Itching for Empathy
It was a humid, ninety-degree Summer day in Indiana. Coach blows the whistle to end our conditioning training outdoors in the scorching heat. I was playing Division-1 collegiate soccer and those hot day sprints were brutal. As if being sore, tired, hot, and blistered weren’t enough, I had the honor of tacking on eczema, atopic dermatitis, and asthma as the cherries on top. Mandatory ice baths followed daily practice, which I dreaded — not because I minded the freezing cold, but because I was humiliated by the rashes all over my arms and legs.
Atopic dermatitis flare-ups caused my skin to be insanely itchy, dry, and red. Throw in the heat and sweat, and you get the most perfectly uncomfortable burn. Ever felt sandpaper? It’s like that on your skin, then add an itching fire to it. I’ve had AD my entire life, so I’m used to it, but I will never forget those days when I was severely insecure about my skin.
Through my lifelong journey with AD and Asthma, I’ve learned the importance of empathy for the patient from the healthcare industry — especially when it comes to advertising content. Authenticity is key.
More than 40% of consumers say that information found via social media affects the way they deal with their health. I am a part of that 40%.
Just the other week, I saw an ad on Facebook with a beautiful, famous, rashless person smiling comfortably, posing for a treatment option. It’s a stark contrast to the real-life patient experiences I shared above. It’s not reality, it’s not relatable, and it’s an insulting fairytale AD patients can only dream of.
Seeing that made me feel uncomfortable. I don’t always have a break out, but I know this condition isn’t sunshine, rainbows, and glamorous product photoshoots. The reality is that it’s painful, frustrating, and frankly sometimes embarrassing. When asked about that treatment, I don’t recommend it and I tell people how I feel. Not just because of that ad, but it does play a substantial part and certainly didn’t help me favor the brand more than before. A Google image search provides a more honest, authentic look at AD than the ad. That’s the core issue we need to fix — and the solution is empathy and authenticity.
What’s Empathy Got To Do With It?
According to Karla McLarne, author of “The Art of Empathy”, empathy is a “social and emotional skill that helps us feel and understand the emotions, circumstances, intentions, thoughts, and needs of others, such that we can offer sensitive, perceptive, and appropriate communication and support”.
As an AD and asthma patient, I can’t stress enough the importance of the right content messaging. After those brutally hot soccer practices in college, I wanted to put a snowsuit on to hide my flare-ups to refrain from itching. Then imagine I open Instagram and see a happy, rashless, well-known celebrity promoting an AD product — someone I’ve never heard speak about this condition before. Celebs have teams of make-up artists to cover any outbreaks, concierge doctors, and not to mention money most people only dream of. I don’t relate to that ad. It doesn’t make me feel good. It is not authentic. I just don’t trust it.
On the contrary, if I saw an ad that had a patient like me talking about their struggles with AD and how they found a product that works for them — that’s something I can relate to. Something that activates my empathy. Something I can trust. Because I know what that feels like.
Why Do People Connect with Authentic Content?
I originally had the title above as “Why Do Patients Connect with Authentic Content?”, but I caught myself. Throughout my own patient journey and working in the healthcare space on both the sales and patient sides, I have learned how important it is to make sure these two terms are congruent. Patients are people; human beings with human emotions. Whether at the doctor’s office or on social media, people want to be treated as humans, not lab rats or money makers.
Fractl, a content marketing agency, studied 345 of their campaigns and found that emotional, empathetic content drives better results. “Campaigns that received more than 20,000 social shares were eight times more likely to include a strong emotional hook than campaigns that received fewer than 1,000 shares.” The study also found that ads promoting positive feelings are the most successful. Think about it this way – if you’re happy and excited, you tend to want to share that feeling. The feeling resonates, and you want others to feel that, too. This is where empathy comes into play.
According to behavioral scientist, Susan Weiinshneck, Ph.D, all decisions are based on emotions. “You should just assume that all decisions involve emotions. Rather than just making logical arguments to persuade, you are more likely to persuade people to take action if you understand how they are feeling about the decision and feed their feeling.”
For example, if Suzie, a breast cancer patient, feels insecure after having a mastectomy then sees an ad with messaging encouraging her to feel secure and embrace her “new beautiful,” the empathetic messaging resonates and she is more likely to be interested in the product or service.
MM+M reported earlier this year that 42% of healthcare marketers increased social media ad spend targeting consumers. If marketers want a more significant ROI on their increasing budgets, empathetic and authentic messaging is an imperative.
