Empathy Economics: Advancing Our Business Goals Through Shared Understanding & Deeper Connections



Being empathetic and establishing a deeper understanding of our audience can and will continue to be good for business.


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Conflict can be good for business, but as marketers, we have a fundamental responsibility to push a different agenda, one that seeks a deeper connection with our audience through understanding and shared experiences. We believe this can be an even more important driver of business success and is what we are calling Empathy Economics.

Explore Social Media Week’s 2020 Global Theme: HUMAN.X

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When trying to capture attention, our anger has transformed into a powerful signal amidst all of the noise. This phenomenon is exacerbated on platforms like Twitter, which prioritize the type of short, pithy commentary that tends to dramatize our intended points. The more we engage, the less of a chance there will be that we encounter a viewpoint that’s not our own. This is not only a societal issue, but one that also impacts businesses and brands.

The platforms are here to stay and our reliance on them is unlikely to change over time. It is almost impossible to imagine a world without them, so rather, our goal as an industry should be finding solutions to address what isn’t working.

“Empathy is a muscle: The more you use it, the stronger it gets. So, flex those empathy muscles through storytelling and expand your notion of who is in your group. Or, be willing to fall prey to the increasing ideological polarization of our time and face the global consequences.
It’s up to us.” – PJ Manney

Let’s look at some examples of where brands and platforms are providing leadership in this context.

Positive Virality

According to William J. Brady, a researcher at NYU, social media posts using moral and emotional language receive a 20 percent boost for every moral and emotional keyword used. This shines a light on a very important pattern: when trying to capture attention, our anger and negativity reign supreme. Further, platforms are algorithmically programmed to mirror back our own biases.

Due to our dependency on social media, and the behaviors we’ve gradually come to adopt, we are less likely to practice empathetic behavior online. As an industry we have a crucial role to play in closing the gap between morality systems and technology through encouraging the viral spread of positive and productive content.

Microsoft‘s 2019 Super Bowl Commercial “We All Win” is a great example of this. The ad’s story not only emphasizes the company’s commitment to building accessible technology but reiterates that we are more alike than different. The video, shared over 29 million times, is a beautiful representation of what every brand’s message should seek to promote: the acceptance and celebration of differences.

User-Controlled Feeds

As efforts to identify misinformation in a ‘fake news’ era have continued to gain steam, reliance on black-box algorithms persists and more users lack access to editorial processes that determine what they see. A few ways to begin solving this problem include the creation of dashboards, in which users can filter their own content by politics, rudeness, and virality, and providing users with curation tools for their own algorithms.

Designing feed control for users begs a conversation about what constitutes a healthy ‘information diet’ — something that is currently obscured by platforms. Putting users in the driver’s seat of such decisions would encourage them to learn more about the kinds of unhealthy triggers they are being regularly served and tailor the feed to their preferences.

For instance, twice a year Pinterest users show a significant change in intent specific to how they’re thinking and feeling when engaging on the platform: once during the new year as resolutions are in full swing, and again right before fall as people get inspired after an energizing summer. During these times, they show a desire to make changes to refresh their routines, set goals, get organized and stay positive.

Recognizing this, the company taps into audience data to more accurately and effectively meet their interests and match their mindset. The result? A user-controlled feed that is primed for success in helping Pinners reach their goals.

Algorithmic Fairness

As described by empathy expert, Tobias Rose-Stockwell, “Algorithms are representations of human intelligence — and just like any human creation, they can inherit and amplify our perspectives and flaws.” To summarize the idea into a single term: algorithmic bias.

Many platforms, including Facebook, already train their algorithms around the metric of what is “meaningful” to its users, however, emotions including anger are broadly considered meaningful. Ultimately, metrics are not specific enough with respect to what they’re actually measuring.

By employing metrics that measure content that users don’t want to see more of, we can better deliver a menu of choices that accurately represent their preferences, not just what they will click on. What users define as unhealthy content is an entirely different conversation.

Being empathetic and establishing a deeper understanding of our audience will continue to be good for business. By tailoring opportunities that enrich the lives of our audiences, we can create a ripple effect that results in more human-first marketing.

Learn more about Empathy Economics, Privacy Matters, and The Attention Revolution as part of our 2020 global theme: HUMAN.X and help us establish a human-first, experience-driven approach to digital marketing. Read the official announcement here and secure your early-bird discount today to save 10% on your full-conference pass to #SMWNYC (May 5-7, 2020).

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