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Millions of people around the world use navigation apps such as Google, Apple, and Waze to find their way around. For years, those apps have used aerial imagery and other data to give directions. Now, they also provide real-time updates about traffic jams, accidents, police speed checks, and other road conditions.

Such a dynamic updating capability to reflect what is happening in real-time should apply to another kind of map, too: the empathy maps that marketers use to better understand groups of customers or users.

Empathy isn't a static concept but a twisting road that keeps changing with all the surprises the world throws at us. Marketers who want to build an emotional connection for their products, services, or content must be acutely aware of every curve and speed bump in the customer journey.

An empathy map is of little use unless it reflects a continually changing landscape.

What Is an Empathy Map?

Empathy maps, like navigation apps, are a 21st century creation. In 2010, entrepreneur Dave Gray pioneered the empathy map construct with the publication of his book Gamestorming.

The book uses a quadrant system—containing insights about what people say, think, feel, and do—to look inside customers' heads and hearts for insights about their motivations, needs, desires, dislikes, fears, and frustrations.

Ever since, empathy maps have become a go-to tactic for marketers because they offer an excellent way to see past superficialities and gain the sort of rich, authentic insights needed to not only deliver but also anticipate delightful customer experiences.

When combined with data and other customer journey mapping, says Nielsen Norman Group, a leading expert on the topic, empathy maps "remove bias from our designs and align the team on a single, shared understanding of the user, discover weaknesses in our research, uncover user needs that the user themselves may not even be aware of, understand what drives users' behaviors, and guide us towards meaningful innovation."

What's Changed in Empathy Mapping

The basic empathy map process has changed little since its inception: Marketers set out to capture what customers say (what they express out loud in an interview or some other study), think (what's on their mind throughout the product experience), do (what specific actions they take), and feel (what their emotional state is).

What does keep changing are the factors marketers need to be empathetic about—that is, the important trends and patterns in buyer behavior marketers must be keenly sensitive to if they want to visualize what it's like to walk in a customer's shoes.

Ten years ago, those factors might have revolved mainly around values such as product quality, price, usefulness, delivery time, customer support, etc. Today, consumers with high expectations and unprecedented choices are likely to judge companies on those and many other attributes—from whether they feel the company truly cares about them to what the business's stance is on environmental issues.

The pandemic, of course, dramatically amplified the need for businesses to lead with empathy in everything they do. It transformed empathy from a platitude to the determining factor in whether a company is considered not only customer-centric but also an excellent employer and a solid corporate citizen.

COVID-19 also accelerated digitization and shifted more of our buying experiences (and much of the rest of our lives) online. That put a heavier burden on marketers to create the same value and connectedness on a website or app that used to happen in real life.

When performing empathy mapping, marketers must acknowledge that the pandemic changed the world forever, and they need to investigate how any lingering psychological effects play out in what customers say, think, feel, and do.

Economic turmoil is also changing customer behavior and further intensifying the need to empathize with what's happening in customers' lives and how that may affect their interactions with businesses. The double whammy of a pandemic and economic uncertainty is raising the bar on marketers' need to know what it's like to walk in their customers' shoes.

A third factor altering the concept of empathy is increasing governmental action that amounts to an empathy mandate. In December 2021, for example, President Biden signed an executive order calling on federal agencies to transform everyday users' online experience.

"Every interaction between the Federal Government and the public, whether it involves renewing a passport or calling for a status update on a farm loan application, should be seen as an opportunity for the Government to save an individual's time...and to deliver the level of service that the public expects and deserves," the order said.

Beyond its specific significance for federal vendors, Biden's order sends a broader signal to society that customer experiences matter and that organizations have a responsibility to prioritize them.

In the United Kingdom, the governmental Financial Conduct Authority's new Consumer Duty rules—to be implemented by July 31—set "higher and clearer standards of consumer protection across financial services, and requires firms to put their customers' needs first."

The regulations require financial services companies to deliver good outcomes for consumers through customer understanding, design of products and services, price and value, and support.

Everything I've described magnifies marketers' obligation to think of empathy maps as ongoing, dynamic, and ever-evolving—a living, breathing entity.

More real-time navigation app; less paper atlas.

Where to Go From Here

So, what can companies do to bolster their empathy-mapping strategy?

Updating customer personas more often than just once annually is a good place to start. In a rapidly evolving market, quarterly updates enable teams to quickly spot trends and changes so they can pivot accordingly.

Remote synthesis using a virtual whiteboard is an efficient way to create effective empathy maps—sometimes even more efficient than doing the work in person. It allows companies to review customer data and use sticky notes as a means of surfacing feedback from people who might be quieter in in-person settings.

It has never been more critical for companies to up their empathy mapping game. Customers often experience brands very differently than the brands themselves think they do. By listening to real insights and creating a representation of those thoughts and feelings, businesses can get closer to their customers' reality and drive brand loyalty.

More Resources on Empathy Mapping and Empathy in Marketing

Empathy Mapping for Marketing Content: What It Is and How to Do It Well

Putting Heart Into Your Business: 'Heartificial Empathy' Author Minter Dial on Marketing Smarts [Podcast]

How to Use Empathy in Your B2B Brand Storytelling

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image of Michelle Huff

Michelle Huff is the CMO at UserTesting, a video-based human insights platform.

LinkedIn: Michelle Huff