Ann Handley, Scott Monty, and Jay Baer on the Importance of Empathy in Marketing

We do this little video podcast thing called the Wellspring Digital Chat. Check it out if you haven’t already. Some of the smartest marketers out there come and chat about digital marketing challenges, ideas, and future trends.

I noticed a certain trending topic in the last few interviews I did… empathy in marketing. So, I thought I would take some of their wisdom from these three 20ish minute interviews and share them with you here, in bite-size chunks.

Of course, if you want to watch the full interviews, you can see them all on our blog or our YouTube channel.

If you want the bite-size chunks, here they are…

Ann Handley on Empathy in Marketing

In our talk with Ann, we asked her “if the corporations were sitting here watching you, could you maybe preach to them a little bit on the importance of empathy?”

Ann’s Answer…

“I think empathy gets shortchanged sometimes because we think of it as something that you either have or you don’t. But I actually think of it as more of a practice.

“So, when I think about empathy in terms of a business or a marketing context, it’s essentially putting the needs and the wants and desires in the heart of your customer front and center in marketing.”

Customer-Centric Marketing

“We talk a lot about putting the customer at the center of your marketing, customer-centric marketing. But I don’t think it’s effective unless you really go beyond just thinking about the customer and thinking about peering inside of them a little bit, walking around in their shoes a little bit, and trying to understand how is it that we fit into the context of their lives.

“Empathy does not mean sympathy. It doesn’t mean that you feel what they feel. Instead, it just means that you think about ‘how is this going to land with a customer? What would be my response?’

“Try to put yourself in the customer’s shoes. It’s very much what I do in writing. I write what I want to write. I have something I want to say, so I say it, but then I always go back to it.

“I talked about swapping places with the reader, thinking about things from the reader’s point of view. And I think that exercise is the exact same exercise that we need to do as marketers in marketing. Whether you are a massive tech B2B company, at a hospital, or you’re a small business or sole proprietor, it applies across the board.”

The Dreaded “Corporate” Blog

“We love to talk about ourselves and I totally get it because I get excited about what I’m doing or what I’m working on, or what clipping we’re producing. We get excited about it, I get it.

“But it’s incumbent on us to then take it to the next step and say, ‘Okay, we’re excited about this. So why does it matter to somebody else?’

“I talked about going through that ‘so what’ exercise. Well, ‘so what, why should somebody care?’ I think so much of our marketing and so much of our world, honestly would be so much better if we just went to that.”

(amen sister!)

Scott Monty on Empathy in Marketing


In our interview with Scott, the question was “what is marketing without empathy? And conversely, what does marketing look like with empathy?”

Scott’s Answer…

“I write a newsletter called Timeless and Timely and I typically explore some issues that executives and businesses are grappling with. I do it with a bit of a different lens. It’s not your typical marketing newsletter.

“I look at history, I look at philosophy, I look at literature for inspiration for where we’ve been before to help predict where we’re going. And with respect to empathy, it just feels like we’re in a bit of a dip and to me, empathy is closely associated with trust. We’ve heard lots of companies in the last decade talking about the need to build trust, right?

“But without empathy, there can be no trust. If you can’t understand what people are going through, the struggles they have, the opportunities they’re looking for, and how you can provide them value along the way, if you don’t understand that, there’s no need for them to trust you.”

The iPod and Empathy in Marketing

“And it’s not just about understanding their challenges. It’s demonstrating that you understand what their challenges are. I think the best brands do that.

“Think about that iconic reveal – I think we’re going back to 2003 or so maybe 2005 – back when Steve Jobs revealed the iPod. Well, did anyone say ‘I need a device In My Pocket that can carry 1000 songs?’ No, but he understood the human need for music and the ability for people to make it portable and more convenient.


“And taking all of those things together, it was through empathy, as well as through great design and marketing that Apple came out with the iPod. So I think that’s what happens when you have empathy as a company.”

What It Means to Have Empathy

“When you don’t have empathy, it’s simply tone-deaf.

“I mean, I could be very glib and cynical about this and say marketing without empathy is advertising. But I think that gives advertising a little bit of a short trip. And I think our best ads actually do show a lot of empathy.

