sales

How to Use Empathy to Make a Social Impact

For a lot of us, when we think of selling, the word “empathy” doesn’t come to mind. In fact, for many in the cause-focused space, particularly nonprofits, selling (just like marketing) is a bit of a bad word. However, it shouldn’t be.

If you have something that someone else needs or wants, isn’t that a good thing? That’s where it all begins.

Today, one of my spring interns, Rima Patel, is going to share how empathy intersects with the sales process, particularly the selling of products. I think this will not only be insightful, but good news for many of you.

You’re already leading a nonprofit, social enterprise, or other for-profit doing good, which means that empathy is at the core of what you do. This post will take it one step further, allowing you to see how empathy can be the glue that holds your triple bottom line together.

How to Use Empathy to Make a Social Impact

No one will deny that the key to creating a successful product is by thinking like the consumer. Putting yourself into their shoes and figuring out what they want can help make your great idea even more desirable. This concept is not unfamiliar to us; in fact, it’s something we aim to practice in our day-to-day lives. Whether it’s individuals trying to build strong relationships or cause-focused organizations trying to connect with consumers, empathy is essential.

Empathy is the ability to understand and share the feelings of others. Empathy is the difference between feeling for someone and feeling with them. Acknowledging feelings from shared experiences connects us as humans, beyond all the ways in which we separate ourselves—and that’s special. So special that it has the power to change lives and make an impact.

Maybe you’re an entrepreneur and you want your consumers to have an emotional connection to your product. Maybe you’re a nonprofit and you are trying to fix a social issue by inspiring others. Or maybe you’re a social enterprise and you just want to do more good. How can you use empathy to make a social impact?

Empathy can push you to create solutions that help others, but it can also push others to help you and your cause.

Empathy in the design process

A human-centered approach to innovation

Design thinking is a popular process that many social enterprises use today to creatively solve problems and make social impacts. This process takes a human-centered approach and involves five steps: empathize, define, ideate, prototype, and test.

This semester, my Intro to Entrepreneurship professor decided to focus her class around the design thinking process, giving us the task of creating a product that would help solve the issue of climate change on campus. After the project was over, in a class with almost 300 students, we all came to the same general consensus: the empathize stage was the most important.

At first, many of us had a lot of great ideas, but the empathize stage made us quickly realize that our ideas could be better.

We all knew the problems associated with climate change and we all knew the different methods to prevent it, but what we didn’t know was how much people were actually willing to do. We found that college students want to help the environment, but don’t want to go out of their way to do it. You’ve probably seen something similar with your audience.

We realized that methods requiring the consumer to take some action like using water refill stations or compost bins don’t go as far as methods that don’t require the consumer to take an action, like putting motion detector lights in dorms. Creating the most value for our consumer requires using empathy to understand the best way to solve the problem.

The empathize stage not only helped us understand the consumer and how they felt about the issue to make the most efficient product, but helped us understand what steps they might actually take. Without empathy, our product might have ended up useless, unrealistic, and ultimately unsuccessful.

So, how do you use empathy in the design process? The first step is to ask questions.

Ask yourself:

  • What do you know about the problem?

  • What do you not know?

  • What are your assumptions?

Then ask others:

  • How do they feel about the problem?

  • How does it impact their life?

  • What are they willing to do about it?

These insights will help you understand the problem, who is involved, and how you might go about solving it in a way that brings others into the process for a more successful solution.

We all have great ideas that we want to see come to life, but if we want to be as successful as we can, it’s necessary that we open our ideas to other perspectives. Using empathy, you can see what would work and what would not, how people react to and feel about your ideas, and how to make them better.

There are many solutions to a problem, but the best solution is the one that begins with empathy.

Consumer empathy

Stop marketing products, start marketing feelings

Today, consumer empathy has become quite popular because companies are starting to realize its impact. If people have an emotional connection to a product, they are far more likely to buy it. If people share the same feelings as an organization, they are far more likely to support it.

Consumer empathy makes people feel less like consumers and more like humans, and that appeal is strong enough to make a positive impact on businesses and on the world.

