We suck at being empathetic on social media. Here's how to use that to your advantage.

A few days ago, I was scrolling through my Twitter timeline and was overwhelmed with how emotional we all are. No news is straight up anymore; we're all outraged or obsessed.  Disgusted or fangirling out. With our generation, there is no middle ground. And because of that, there is very little empathy. 

The thing about empathy and social media is that there is none. Have you noticed how people take sides and than say ridiculous things to anyone that doesn't agree with them? No? Here's an example. Here's is Salon tweeting out a link to their article about Donald Trump and the Republican party. 

Let's talk about this. Ask any social media expert, and they'll tell you the importance of a good headline. It has to be to the point, fit in 140 characters and have a high probability of going viral. How do you do that? By making it inflammatory. This headline was designed empathetically: it plays directly towards Democrats' thoughts and flies in the face of what today's Republicans feel and believe. So, what happened next? I'm sure you can figure that one out.

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With the exception of the lone ranger looking for actual news, everyone has a visceral reaction to this headline. And if we go a step further into the tweets, we'll see even stronger words written. But this time, it's between commenters.

This conversation is between two people, by the way. So as you can see, social media isn't just a place to connect with old friends or to make new ones. It's turned into a place to find like-minded individuals, vehemently defend them, and lash out at whoever doesn't fit into your "in" crowd.

When did this happen? And how can this help you when it comes to your social content marketing? To answer those questions, we have go back a ways to dissect why we are inclined to act this way.

Evolutionary evidence

Back in the day, we lived in tribes. We were born into the tribe, lived our lives depending exclusively on our tribal mates and died with those people surrounding us. So let’s imagine you lived during this time. Your home is an open space with maybe a cave, a few tents and very little physical barriers separating you from the rest of the environment. There were wild animals out there – somewhere – hidden among the trees and shrubbery.

And, worse, there were people. Other people, who wanted to loot your stash to get a leg-up on survival. Everything was a threat, so you didn’t trust outsiders. You stayed in your pact and you were against anything that threatened a breach.

So let’s fast forward a few hundred years to when we started to combine tribes. In order to survive in the ever changing world, we had to start teaming up and forming bigger communities. As the outside threats got larger, so did our need to become more powerful. New tribes meant more people, which in turn meant hierarchies formed.

These hierarchies were always there, of course, but now they’re larger and more politically motivated. It’s not just who can get the biggest chunk of meat; it’s who people identify and agree with the most. As a result, the people at the top are more powerful. The people at the bottom? Less.

As we’ve moved through the centuries and generations, we’ve maintained this system. That’s why everything in life seems like high school. The constant climb to social prominence (in whatever system you find yourself in) doesn’t end once you walk across that stage at graduation. We find our tribe, identify deeply with that tribe and are suspicious of those in other tribes. 

Social media tie-in

We are wired to connect, yes, but we also socialized to stay in our tribes. Once social media hit the scene with the dawn of Facebook in 2004, the way we lived out our tribal existences just moved from real life to the internet. We found our tribes online and instantly clung to them.

Another factor at play? Our brains. Research shows that it is neurologically more difficult to be empathetic towards people outside of our "groups." However, when there is an inner group conflict, it is much easier to work out differences. Brain scans of Israelis and Arabs showed that they felt little-to-no empathy for the suffering of the other group but felt a great deal of compassion for the members of their own group.

What does look like in social media? Well, let's see...

In the quick twelve years since the dawn of Facebook, we’ve seen up close just how tribal we still are. Remember high school? The cliques and how impossible it was for people from different groups to get along? It plays itself out on social media (and it our social lives) daily. And as I was scrolling through my timeline that day, I realized that being in packs is our natural state. So how can you use this to help you with your marketing? Simple: your language.

Identify your target audience

This is the first step, and it’s where a lot of people mess up. When you’re creating empathetic content, you need to ask yourself three questions.

Who do you want to talk to?

Who does your product or service attract?

 …and finally…

Do these two answers agree?

