empathy

On the night of November 7th at 10:30 pm ET, right about the time the results of this year’s presidential election were becoming clear, the Government of Canada’s immigration website crashed. The top story on Business Insider last week was, “How to move to Canada and become a Canadian citizen.” On that evening, something happened in America that not just moved people, but moved people to literally want to move…to another country.

People have been moved to action in less extreme ways by the election results. In the hours after Donald Trump was elected, the ACLU saw a 7,000% increase to their donate link on their website. The morning after the election, their website also crashed. There have been protests and rallies across the country and my own Facebook feed has been filled with articles, tips, and pointers from friends—many of whom I’d always thought of as more or less a-political–on how they are taking action: calling their local congressmen, attending town hall meetings, protesting, donating money.

Many of the conversations I’ve had with friends, colleagues, and others in my circle (admittedly almost exclusively liberal urbanites) since the election have centered around the idea that we somehow needed something this extreme to snap us out of our complacency–move us to finally take real political action–an explanation which I accept with varying degrees of skepticism. While whether or not extremity is a prerequisite for action is debatable, it is obvious that many people, on both ends of the political spectrum, have been jolted into action by the results of this election and the events that preceded it; this goes for those who have responded to Trump’s election with protest, calls to congressmen, ACLU donations, etc. and those who voted for him out of real and imagined social and economic fears and anxieties, etc. and out of frustration with a system that doesn’t serve their interests. In this sense, President elect Donald J. Trump is the very definition of “disruptive”: both the response to an outmoded way of doing things (status quo politics that aren’t serving for the people they are intended to work for) and an impetus for change–for better or for worse. TBD.

At Cake & Arrow we are in the business of understanding what moves people, and as a professional concerned with how we use content to do this, I’ve been thinking a lot about this election and how I can internalize some of its lessons–good and bad-–in productive ways. Elections always teach us a lot about human behavior–and each time around we learn something new. In this election season, Donald Trump articulated a message that moved people in powerful and unexpected ways–for and against him. Both scenarios present us with interesting lines of inquiry into what motivates action.

What was it about Donald Trump’s message that lead a large constituency of Americans to vote a man into office so unprecedented in nearly all respects? On the other side of the coin, what is it about Donald Trump that has lead so many Americans to seriously consider leaving the country and to donate to places like the ACLU in record numbers?

Surely the answers are complex, but they are also simple. Fear and frustration among them. Fear of losing jobs and homes; fear of losing rights and civil liberties. Frustration with a political system that works in the interest of itself, and not in the interest of the people it purports to represent. And while fear-mongering should never a marketing strategy make, what we can learn from this election is the ways in which many people–Trump and Clinton voters alike–may be feeling vulnerable, alienated, and misunderstood in ways that we didn’t necessarily have a grasp on.

In the marketing world, we have been talking about empathy for a while, and now is a time when it may be more critical than ever, and the election provides us with an important reminder of the fact that folks are at once tired of being sold a false bag of goods and are eager to shake things up and take meaningful action. As content marketers, perhaps there is a way that we can tap into some of the kinetic energy around change and action that, unlike so much of the content circulating this election season, is positive rather than polarizing, and that will facilitate dialog, create community, and build trust where it has been lost.

As I continue to ponder the implications of what this election means for myself, my industry, and my work and as I think about Cake & Arrow’s values and our content strategy for the upcoming year, these are a few of the lessons I will take with me from this election season:

Be empathetic, but don’t pander.

One of the key insights we have learned as content marketers over the years is that marketing needs to be meaningful. Good content connects with people at a personal level and offers them real value. To do both of these things requires empathy. What we don’t want to run the risk of, however, is pandering.

Empathy is a means of building relationships by trying to understand someone else’s position, not pretending as if their interests, opinions, feelings, needs, and fears are entirely the same as your own. Empathetic content meets its audience where they are at; it listens, and it cultivates common ground without sacrificing its own values, voice, or personality in the process. At the end of the day, pandering runs the risk of seeming disingenuous and of establishing false expectations. A relationship built on lies never did anyone any good. Real empathy involves maintaining your voice and identity while also finding ways to identify with others, even when there are clear differences. If there is one way in which our candidates and our media failed us this election season, perhaps it was in this regard: too much pandering, not enough empathy.

Offer real insights that challenge—not just reinforce—perceptions.

As we have seen in the criticism of Facebook and Twitter and other social media platforms this election season, the ways in which we now consume the majority of our media have the unfortunate effect of reinforcing our own perceptions, stereotypes and ideologies and sometimes, creating a more homogenous sense of reality than is actually accurate. Although we now live in a connected world, it’s easier than ever to live in a bubble, from which we must venture far to find a dissenting voice.

Let your content be that dissenting voice from time to time. As the lines between marketing and editorial continue to blur, it is more important than ever that as content marketers we don’t fall into the trap of just telling people what they want to hear. When we can challenge perceptions, not only do we open up the opportunity for interesting engagement and dialog (not to mention new business opportunities), but we offer real value to our audiences by bringing unique perspectives to issues they may not otherwise be likely to encounter. This can help consumers make better decisions and can build trust and loyalty between consumers and your brand.

Use research, not just feelings, to understand your audience.

One of the failures in the media coverage of this year’s election and one of the criticisms of how the democratic party ran its campaign was the way both relied too heavily upon assumptions about voter’s beliefs and behaviors. When using content to connect with your perceived audience, don’t make the same mistake. If you think the CEO’s of the companies you are going after read Forbes, ask them if they read Forbes, and also ask them what else they read. If you think you know what moves them, ask them what moves them. You’ll probably be surprised. And by failing to do the groundwork you could be missing out on key opportunities to connect with the people in the ways that will truly move them.

Constantly reassess your position and that of your audience.

As this election has proven, we live in a volatile world. Just because you voted for Obama in 2012 doesn’t mean you did in 2016. What concerns your audience one day won’t necessarily concern them the next. Build ongoing consumer research and surveying into your marketing plan so you can maintain empathy and connect your content with the changing landscape of interests, needs, concerns, and motivations. Be willing to be agile. Meet regularly to look at metrics and see what is working and what isn’t–and don’t be afraid to abandon ship. Listen in on conversations and never let your plan become an end in and of itself–because at the end of the day, your content exists for your audience, not for you.