Consumer empathy involves not only understanding the desires and struggles of the consumer, but also sharing those feelings with them. A great example of consumer empathy is a commercial for Cardstore by American Greetings in 2014. In order to promote their website, American Greetings sparked a common, shared feeling—the love we have for our mothers—and used it to help the audience create an emotional attachment with the brand. With this commercial, American Greetings was marketing a feeling, not a product.

Another great example is TOMS, a shoe company that built its brand on the concept that for every pair of shoes sold, there was also a pair given to a child with no shoes. Growing up, I remember seeing so many TOMS flags hanging up in bedrooms. Why were people so inclined to hang a shoe brand up on their wall?

The flag represented a feeling, an emotional attachment to the product, and a sense of pride for doing something good. TOMS recognized the power of making every person who purchased their shoes feel like they made a significant impact, and were part of a solution to a big problem. Today, TOMS continues to use consumer empathy to discuss other important social issues, like gun violence.

Now, it might seem like empathy is an obvious tool for marketing products. Of course thinking like the consumer is necessary for creating something that is valuable and relevant to them. Unfortunately, many companies still lack this skill.

Pepsi, for example, aired a commercial in 2017 amidst the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement. The commercial involved Kendall Jenner joining an ambiguous protest and sharing a Pepsi with a police officer, sparking unity and excitement among everyone. Pepsi received severe backlash, taking down the ad several days later, and responses to the commercial gave a clear understanding as to why. A former organizer for BLM said, “No one is finding joy from Pepsi at a protest.” Bernice King, daughter of MLK Jr., tweeted, “If only daddy knew the power of #Pepsi.” To make things worse, the face of the ad was a rich, white supermodel who has no history of being an advocate for BLM, or any other social issue for that matter. Pepsi failed to understand their consumers and how they feel about the issue, which is what made the ad unsuccessful.

So, what did Pepsi do wrong? Pepsi’s commercial was trying to ignore the problem. Its message does not fall far from, “Why can’t we all just get along?” It provides a “solution” without actually acknowledging the existing problem of police brutality that some black people face everyday in America.

Empathy goes beyond just understanding someone's feelings; it requires learning to share them, too. Pepsi attempted to use a current, popular trend in social justice to promote their brand and make more money. Their mistake was leaving out empathy, and it was a mistake they could have avoided had they taken more time to know their consumer.

Using empathy in marketing involves understanding how your consumer feels, but it also involves understanding how your consumer will react. How do they want to feel, and can you make them feel that?

Using empathy to create social change

How feelings can change the world

The beauty of empathy is that it affects all of us.

Whether we are selling or buying the idea, it makes us all feel something. Empathy reminds us that we are all human and that we share experiences and feelings. It has been a tool used around the world to make individual problems feel universal.

Empathy allows consumers to feel like they are being heard and understood, that they are not alone, and that there are people out there trying to solve their problems. It sparks inspiration and motivation for people to work towards the things they care about.

As entrepreneurs and innovators, it is essential that we practice empathy in all aspects and phases of our projects—from idea to design to marketing. So, ask questions and open your ears. Understand who you’re working with and what they’re feeling.

Remember that empathy involves shared experiences, so remind yourself of your feelings and why you got involved with your cause to begin with. Keep in mind that the product or the profit isn’t special, but the feeling it invokes and how those feelings might eventually change the world is.


Rima Patel

I’m Rima Patel, an upcoming senior at North Carolina State University, majoring in Sociology with minors in Business Administration and Nonprofit Studies. My ultimate goal in life is to do good and help people, and right now I’m doing that through marketing for nonprofits.

I hope to make significant impacts on social issues through innovation and social entrepreneurship.

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Empathy can push you to create solutions that help others, but it can also push others to help you and your cause.

Kristi Porter, founder of Signify

I’m Kristi Porter, and I help cause-focused organizations understand and execute effective marketing campaigns so they can move from stressed to strategic. Your resources may be limited, but your potential isn’t. Whether you’re a nonprofit, social enterprise, or small business who wants to give back, I’ll show you how to have a bigger impact.