According to the study, How Many Ads Do We See a Day in 2020?, “the average person is now estimated to encounter between 6,000 to 10,000 ads every single day.” That is an insane amount of content.
As if, collectively, our mental health isn’t already in jeopardy as a result of COVID-19, we are also overstimulated with ads competing for our attention and our dollar. From a mental health perspective, empathy in advertising would provide some relief to help with feelings of aloneness. From a strategic standpoint, empathetic advertising is more likely to catch our eyes, impact our decisions, and ultimately earn that dollar.
Jonah Berger, renowned social influence expert and Wharton school professor, has researched this topic in great depth. According to Berger, “In order to stand out, you’ve got to give people unique content, which is difficult to do when most people are turned off by traditional ads.” Emotional marketing and empathy in advertising is demonstrably not the norm and a way for brands to stand out.
How to Emotionally Support Your Content
I wish I had a secret sauce or magical plan to accomplish this, but the answer is relatively simple: care and make it clear. Genuinely care about the target audience. Show empathy in your content. What do they need? How can you help? What can you do for them?
Emotional marketing is the tactic to accomplish this. Hubspot defines emotional marketing as, “marketing and advertising efforts that primarily use emotion to make your audience notice, remember, share, and buy. Emotional marketing typically taps into a singular emotion, like happiness, sadness, anger, or fear, to elicit a consumer response.”
Jonah Berger outlines how emotional marketing works using the acronym STEPPS. STEPPS, broken down at a basic level, looks like this:
• Social Currency- as discussed above, if people see things they like, they want to share. They want to look and feel valued and knowledgeable to those around them.
• Triggers – the factors reminding patients to think about your product.
• Emotion – human decision is driven by emotions, and people “are connected to feelings rather than function”
• Public eye – make sure ads are being seen often, and to the right audience
• Practical Value – connect emotionally with patients, but also be sure the product is valuable enough to talk about
• Stories – humans connect with humans through many outlets, but stories are extraordinarily personal and able to truly connect us with each other and with a product
Remember the experience I shared in the beginning about an ad I saw that rubbed me the wrong way? That is a prime example of where emotional marketing was missed entirely.
So, what does an emotional marketing content piece look like? Let’s look at the 2018 Pharma Choice Professional Campaign Bronze Winner Biolumina and Novartis Pharmaceuticals. Their campaign for Kisqali nailed it.
Social Currency – Everyone wants to feel confident, beautiful and accepted. This ad for a brand for a rare breast cancer condition shows that these women are still beautiful.
Triggers – The unusual personification of chinaware and blue flowers triggers a powerful visual sensory reaction associated with Kisqali.
Emotion – Fragility, hope, and empathy are portrayed.
Public eye – The content placement was spot on.
Practical Value – Talks about “what does she need?” It makes women feel heard and cared for.
Stories – Without literally telling a story, there is still a compelling one here. The woman’s broken pieces are beautiful.
Hats off to you, Kisqali. This is an excellent example of touching on all the STEPPS for emotional advertising.
So where should healthcare marketers start? Working directly with patients to gather insights is the best way to understand their needs. From there, co-creating content with patients ensures the message hits the mark, and it’s also being relayed by an authentic voice that your target consumer trusts and relates to. According to WEGO Health behavioral intent survey data, nearly 9 in 10 patients would ask their doctor about a medication or treatment if they saw another patient talking about it online. For pharma and healthcare marketers, working directly with patients is the best way to ensure both the message and the method of communication will resonate with your brand’s target audience, therefore increasing the likelihood of consumer action.
Scratch the Itch
If you have AD, don’t take that advice literally…because, ouch! But for the rest of us, let’s start incorporating human emotion and empathy into advertising content. Research conducted by the Advertising Research Foundation concluded that “likeability” is the measure most predictive of whether an advertisement will increase a brand’s sales.
We know that emotional resonance increases consumer engagement and the likelihood to share. This implies likeability. When consumers can associate likeable content with a brand, it’s a practice in increasing brand trust, as well. When consumers like and trust a brand, they continue to engage over time. The key is to tap into empathy. Let’s ask patients what they need and with what they connect.
The next time you start thinking about content, marketing, and advertising, remember first to honor that patients are people – people like me who may sometimes be embarrassed by their AD breakouts, people who can’t relate to celebrities, people who feel human emotions just looking for more authenticity in the world.