The Role of Empathy in Campaign Design

While listening to Holly Morris, Director of School Incubation of the Washington State Charter School Association, speak about design thinking at the recent UCDA Design Summit in Savannah, my mind zeroed in on her comments about giving priority to empathy. She was reminding the roomful of designers that before offering solutions, we need to understand the motivations and behaviors of our audience(s). “It’s difficult to offer ideas or suggestions to people you don’t know,” she said; and off my mind went on a mental side trip…

I started processing how essential empathy is to the campaigns we create and build for our clients. It’s easy to move straight to the ask: “make your donation now” or “apply for admission today” seems to be a shortest and most direct route to an exchange. Particularly given the breadth of data we are able to amass about perfect strangers (what does it take to be a “perfect” stranger anyway?), it’s tempting to leap over the relationship-building essentials and go directly to the commitment we seek: a gift, an application, a deposit, a pledge, a visit. By getting ahead of the customer, it’s likely the opportunity for exchange will be missed.

First, the customer may be put off by your forwardness. “Give you my hard-earned money? I hardly know you!” “Why should I apply for admission when this is the first time I’ve heard from you? That’s asking a lot of risk of me!” Jumping to the ask before you know your audience leaves the impression that you don’t care about their interest(s). You’ve got an agenda you’re pushing without consideration of theirs. That is not the grounds for effective exchange.

Second, without empathy, you may be asking for the wrong commitment. And you’re certainly presuming to know more than you do. For example, you may have a donor who is interested in giving time rather than money. Or you may have a prospective student who wants to pursue a program you don’t offer. (Granted, you’ve purchased the wrong list if that’s the case.) Making an investment in knowing your audience creates greater confidence that you are matching the ask at the appropriate level.

Third, empathy helps inform how you make the ask at the right time. By taking time to really know your audience well beyond what the demographic data suggest empowers you to know when to ask for the next step. The relationship you build with your prospective customers helps you establish a rhythm for your communications. We sometime refer to our models of coherent communications as tennis matches, a skillful back and forth until one player finds the winning opening. You may be tempted to bowl, but you’re not communicating with a pin, you’re communicating with a person, often one who is as skilled as you. Tennis is the better option.

Fourth, empathy leads you to address true customer concerns. By taking time to listen, you will likely discover real need and hopefully, it’s a need you can fulfill. Rather than applying a unilateral solution, you’ll identify nuance for each customer to which you can respond appropriately and far more precisely.

“Essentially, listening is about earning trust.”

—Liz Gross

Fifth, empathy demonstrates your interest in solving the customer’s problem. At the same UCDA conference, I heard Liz Gross of CampusSonar say: “Essentially, listening is about earning trust.” How right she is. Empathy begins with listening. And listening builds trust. And trust leads to relationships. You must make the first move to show your interest in building a relationship.

When we start with empathy, we build conversation into our campaigns. We start with questions to learn more about the customer than we already know. We respect the customer by not requiring them to provide data we already own. And we acknowledge that the customer’s time is as precious as our own, so we keep our content succinct.

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Rick Bailey

Rick is the Principal and founding partner at RHB.