The first two questions need to be answered honestly before you can touch the third, and most important, question. And a company that did this magnificently is one of my favorite follows on Twitter: Wine Enthusiast.

Identifying your target audience is pretty easy when your company name is obvious. You like wine? Wine Enthusiast seems like a great destination to feed your habit. But they also know that people who like wine are going to have a few other complimentary interests. They want to know what pairs well with their wine of choice, where to buy their favorite wine or where to go on vacation to get the best wine experience. So what did they do?


Few marriages are more sound than chocolate and a glass (or three...) of red. So they talked about chocolate cookies. Smart, but they didn't stop there...

Wine labels can be intimidating, even for the most enthusiastic wino, and they want to make that a little less scary. And finally...

Ask any wine drinker about their most recent vacation, and they will absolutely tell you about a delicious bottle they shared with old or new friends.

Now that we've seen a few of their tweets, let's answer those questions I posed before.

What did they want to talk about and promote? Wine and their wine catalog.

Who did their product attract? People that drink wine and want to learn more about it, know where to get it, know how to pair it, and know where to vacation in order to drink more of it.

By answering those two questions, and making sure those answers were in agreement with each other, Wine Enthusiast was able to grow their brand by creating social content around what exactly their ideal audience wanted to consume. And another company that did this well is the sports blog Deadspin.

Create content around what they want

Back when I was fresh out of journalism school was around the time Paris Hilton got put in jail for violating the conditions of her probation associated with her DUI arrest. I remember being disgusted that a reputable news organization like CNN would cite TMZ and Perez Hilton as it’s source. Now, in 2016, TMZ and the like are the news breakers. And sites like Deadspin have become prominent and respected because of it.

Remember the Manti Te’o catfishing story? That thing spread like wildfire. Why? Other than the fact that is was freaking NUTS, it was timely; it was relevant; and, as a result of Deadspin knowing exactly who their audience was, it was fascinating. Let’s break this down.

It was timely because the story dropped a few days after Te’o’s team Notre Dame played (and got dropped) in the college football national championship game. Te’o was a pretty big story throughout the entire year because he got some Heisman trophy buzz early on (the Heisman is the top individual prize in college football – arguably in college sports) and the story of his girlfriend helped propel that.  His girlfriend's name was Lennay Kekua, and she passed away early on in the season from complications of leukemia shortly after Te’o’s beloved grandmother passed away as well.

It was a beautiful, touching and media friendly story that helped Te'o become a darling in the public eye, which is also a part of the reason why it was relevant. Te’o was widely considered a first-round pick in the NFL draft taking place three short months away in April 2013. The buzz around him couldn’t have been any louder. And then, on January 16, 2013, it was revealed that Lennay Kekua was fake. Fascinating? Checkmate.

Aside from the fact that it was fantastic reporting, that story is a content marketing home run. To the vast majority of the world (or at least to me), before this story came out, Deadspin was the world’s best source for idiot athlete dick picks. And then they posted this story. It called out major media outlets – the New York Times, Sports Illustrated, ESPN – on shotty reporting (what happened to two sources, guys?). And the Deadspin reporters didn’t have to turn too many stones to do it. After a few simple Google searches, they pretty easily figured out that this chick wasn’t real. And as a result, they got to the root of the scam.

This is fascinating because we all do this. How many of us have Facebook stalked someone to figure out who their new girlfriend/boyfriend is? Or had our curiosity peaked by something we saw on Dateline so we decided to look up what was happening with all involved now?

We are voyeurs; that’s why reality television is so popular. What Deadspin did with this article is take that voyeurism, combine it with their focus of sports and a splash of investigative journalism, and created content around exactly what their ideal audience wants: sports news without access, favor or discretion. And that’s why they are brilliant and empathetic content marketers.

Empathy: the tie that binds

What Salon, Deadspin and Wine Enthusiast all do in their content marketing is simple: they identified their tribe and then identified strongly with their tribe. Knowing who you want to talk to isn't enough anymore. When you've narrowed down your ideal audience and determined who exactly you are attracting, you can then create a content marketing plan with one of the best tools in your arsenal: empathy.