From AI to VR, to gaming and storytelling in film and in marketing, if there was a buzzword that stood out the most for me throughout this year’s SXSW, it was Empathy. Experts from all fields at the conference emphasized the importance of using empathy in science, education, technology, film, and communications in order to provide the best solutions to users while creating a deep, intimate connection with them.

So, what is empathy? Empathy is the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experiences of another either in the past or present without having the feelings, thoughts, and experience fully communicated in an objectively explicit manner (thank you for the thorough definition, Merriam-Webster).

Here are some key takeaways from the conference on the importance of applying a more empathetic approach to the ways we communicate and interact with others:

  • To act empathetically means to build relationships, and building relationships begins with caring. In a marketing/branding context, brands must look at what people are deeply interested in, where their struggles lie, and where brands can be of help. Plain and simple: brands must do their research. It’s no longer about making an educated guess or having a “gut feeling” of what the audiences will like. Obtain trustworthy data on what people are looking for and provide them with serious value. Marketing with empathy is marketing with care.


  • User-generated content is still best, but make sure to closely analyze and research which stories are good to tell. Tap into conversations and/or important moments that your audience(s) are having, but allow the community to express what they are going through.


  • Empathy in marketing is about capturing and revealing the real. Humor can be used to reveal the good, the bad, and the ugly aspects of what audiences go through. Moreover, humor has a high success rate in conveying audiences and building affinity to the brand. Brands must incorporate the raw emotions of their target audience with their content to effectively create that real connection.


  • As Dana Neujahr, SVP of Something Massive, perfectly said it at the Why the Best Content Marketers Use Empathy panel, “In a marketing/PR context, think about a favorite piece of content that you loved and shared with your close ones. A big part of the reason you liked it and shared it with others is because there is some insight in there that you can identify with. When brands can tap in to that insight and make that human connection, that is where brands can more effectively start building, more than awareness, actual affinity with their audiences. Often brands make the mistake of thinking of their audience as large groups of people, but by applying more empathetic thinking, it forces them to think as a person first.”


  • Ben Mand, SVP of brand marketing and innovation at Plum Organics, gave another great example of why brands need to apply empathy in their marketing strategies: “When a consumer walks into a store, chances are he/she may buy something, but the moment a sales associate forces him/her into buying a product, it’s likely he or she will end up leaving the store without purchasing anything. We constantly have brands trying to sell us something both online and offline, but people no longer want to be interrupted with brands trying to sell their latest product or service.” Brands need to understand that it’s no longer about forcefully presenting content to consumers; it’s about creating a real connection that stimulates the audience and delivers on a need that resonates with them.


  • If done authentically with a genuine desire to understand the perspectives of other people, empathy has the potential to drive learning, influence behavior, inspire engagement and prompt change.


  • Virtual Reality (VR) is a platform that is enabling users to experience, learn and broaden their horizons through empathetic interactions that can transport them into new spaces. However, brands must be careful with their interpretations of what is empathetic by measuring the intensity of the experience they’re offering through VR. Rather than empathy, it could trigger a negative immersive experience that can upset the user and push people apart. Science and research must first be implemented to ensure effectiveness and see how people really behave in response to your content or platform.


In case you missed the panels on Empathy at SXSW, please visit the following links where you will be able to find recordings of the sessions:


IH8URGAME: Fostering Empathy in Gaming Communities

Why the best content marketers use Empathy

From AI to EI: Empathy is the New Tech Superpower

Empathy and Intimacy: Are we Really Feeling VR?

VR: Beyond Virtual Field Trips to Building Empathy