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

Outrage and negativity 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.

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When trying to capture attention our anger and negativity 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 to focus on 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 unpack this and 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 in viral social media content: when trying to capture attention, our anger, fear, and disgust are a signal in the noise. Further, these platforms are algorithmically programmed to mirror back our own tastes, opinions, and biases.

Due to our dependency on these platforms, and the behaviors we’ve gradually come to adopt, we are less likely to practice empathetic behavior when interacting online. Marketers and platforms have the opportunity to play a role in closing the gap between morality systems and tech by challenging users to interact positively with material that differs from their own views and experiences.

Microsoft‘s 2019 Super Bowl Commercial “We All Win” is a great example of this. It celebrates the stories of passionate young gamers rising to the top of their game with a little help from their friends, family and the Xbox Adaptive Controller. The story not only emphasizes Microsoft’s commitment to building accessible technology but reiterates that technology presents an equal opportunity to all of us. The video, shared over 29 million times, is a representation of what every brand should be doing with their platform – using their messages to communicate that differences are acceptable and should be embraced rather than used as a mechanism to incentivize negative reaction.

User-controlled feeds

As efforts to identify false news, misinformation, and propaganda have gained steam over the past few years, the issue underpinning our reliance on black-box algorithms has remained: users are lacking access to the editorial processes that determine which they see. A few ways to begin solving this problem include dashboards, in which users can filter their own content by things like politics, rudeness, and virality, and providing users with their own curation tools for their own algorithms.

The overall process of designing feed control for users opens the door to a crucial 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 likely 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 most importantly, stay positive.

To better address these shifting needs, the company has tapped into user data in order to more accurately and effectively meet their interests and match their mindset with respect to the content delivered to them. The result? A user-controlled feed that is primed for success in helping Pinners reach their goals.

Picking Out Unhealthy Content with Better Metrics

As described by writer, designer, technologist, and 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 outrage, disgust, and anger are broadly considered meaningful. In short, the metrics are not specific enough with respect to what they’re actually measuring.

By employing metrics that measure the type of content that users don’t want to see more of, we can begin to give users a menu of choices that accurately represent their preferences, not just what they will click on. This indeed necessitates an important conversation around what users define as unhealthy content.

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

Learn more about Empathy Economics 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 and secure your early-bird discount today to save 40% on your full-conference pass.

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