Ask the Experts: Understanding Your Audience

Each month, I invite guest contributors to speak about timely, relevant, and sought-after topics that are important for cause-focused organizations like yours to be aware of as you grow. For August, I've invited my friend, Jen Gordon, to share about uncovering the hidden desires of your donors and customers. Understanding your audience will be a key to your success.

Uncover the hidden desires of your donors and customers.

Q. What are the latest trends in your industry?

A. What I’m seeing lately is a trend toward companies identifying their marketing strategy first, and then outlining the tactics they will take to align with that strategy. By “strategy," I mean really digging into the hidden and unspoken desires of your prospect, and developing your approach to that audience around those wants.

In the past I’ve seen marketers using tactics like, “Hey, let’s send out a direct mail piece like the one I saw from XYZ organization.” Or, “Oh, let’s send an email campaign about our next fundraiser,” before truly identifying why their prospects would want to engage the content.

There has always been interest in the marketing world around the psychology of marketing, but today there is a lot more content readily available about the psychological drivers that cause prospects to take a certain action, to leave, buy, or donate. Nir Eyal writes a blog that focuses on consumer behavioral triggers and habits. Though most of his work focuses on software development, the concepts he teaches are applicable to any industry.

Q. What is the biggest mistake you see people making in regards to what you do?

A. One of the mistakes I have seen many times over the years of creating landing pages and sales funnels is that business owners may have a short-term plan or campaign they want to launch, but don’t have a clear roadmap for the year in terms of where they want to be in 30/60/90 days or six months, etc. They generally know what they want to achieve, but the path getting there is often unclear.

Right now, I’m working on a marketing calendar (with some inspiration from this SEJ post) for my own product, the Hope Deck, using Google Sheets, Google Calendar and Trello—all free tools!

Q. What is your best piece of advice?

A. If you aren’t trained on how to uncover your prospect, donor, or customer’s hidden, unspoken wants/desires, then find someone who is. :) Learning how to do this while working on the Hope Deck has completely changed how I connect to, and communicate with, my audience.

It has allowed me to understand how I can bring the maximum amount of value to my customers. I no longer assume that I am a part of my target audience, which I have done in the past. My mind is open to a wider range of problems people want to solve, and emotions they want to feel or not feel.

Q. What is one thing readers can do this week to improve?

A. Start figuring out what your audience really wants—not what they need, but what they want. I created a spreadsheet for the Hope Deck where I am in the process of identifying my customer’s unspoken desires. Don't get overwhelmed. Keep it simple to begin, and then edit or expand it over time.

Q. Anything else we should keep in mind?

A. The best way to uncover these hidden wants and desires is to actually talk to your customers or donors. I’d recommend recording the conversations, if possible, so you can review them later and pick up on details you may miss in the moment. Another option is to get them in writing through emails or surveys. You'll then use their language when speaking to them in your emails, social media, and any other communication pieces, so that it's familiar and relatable.

And be sure to ask them open-ended questions about why they choose to partner with, donate to, purchase from, or do business with you. Most of the time they won’t express their hidden desires outright, but you can infer from their answers what is important to them, and from there brainstorm motivation, emotional triggers, and things like that.


Jen Gordon is a momma, artist, and entrepreneur based in Atlanta, Georgia. For the past eight years of her career, she’s specialized in conversion centered design, working closely with marketers and business owners to increase sales by testing and optimizing their sales funnels. Her geeky passions include finishing stuff, brain rewiring, crafts of any sort, and anything Dolly Parton has ever said or sung. :) You can find her latest creative project, a collection of inspirational postcards, at www.HopeDeck.com.



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Start figuring out what your audience really wants—not what they need, but what they want. Uncovering the hidden wants and desires of your audience will be a key to your success.

Kristi Porter, founder at www.signify.solutions

I'm Kristi Porter, and I started Signify to provide writing, consulting and strategy services to nonprofits and for-profit organizations with a social mission, primarily through copywriting, marketing and business communications. I believe that cause-focused organizations like yours are the future of business. You're proof that companies can both make money and do good. And I'm here to help you get noticed and grow. When you succeed, we all win.