“But when we feel like we’re being sold to rather than brought along on a journey, I think that’s what happens when companies lack empathy. When they are simply too concerned with themselves and the latest thing that they’ve bought at the market versus what it helps you do, how it helps you live your life, how it provides value to you in the process.”

Jay Baer on Empathy in Marketing


To round out the trifecta, I was recently chatting with Jay Baer and asked him to “discuss why ’empathy’ was the first type in your five types of Talk Triggers (his recent book with Daniel Lemin).”

Jay’s Answer…

Word of Mouth Marketing

“I think everybody understands, innately in business, the importance of word of mouth. But the mystery is that we all know it’s important, yet we don’t actually do anything about it.

“One of the most depressing statistics of which I’m currently familiar actually came from John Jantsch, a fantastic marketing expert, and author who found that fewer than 1% of businesses have a defined word of mouth strategy.

“We take word of mouth for granted. We just assume that if we run a good business, people will notice that and talk about it. But that’s not actually the way human beings behave. Competency doesn’t create conversation, you don’t get conversational credit for doing exactly what somebody paid you to do.

“I’ve had a number of accountants in my career. And I don’t know if I’ve ever said to somebody, ‘hey, Jon-Mikel, check this out. I got my tax returns, all the numbers added up.’ But that’s not really a story, right? That’s what accountants do.


“So if you want to create a conversation and unlock the importance of word of mouth, you’ve got to do something that people will notice and talk about. You have to give them a story worth telling.”

A Disturbing Lack of Empathy Today

“And somewhat disturbingly, empathy is one of those ways that you can differentiate, right? A talk trigger (see the full interview for more on Talk Triggers) only works if it’s something that customers don’t expect. You expect the numbers to add up.

“And I am old enough to remember a time in the not so distant past when we treated customers and one another with dignity and kindness and respect and humanity, what we often lumped together as empathy.

“We didn’t have a name for that, because we just called it business. It was the default state and it certainly is not now.

“And that does make me a little bit sad as a human being to see where we find ourselves. We are at loggerheads even with our own customers. But it is also a colossal opportunity. Because today, when you treat your customers with respect and kindness and humanity, it stands out against the tapestry of your competition and can actually become a true competitive advantage.”

What’s Makes So Successful

“Think of a brand like Chewy. is the online pet supply eCommerce retailer, which sells the exact same thing as everybody else in the pet business for the exact same price.

“But they are very successful. And it’s partially because they are wholly committed, at every level, to true empathy. They treat their customers with incredible kindness and compassion and warmth. And they treat them as people not as numbers on a spreadsheet.

“And it is one of the things that have propelled them to a multi-billion dollar valuation when they were like the 114th person to try the same idea.”

My Thoughts on Empathy in Marketing

I think the best way to wrap up this post is to give you my thoughts on empathy in marketing. Ultimately, empathy in marketing is an extension of user experience or UX.

Ann talked about empathy as a practice. Empathy isn’t something you do once. If we can all think from a UX perspective, truly understanding what every experience will be like for the user, we will be practicing real empathy.

This isn’t touchy-feely stuff. We’re not asking you to get all emo with your marketing.

Yes, it’s important to care about people, but as a business, you need to succeed. You succeed by being better than your competition. Like Jay’s example with, tons of companies sell pet supplies, but Chewy sells a better user experience because they understand the wants and needs of their customers… empathy!

Looks at Scott’s iPod example. Apple seems to always nail the user experience. How do I know? I hate Apple products, and that’s OK. I told Steve Wozniak this to his face and he was OK with it.

No, seriously, I really did.

Here’s the thing, I am not Apple’s target audience. They are building a different experience for a different kind of customer. They can do this because they’ve taken the time to understand that audience, their wants, and their needs.

The great thing about empathy and UX is that it spans all marketing disciplines. Try and think of one marketing discipline that doesn’t benefit from a deeper understanding of your customer and your target audience – SEO, PPC, content marketing, social media marketing, and so forth.

If can think of one, please let me know. If not, I rest my case. Empathy for the win!

Jon-Mikel Bailey Avatar