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3 simple ways to boost empathy in your content

  • Thinking about empathy is a surefire way to create more engaging posts
  • It’s particularly useful for those with a focus on ‘messaging’
  • Winners embed empathy by creating processes that put the audience first 

Emotion is tactical, empathy is strategic

I was asked recently to talk to some diplomats about empathy in digital media. ‘Empathy’ is not a word I had previously associated with digital communications. Empathy feels like it’s a one-to-one rather than one-to-many thing.

I looked up the dictionary definition:

I had used emotion as an engagement tactic, but look at the definition — emotion is about reaction, empathy is about connection. I have crafted headlines and social copy and email subject lines to trigger fears or desires, but that’s a relatively crude tactic and, at times, works in opposition to empathy. 

I had also discovered the importance of putting the audience first after years of studying engagement data at the World Economic Forum. I wondered whether that was the same thing. 

It seems it is. Or at least a very substantial component. Empathy requires us to put ourselves in the shoes of someone else and to adapt what we do to recognise the way they think and feel.

So empathetic engagement is audience-first plus some emotional topspin. Which seems very useful: after all, who would want their digital engagement strategy to be described as lacking in empathy? 

Everything you write has a tone of voice. Everything you produce has a kind of digital body language. Everyone who reads, watches or listens to your content is consciously or subconsciously assessing the emotions you’re projecting and, crucially, your intent.

Empathy means recognising these features of digital life, but going further and offering things that might help deal with them by thinking hard about how you come across and what your audience might need from you.

It’s important to note that being empathetic may or may not require emotive content.  If your audience simply needs straightforward information and/or answers then anything else is just going to get in the way. Here’s a second instance in which empathy and emotion are in opposition.

How long do you have to make a digital first impression?

Human beings are hard-wired to analyse one another very, very quickly. It takes just seven seconds to make a first impression, according to one well-cited study

Something similar happens in digital media. Numerous studies suggest that those scrolling through social media feeds spend a couple of seconds or less to decide whether to scroll on past. 

The upshot of this is that if you want to use empathy then table stakes are to pay particular attention to anything that contributes to a first impression – a social post, the opening frame of a video, your article’s headline. 

An example: How to analyse email subject lines for digital empathy 

Not everyone uses social media, but nearly everyone who is online uses email, so the email inbox is a good place to start in our analysis of digital empathy. Here are three very different email ‘subject lines’. Each is successful for different reasons:

Unicef: Will you put this phone down to save a child’s life? 

Evernote: Stop wasting time on mindless work

The Lancet:  Explore our Dec 03, 2022 issue

There’s no objective way of measuring empathy in these short strings of words – different people will react in different ways. But it’s worth thinking about three key questions in order to isolate the empathy factor: 

  1. Editorial: Is it clear? Does it educate, inform or entertain? 
  2. Emotional: Is there a trigger to provoke people’s interest?
  3. Empathy: Is it accessible? Does it help the target audience to do something?

Unicef scores on all three counts:

Editorial: Simple, short and intriguing: elegantly teases game in which players forgo phones to donate money

Emotion: Guilt-trips via promise of extraordinary prize for a trivial act of self-sacrifice

Empathy: Addresses me directly, references where I’m likely to be (on my phone), offers shortcut to doing something positive

Evernote raises questions

Editorial: Confident command, which hints at, but does not promise, guide to time-saving with no downside

Emotion: Taps into ‘loss aversion’ and the fear of missing out by wasting time

Empathy: Opinion is divided here. Do I feel this is a sympathetic voice? Am I being told off? Where’s the positive?

The Lancet is pure functional

Editorial: Short, functional alert to the publication of a new issue

Emotion: Zero

Empathy: At first sight there is none. But think about the audience – subscribers to the journal, and where they are – in their email inboxes where reading space is tight – and possibly their age (older, with worse than average eyesight?) and this super-functional subject line begins to look like it has thought hard about what its users need.

A word about empathy, search and social media

Generally, digital media is consumed via lists that users scroll through. In this respect, social media, email and search are very similar. But there are important differences.

Email is the most limited. It’s just text. You can control the name of the sender and the subject line but the default for most email clients is to show relatively few characters. Most organisations do not think hard enough about this, which betrays a lack of empathy.

Search is more complicated. There are several ways to control how content appears in Search Engine Results Pages but most don’t pay enough attention to this. The real empathy challenge, however, is to get into the minds of users, think about the questions they are looking to answer and ensure your content matches up. 

Social is the most flexible and the great differentiator is the visual element, which is curiously under-utilised. In Social you really want people to reshare your post for maximum reach. You’re asking them to ventriloquise your work. That means using language, concepts, visuals and other content that they are comfortable with. 

3 tactics for increasing the empathy of your communications

Ultimately, increasing empathy requires a shift in thinking for most individuals and organisations. The starting point for this is to put the audience first. That’s easy to say but much harder to do. So here are some proven tactics for starting the process:

  1. Create an audience persona

For many, getting their idea or message across is the sole objective of communication. But the nature of digital media means this is simply not sufficient to ensure content gets to the places where it is of most interest. 

To cut through the general indifference you need to shape content for real people. And that means having at least a very basic idea of who you are producing content for and what they might want.

That means constructing a basic persona. This can be very, very simple. At the World Economic Forum, we devised a persona based on the demographic data from Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook. The result: a college-educated woman, under 25, living in Dhaka, who volunteered for civil society groups.

