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The Surprising Power of Empathy in Marketing

Tyson Schritter / COO, Abound and Colleges of Distinction

This is the first of seven articles in the “Are You Making This Fatal Mistake with Your Higher Ed Marketing?” series, detailing how to elevate your school’s brand in the minds of your audience using a proven and easy-to-follow framework that puts them at the center of your brand’s story.

It’s important that the story your marketing tells positions your audience as the main character, not your school. As Donald Miller explains in his book Building a Story Brand, the best brands understand that their story needs to explain how they can help their audience—whom they recognize as the “hero”—achieve a goal or solve a problem. That’s because an audience only cares about a brand’s story if it ends with their life being changed for the better.

So if your audience needs to be the hero of your brand’s story, then your school needs to play the role of the “guide”—the helpful aid who leads them to achieving their goal. A “guide,” however, is not truly successful unless it has two major characteristics: empathy and authority. Let’s take a look at the first characteristic and explain the importance of expressing empathy to your audience.

What is Empathy?

It’s easy to understand why empathy in marketing is such a critical factor in the way meaningful relationships are established and nurtured; we’ve all likely opened up to someone, be that a family member, friend, or coworker, only to be entirely misunderstood. It can leave us feeling neglected and dismissed, which definitely doesn’t help strengthen a relationship. Of course, the opposite is also true: the more we feel understood and accepted by another, the stronger that relationship becomes.

An article from Forbes unpacks three types of empathy: “cognitive empathy” (understanding what another person feels), “emotional empathy” (experiencing the feelings of another person), and “compassionate empathy” (acting to do something about the understanding and feelings). It’s when all three types of empathy are expressed that we’re able to connect most deeply to another person. Of course, your university or college isn’t a person, but the same rules apply.

Your audience is only going to want to interact with you if they feel that you understand and care for them while offering a way to help them through some type of service or “action.” Whether they be a prospective student hoping to reach their dream career or a recently retired donor eager to support a meaningful and worthwhile organization, your audience wants to see that your school demonstrates an interest in their desires. Your noticeable compassion is what makes your brand story resonate in a way that can help you meet enrollment, fundraising, engagement, and other institutional goals.

How Can You Convey Empathy in Marketing to Your Audiences?

Fuller Theological Seminary, a graduate seminary in the greater Los Angeles area, recently made the difficult decision to move their campus 30 miles east to Pomona. As you can imagine, relocating a major institution of higher learning is a massive undertaking—certainly one that would create a fair amount of anxiety amongst donors, students, faculty, and other stakeholders. However, Fuller proactively and carefully acknowledged this uncertainty in a number of ways. Namely, they directly assessed people’s nervousness in an issue of their university publication, appropriately titled “Disruption.”

In the magazine, Fuller featured faculty, the president of the university, and other stakeholders reflecting on the historic move and what it would mean for their future. It was a great way to demonstrate to their audience that they both understand and feel for them—that they’re all “in it together”—and are committed to doing everything they can to make the transition as smooth as possible. Such a public display of brand “empathy” helps their stakeholders trust that the dramatic change is not happening without them in mind.

Regis University also demonstrates brand empathy with its engaging treatment of prospective adult degree completion students. On their website, they provide three clear and easy-to-follow options for visitors to explore: “To Fulfill My Passions,” “To Advance My Career Path,” and “To Earn a Bigger Paycheck.” These three navigation paths reveal that Regis understands how varied and unique are the motivations for adults to return to higher ed. Because the idea of going to school after so many years away can be nerve racking, this effective digital strategy gives prospective students a clear place to start on their educational journey, reflecting Regis’ attention to the perceived challenges that may hinder an adult’s choice to apply.

Likewise, in regard to the traditional undergraduate student, a student vlogger at Chapman University posts videos with tips about life as a college student. In one video, for example, she explains ideal ways to organize your dorm with IKEA products. Such a helpful resource not only gives prospective students a real “look behind the scenes” of life on campus, but it also shows how a student who truly understands a rising freshman’s fears can offer trust-building guidance.

Know Your Audience So You Can Empathize

There are numerous ways to demonstrate empathy in marketing to your audience, from emails to videos to alumni magazines. But the key is first to familiarize yourself with what your audience is feeling and thinking and then to communicate that you understand them with the story you tell with your marketing:

The Importance of Marketing with Authority

How can you demonstrate to a new student at orientation that they won’t be alone during that stressful first week? Is there a way to relay to a donor that you want to give—and are giving—them tangible results of their financial support? What can you share with a prospective adult student to show that you’re committed to supporting them through what can be a significant financial and emotional investment?

If your audience doesn’t believe that you have their best interests in mind, then they aren’t going to care whether or not you can help them solve their problems—even if you can! You might have the perfect offerings, but audiences will turn away if they aren’t confident in whether you genuinely “feel for them.”

There is no doubt that empathy in marketing to your audience is critical to the story you tell—but that alone isn’t enough. You might be able to express that you care about your audience’s problems, but they won’t really listen if they don’t have a reason to believe you can actually do anything about them. That’s why it’s just as important to convey authority as well.

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