The Emphatic Marketer: How to Create Design That Relates to Your Audience

If you’ve already resolved basic usability issues and built a campaign according to marketing fundamentals, and yet your conversion rate is still far from your goals, chances are something important is missing from your campaign: the client’s experience. To turn this around, you have to align your campaign with your clients’ core motivation.

Easier said than done, I know. Realistically, hitting on your client’s deep-felt motivation and activating it through your design to the level it becomes dominant in his decision is a tricky act to pull off, at best. Fortunately, you have three points in your favor.

One: you’re human, your client is human, you buy things, they buy things… you have a lot in common! Once you stop thinking of customers as a statistic on the page and start relating to them as people with emotions and motivations just like yours, the door is opened.

Two: some of the work has been done for you. Several researchers in psychology and marketing have found ways to break down the spectrum of human emotion in ways that explain customer behavior and can be easily applied.

Three: there are tools for it. If you can’t tell what your clients really want and how to make your campaign resonate more, there is emotional optimization software designed specifically for this.

Empathic design can totally change your approach to marketing. Read on and I’ll show you how.

Being an empathic designer: identifying with your client becomes a sales strategy

Empathy is the ability to place oneself in another’s position. Empathic design has been defined as “the process of developing an understanding of users, not just their overt needs, but of their constraints, practices, problem-solving approaches, contexts, and the interrelations between people as a whole.”

It is a user-centered design approach that prioritizes the user’s experience and feelings towards the product. Marketers talk a lot about how to get the client to identify with the brand, but it’s even more important that you identify with your clients. The number one cause of poor conversion is when the design is centered on the product rather than the client.

It seems pretty straightforward, and in some campaigns, it’s very clear, but others not so much. Take painkiller ads. It seems that the client’s main need is to stop the pain. However, in many other cases, the client’s true needs and desires might be hidden. They may even be unconscious, unknown by the prospect himself. Understanding the client’s subtle feelings, not to mention creating a design and content that reflect them, seems almost impossible.

However, since the benefits of such a design are so great, it’s often worth the effort. When the client feels that the product was truly made with him or her in mind, they will identify with the campaign and be more likely to convert. It can create brand loyalty, leading customers to return for more purchases and even convince other visitors to purchase your product. In the long run, empathic design can help in the development of new products as well.

Tools for empathic campaigning

One of the best tools to assist in empathic design is Limbic Map®. The developer, Dr. Hans-Georg Häusel, describes the tool as follows:

“Limbic Map is a map of consumer emotions. Through modern brain research, we know that there are systems of emotions in the mind, how these systems work in the brain and how they interact. The Limbic Map® is a central tool for visualizing these systems is easy to understand. The Limbic Map® can be used for very descriptive brand and product positioning. Individual elements – cues and codes – such as colors, images, typography or forms can be located here.”

Now used frequently for UX research, it was originally developed as a technique for emphatic design by a German company called the Nymphenburg Group. The map is quite simple. It differs from similar personality maps in that it focuses on emotions related to buying behavior.

The map contains three categories:

  • Stimulant
  • Dominance
  • Balance

Stimulant: These emotions have to do with exploring and playing. They are most common in children and adolescents. Most of these emotions – fun, playfulness and joy, for example – are highly conducive to learning.

Dominance: Controlling emotions such as pride, honor and sense of willpower.

Balance: Feelings of bonding and security such as friendship and loyalty.

These categories were developed as a result of thorough psychological research. However, the main power of this system is in creating seven personality types that can help categorize your customers into very specific archetypes.

The 7 types are:

  • Harmonizers – peacemakers, friendship-centered team players or the “family man,” these people go for positive emotions and brands linked to trustworthiness.
  • Traditionalists – conservative and old-fashioned, these people play it safe. They appreciate old values and expect brands to be “safe” and trustworthy.
  • Bon vivants – these people are outgoing and generous. They enjoy living large, with a high profile and life of luxury. They are looking for excitement and new experiences.
  • Disciplined –to the point, calculated and no-nonsense. These people like guaranteed quality and a good price/benefit ratio.
  • Hedonists – impulsive and stylish, and they like to show off. These people are impulse buyers who like flashy, expensive stuff.
  • Performers – these ambitious achievers want to show their worth. They like exclusivity and prestigious brands and reject cheap brands on sight.
  • Adventurers –playful, gambling and unconventional, these people like brands offering added value or performance attributes.

How to use the Limbic Map

You’re looking for the implicit reasons people use your product. With this knowledge, you can better design and position your product to align with their emotions and motivations. This technique is easy to apply. First, you need to collect a reasonable sample of your ideal clients. Around 100 people should work. These are people who either bought from you before or who are well in line with your targeting profile. Then you can present them with the question:

When you are shopping for [product name], pick the top three words that best describe what you associate the product with.

If you want to use the survey for a more general branding purpose, you can ask:

Considering your experience with [brand name], what words do you MOST associate with [brand name]?

Let them choose words from the map.

When you gather enough data, you will start noticing that like in a traditional heat map, specific areas of the emotional map will receive much more responsive than others. Now you have a visual insight into your clients’ inner state when they engage with your product. You’ll usually end up with a pretty abstract set of words. Keep in mind that empathic design research is built on observation, not inquiry. You want to keep things as open-ended as possible to get a true sense of what your customers really feel, with as few cues as possible. You have a lot of room for interpreting these clients’ intentions. That’s why it’s best to come up with a few hypotheses and check their performance with A/B testing.

Other models of emphatic design

The Nymphenburg model isn’t the only one. There are some other interesting and helpful tools that can help you determine your customers’ dominant motivation or hidden emotions. One of these is Toneapi, Adoreboard’s emotional content optimization and analysis tool. This tool helps you optimize content for emotions.  It basically helps you understand the link between emotions and audience actions, such as time visited, click-through rates and other metrics.

It’s based on the scientific work of Robert Plutchik. Starting from the idea that emotions are evolutionary attributes that were developed to maximize survival, he identified four sets of fundamental emotional opposites: Joy/Sadness, Anger/Fear, Trust/Disgust and Surprise/Anticipation. These four sets, and secondary emotions based on combinations of them, are visualized in his wheel of emotions. Toneapi provides several frameworks for understanding your brand’s emotional impact on this spectrum, including how it measures up to your competitors or the industry average.

More specific tools are CoSchedule and Just Not Sorry . These are used for better emotional influence in headlines and emails respectively.

Emotions and values

Last but not least, it is important to understand that emotions are not stand-alone phenomena. Especially in mental processes that involve decision-making, values have a major role. Values are judgments about how important something is. They’re extremely important when trying to activate specific emotions. For example, if you want to trigger pride in an audience who values order, you might use an image of a police officer. But for an audience who values freedom, an image of James Dean or Che Guevara might be more effective.

When you try to elicit a specific emotion, first figure out what values your audience holds most important. If you’re not sure, test it.

Final thoughts

The value of emotion in conversion can’t be overestimated. Just look at what the big brands invest their branding money in. Almost always, it’s about associating specific emotions with their brand. The most powerful emotional marketing is in the field of empathic design. Empathic design at its best makes your audience feel like your marketing message is actually their own thoughts and ideas. It minimizes the client’s resistance to your product.

My take is that beyond technology, genuine concern and willingness to identify with your clients will give you the right intuition. Then, with the support of tools and surveys, you can dramatically improve your campaign. It’s an attitude of truly putting the client first, giving them exactly the content and value they are looking for. Taking this approach can revolutionize the digital seller/buyer relationship altogether.


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