As we got used to viewing all ideas through this prism, we began to think harder about what might motivate such a user. This is more speculative but with a process of trial and error we found the following motivations were the most powerful:  

  • ‘Make me smarter’ and its social corollary ‘Make me look smarter’
  • ‘Give me some hope’ and ‘Make me look positive’
  • ‘Help me take action’ and ‘Help me look active’

Once you have such a persona, the trick is to embed it in your decision-making:

  • Framing: Would she be interested in this idea? If not, could it be reframed so that it would be of interest?
  • Voice: What tone would be appropriate for her in terms of writing style? Would she understand all the language you use? Do you need to write more conversationally?
  • Emotion: Is there some trigger you can use to capture her interest?
  • Location: Where is she likely to be: on a desktop computer or a mobile phone? On a social network, inbox, search results page?

It is quite remarkable how such a simple move can be so game-changing. It amounts to a simple shift from thinking about you or your organisation first to thinking about the audience first.

In most cases there will be more than one persona that you are trying to appeal to. This makes things more complicated but the basic principles are robust – create content that has a real audience or audiences in mind.

  1. Assess what interests your persona

This is harder but equally vital. There are all sorts of signals you can pick up to sharpen your approach if you know where to look. Here are some introductory approaches: 

Social media 

  • Monitor interactions like a hawk to see which kinds of posts get most interest
  • Every social network automatically bubbles up suggestions for similar accounts. These suggestions are based on the overlap of followers. Have a look at these and see if you can see any patterns in the posts that are most engaging.  
  • Consider a specialist audience-listening tool that will offer greater insights. Audiense is one such provider and offers a free plan that will give basic information on the tastes of your twitter followers.


There’s an entire industry devoted to exploiting Search but these three tools will give you some important insights into your audience and its needs:

  • Google Analytics will give you a guide to the demographics of your audience and some limited details of what brings them to the site
  • Google Search Console provides more granular detail of the queries that bring people to your site
  • Answerthepublic allows you to enter a topic and find out the most common questions asked about it
  1. Pay attention to your own persona

This is the mirror image of point 1 above. In the same way that you need a clear view about your target audience(s) you need to project a clear digital identity. And the best test of this is on social media where you are looking for people not only to share your content but to follow you. So what makes you ‘followable’? 

Consider what you do when a social media post intrigues you. You probably have a quick look at the user profile to see if this is your kind of account. To a certain degree, users are weighing the benefits from following one more account to the disbenefits of filling their stream with more content. To make this decision you may be weighing the following factors: 

  • Activity: If it rarely posts is it worth following? If it posts a lot will it be irritating?
  • Intent: Educate? Inform? Persuade? Entertain? Sell? 
  • Uniqueness: What can it do that my existing network can’t fulfil? 

The most common mistakes made are:

  • Limited posting which suggests a lack of ideas and ‘interestingness’. Winners publish interesting posts regularly t
  • Self-obsession this might work for celebrities but for almost everyone else it looks like the intent is self-aggrandisement and that is going to limit the appeal
  • Poor packaging: Dull images, poorly worded text, ugly layout are all signals that you don’t really care so why should anyone waste time following or clicking through?

Who is doing this right?

Here are three very different organisations using variations on the empathy theme to get big engagement.

  1. Buzzfeed 

Best known for its light-hearted ‘listicles, which turned it into a digital media powerhouse. But what started off as an unsubtle approach to triggering readers’ emotions has evolved into a far more sophisticated empathetic strategy.

Buzzfeed’s‘Cultural Cartography’ now posits that when a reader or viewer chooses to use a piece of content it is effectively hiring the company to do a job for them. And they use this as a filter for ideas that need to do at least one of the following: 

  • Make me laugh
  • Help me project my identity
  • Help me connect
  • Educate me
  • Make me feel positive
  • Show me what I need
  1. Axios

In five years, Axios built a business based on making news more accessible and sold for more than half a billion dollars. The business is based on ‘smart brevity’, which powers a range of services for commercial firms. 

The empathy is focused on accessibility as can be seen in the six rules of smart brevity:

  1. Stop being selfish. Focus on your audience. Prioritize what they need, rather than what you want to say. 
  2. Grab their attention. Pick the most important detail you want readers to remember. Sum it up in one sentence, then say it first – always.
  3. Write like a human. The words you’d say over coffee are the ones you should write. It’s way more engaging than jargon.
  4. Keep it simple. Subject-verb-object. Tight sentences and muscular words help readers see your point more quickly.
  5. Stay scannable. Studies show short paragraphs, bolding and bullets help pull people in – and get them farther, faster.
  6. Enough is enough. Use as few words as possible. The greatest gift that you can give yourselves – and others – is time.

3.  Quartz

Quartz, aiming to be kind of digital-first Economist, has succeeded in part by recognising that content needs to appeal to the heart as well as the head. In a presentation aimed at advertisers, publisher Jay Lauf set out the topics that worked best:

4. World Economic Forum

This international Organisation turned itself into a major digital publisher in part by creating an audience-first production culture involving the following elements:

  • Audience-first filter: Only ideas with a proposed headline, social copy, and image for social posts considered to help editors assess whether this is designed to help the audience or big up the author
  • Sharing filter: A discussion about why this would be shareable and whether reframing could make it more shareable
  • Workshopping final headlines and social copy for ‘relatability’.

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