THE BLOG
01/05/2017 10:01 am ET Updated Jan 06, 2018

Finding Digital Empathy for Financial Brands

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By Kunal Muzumdar, Managing Director, Possible New York

Empathy and finance may seem like an odd couple. The one should be warm and human, the other rational, logical, and even a bit cold. But dig a little deeper, and you find they are quite compatible—a fact that has wreaked havoc on digital marketing planning.

To understand why, let’s start with the industry’s traditional approach to consumer-facing advertising. Not least for regulatory reasons, finance companies have never made the kinds of rational claims common to health food or toothpaste brands. Instead, they project a steady hand in scary times, the importance of planning for a secure future, or competence that inspires trust. In other words, they use empathy and emotions to make their point—not arguments.

This makes a good deal of sense. While finance may be a rational topic for professionals in the field, for most ordinary people it is a deeply emotional one. It’s about college tuition, personal bankruptcy, or taking care of aging parents. And, as a marketing strategy, empathy works. Campaigns that capture our emotions have been found to outperform the average by 19%.

Unfortunately for digital marketers, the online world does not provide a fertile ground for empathy. As research by Dr. Carl Marci and others has shown, heavy digital device users tend to experience less immersion and thus less intense emotions in the content they consume. It’s easy to inspire trust if you have 30 seconds. It’s much more difficult in a context where the average attention span is eight seconds, and 80% of video ads are abandoned before a user finishes the first half.

If this conundrum seems insolvable, it’s probably because we’re thinking about it the wrong way. Empathy, after all, is not merely about inspiring emotions. It’s the ability to feel what others are feeling. One way to do this, of course, is to create things like 30-second ads. This kind of longer form content absorbs people’s attention in a positive way. Some brands have had digital success with this strategy—Yeti and Dove come to mind—but overall, it’s risky and hard.

But there may be an easier way. Typically, we target ads, and specifically programmatic ads, based on things like demographics and behavior. But there’s no reason we shouldn’t be able to throw feelings into the mix and shape messaging accordingly.

For example, imagine you’re a British person nearing retirement and the Brexit vote occurs. This would be a time of great unease and worry. Where normally a financial company would react impassively, one could act with proactive emotion that reflects what its users are feeling. You could speak to that anxiety.

To do so, however, we will need to beef up our toolset. Currently, the tools that monitor online sentiment are primarily used to look at things like brand health. We need to hack these tools and start using them to understand not merely what people are thinking about our companies, but also what they are thinking about the world at large.

In that way, we could begin to react proactively to what’s happening around us, and mold brand responses to be more in line with the emotional state of our audience.

Empathy is great if we can build it the old fashioned way: through emotional engagement over time. But failing that, we can turn the equation around and deliver an empathetic response instead. The end result would be a more effective ad—and a much stronger brand.