10
Nov
09

The Empathy Button

[November 10, 2009]

If your goal is to deliver value to consumers, it stands to reason you have to know who you’re talking to. That’s why market research is highly prized in some quarters—though never more so than when it tells us what we want to hear.

In fact, market research is all-pervasive. Chances are you can’t remember working on a project whose basic premise wasn’t nominally derived from “audience insights.” You began the project believing you knew exactly what buttons to push.

Based on such hard data, why should any appeal to consumers fail? Let’s assume your project delivers real value—whether in the form of tips, advice, a time-saving digest of relevant links or a straight up discount price code.

Let’s also assume you follow “best practices” for design and user experience. You never ask people to read more than 50 words at a time and everything—from the colorful buttons to the diverse array of happy, healthy, wholesomely sexy people and their laughing babies—screams a positivist outlook on life.

So why won’t people respond as projected?

Calculus of Expediency.
I suggest your problem stems from approaching your work with too much science and not enough art. Or should I say, “pseudo-science?”

In the rush to make agency work more accountable to the same abstract cost-benefit ratios that recently ruined the American economy, we’ve created an entire edifice of pantomime science, dedicated to proving that x-approach will yield y-results for z-cost. We had no choice. The alternative was to actually advise clients on how to work with us more efficiently.

Trouble is, while the calculations are nominally based on mathematical modeling, first developed for engineering and later applied to economics, the variables they purport to measure are human behaviors.

Art of Empathy.
Navigate society with mathematical logic? Can’t be done. Modern social conventions —which coexist with traditions from other eras and cultures, with myth, mental illness and wishful thinking—are anything but logical. You’d never think of “measuring the response” of the wedding presents you give or the baby showers you throw. So why believe you can craft effective consumer engagements solely by plugging “data” into statistical schemata?

It’s time we re-root our thinking about human nature into its native soil. Start by looking in the mirror and realizing you’re an integral part of the behaviors you analyze. Instead of mistrusting your innate understanding of human behavior in favor of pseudo-science, remember:

Market research is only a lens. It can only apprise us of trends or alert us to possible tipping points. Following its tenets without regard to your own on-the-ground experience is like making a scale model of the Chrysler building out of Legos®—and calling it “New York.”


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Mark Laporta

Writer, Creative Consultant
New York, NY

m.laporta@verizon.net
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