three dimensional characters that would populate the screenplay. He taught me ways to conduct research and develop backstories for the main characters. He said that even though a very small percentage of that information will make it on the page, you’ll create true characters that will connect with your readers. Knowing the backstory of your characters will tell you how they will act or react in any situation. Understanding the character’s backstory creates empathy. And once you and your readers can empathize with your character, emotion comes into play. At that moment, the backstory became central to my character development. Side note: this meeting empowered me to take this page one rewrite to an award-winning script and taught me an incredible life lesson. Thanks, Pete!

Emotion drives story

What I learned through that experience is applicable to the work I do every day. Emotion is a powerful force in storytelling. It’s the necessary component whether you’re creating an awareness of a new campaign or selling laundry detergent. Emotion has the power to override rationalization, so it can change perceptions and influence behavior. Seth Godin reminds us that we purchase an item (or take an action) because of the way it makes us feel. One consumer may buy an Aston Martin because it makes her feel accomplished, proud, or even superior while another may buy a Chevy Bolt because it makes her feel environmentally responsible. Emotion drives our decision-making process. For example, if an Aston Martin satisfies your need to feel accomplished, proud, and superior, you’ll justify that purchase even if it is not affordable or logical. Confirmation bias kicks in while you’re collecting and reviewing data that makes you feel like you’re making the right decision. Of course, you made the right decision; your (cherrypicked!) data confirms it.

Using emotion to elicit a response is why it’s best to focus on a small group of people rather than everyone. Your emotionally charged story can have greater acuity when your target audience is small, therefore making it more effective. If you analyze your niche audience in terms of psychographics, they should share the same values, attitudes, and interests. If that’s true, they most likely have similar emotional responses that connect their needs with your content. Successful content marketers use emotion to motivate someone to act, to change perception, or to solve a problem. When your audience has ownership of solving its problem, it leads to a sense of accomplishment and pride. All of this is authentic. If our content resonates with our audience on an emotional level and inspires them to act so they solve their problem, it doesn’t end there. A side effect is that your audience will share your content because of its actual value. They share it because they want their family and friends to also benefit from your content. As Jonah Berger points out in the must-read Contagious: Why Things Catch On, when we care, we share.  Sharing something of value deepens social connections. They will do your marketing for you.

Tapping into your audience’s emotion is achieved through empathy. We develop tools, such as Personas and Journey Maps, to explain our audience. These tools keep us focused on our audience when we are producing content for them. But the value of these tools depends on our research. Your personas need to be more than superficial reflections of an audience. Empathy is achieved by having a deep understanding of your audience. In part two of this blog, I share how to conduct firsthand discovery research that’ll help you create three dimensional personas.

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