Although the quality of public discourse might sometimes suggest otherwise, in business, empathy is on the up.

Harvard Business Review published almost 25 times more articles containing “empathy” between 2010 and 2020 (651 articles per decade) than it did between 1960 and 2000 (26.5 articles per decade).

What is empathy? Researchers tend to use a two-pronged definition:

  • the ability to sense other people's emotions.
  • the ability to imagine what someone else might be thinking or feeling.

You read my mind

But empathy’s importance isn’t limited to interpersonal relationships.

Empathy is commonly recognised today as a necessary aspect of organisational openness. In other words, “empathy” is good for business.

And cultivating empathy is critical for any advertiser who hopes to resonate with an audience.

For generations, creatives have attempted to imagine what someone else might be thinking or feeling. That has long been achieved through crafty creative copywriting, for example.

Modern technology even promises to make empathy literal. In October 2018, Amazon was granted a patent for technology that would identify a user’s physical and emotional state, in order to serve appropriate adverts for products and services.

One example depicted Amazon Echo’s Alexa recognising that a person is coughing and sniffing, before offering a chicken soup recipe, cough drops delivered within an hour and, ultimately, get-well-soon wishes. That’s electronic empathy.

News UK’s commercial ambition - to make brands matter through emotional connection - does not attempt to second-guess the audience’s emotional state with quite the same degree of bed-side intimacy.

But we do help ensure audience resonance can be achieved through both content and connectivity.

1. Journalism employs empathy

To understand why this work is important, let’s refer to the concept of Theory Of Mind.

Whilst empathy is the ability to share an emotional state with others, Theory Of Mind is the ability to interpret people’s mental states, such as beliefs, intents, desires, emotions and knowledge. Theory Of Mind is, therefore, necessary to understanding that others have perspectives different from one's own.

Both empathy and Theory Of Mind are developed in our early years, and their complex application is learned over time.

By the time they are filing stories, journalists are highly skilled at practically applying these theories - whether they know the underlying psychology lingo and processes or not.

An exemplar would be the Sunday Times insights team’s 2020 exclusive story revealing how a triage system was adopted for the segmentation of COVID patients.

The two journalists behind the story, George Arbuthnot and Jonathan Calvert, understood that their audience’s capacity for detailed analysis of the NHS crisis is matched only by their desire for the truth - however painful that truth may be.

Journalists may not know exactly how audiences are feeling as they consume content, but they do have an innate sense for how a story will resonate. They are in emotional sync with their audience.

2. Digital empathy

There has never been a more opportune moment to connect with audiences’ emotions.

The nation’s appreciation of journalism increased significantly during the coronavirus pandemic, according to World Without News, a research exercise. At times of high arousal, then, people are attentive to new messaging.

Newsbrands can play a role both in piquing an interest and maintaining that attention, while software provides the signals for making empathetic media buys.

Nucleus, News UK’s advertising data platform, doesn’t only allow for targeting against our known, first-party audience data set or contextual cues about our content. It also offers up emotional resonance as a targetable criterion.

We are applying scientific rigour to understand how our content makes people feel. This enables us to build segments of emotional context data that advertisers can leverage.

Where editorial staff bring an empathy for readers to everything they do, our technology provides an additional layer of audience understanding, by systematising the interpretation of readers’ minds and making it available for execution against.

Scaled understanding

We have seen that connecting with modern consumers requires really understanding their motivations, hopes and desires.

Research we conducted with LSE showed how, when the emotional state of an ad is congruent with the emotional state of the article, the impact on advertising interaction is even greater.

For small businesses like corner shops and cafes, developing that close customer relationship is straightforward enough.

For the bigger ones, however, mechanisms for achieving empathy at scale mean resonance is not out of reach.