How The Digital Age Is Killing Empathy And What Marketers Can Do About It

If you haven’t read Sherry Turkle’s remarkable column in the New York Times, Stop Googling. Let’s Talk., read it now! It’s an essay adapted from her recent book, “Reclaiming Conversation In The Digital Age,” that’s critically important and timely.

A specialist in the psychology of online connectivity, Turkle’s focus for the past five years has been, “What has happened to face-to-face conversation in a world where so many people would rather text than talk?”

Her findings are alarming.

We already know that our smart phones are are addictive and distracting. Our devices connect us to others and the world at large, but can be isolating as well.  Not only is texting no substitute for real conversation, but the mere presence of a phone on the dinner table, at home or in a restaurant, is proven to dramatically reduce the odds that a conversation will ever transcend the superficial.

Turkle describes the “sense of loss” posed by texting and chronic phone checking. Specifically, she cites an effort at the University of Michigan that “put together the finding of 72 studies that were conducted over a 30-year period. They found a 40 percent decline in empathy among college students, with most of the decline taking place after 2000.”

This was thought to correlate directly to the rise of smart phone technology.

“Across generations, technology is implicated in this assault on empathy. We’ve gotten used to being connected all the time, but we have found ways around conversation — at least from conversation that is open-ended and spontaneous, in which we play with ideas and allow ourselves to be fully present and vulnerable. But it is in this type of conversation — where we learn to make eye contact, to become aware of another person’s posture and tone, to comfort one another and respectfully challenge one another — that empathy and intimacy flourish. In these conversations, we learn who we are.”

The preceding quote could just have well been about the marketing process. It seems that Big Data may be the empathy-killing, marketing equivalent to texting.

For where are the real conversations now taking place between consumers and brands? Certainly not in data mining, clicks, Internet surveys or other forms of Big Data. And not in social media. Those are text-like quips, not conversations.

And where are the real conversations taking place in marketing departments? In most enterprise-sized companies, simply making it to the next level or getting that next assignment often holds a strong priority over challenging the status quo in the search of true innovation. This puts a premium on process and conformity rather than the deep, soul searching conversations required to affect meaningful change. And better to quote “facts” than having an opinion or even pretending to rely on instinct. Better to get down in the weeds and project a mastery of detail rather than taking a strong stand on a vision for the future.

In the time of Big Data, we seem to confuse data with knowledge just as we confuse digital connections with authentic human relationships.  While we should indeed strive to make sound business decisions based on the facts, facts can only get us so far.

For one thing, facts are about the past. Forget about the future – they’re barely about the present. And speaking of the future, facts are seldom inspirational in a marketing context. Think about any great brand. Were the original visions of Coca-Cola, Google, Starbucks, Apple or Jack Daniel’s, driven by data? Absolutely not. They were singular inspirations from passionate people who saw a different way of doing things.

Marketing is, above all, a human behavior based on empathy, the ability to feel the customer’s pain, understand her aspirations and provide ways to make her life better. Facts gleaned from sound quantitative research are certainly capable of identifying consumer pain points and desires, but are the nature of the interactions behind those facts – Internet surveys for the most part – simply “ways around (real) conversation?”

As posited many years ago in the book “Megatrends,” the more high tech our society becomes the more we will need high touch. Data is wonderful, as is automation. But they are not realistic alternatives to live, meaningful interactions between real human beings.

Marketers should be out talking to existing and potential customers, face-to-face, on a regular basis. In Turkle’s words, these should be “open-ended and spontaneous (conversations), in which we (can) play with ideas and allow (our customers) to be fully present and vulnerable. (For it is) this type of conversation…that (allow) empathy and intimacy (to) flourish.”

Want to know how someone really feels? Ask them. In person. Have lunch or drinks with your colleagues. Go on a road trip to talk to consumers, retailers and other business partners.

When you talk to consumers, don’t limit interactions to Internet surveys where they are very likely multi-tasking and not fully invested in the task at hand. Talk to them in their homes, in research facilities or at the point-of-sale. Individually or in groups. Don’t be afraid to inject some challenge and discomfort into this process. Push well beyond the obvious to reveal true emotions rather than their marketing opinions or glib observations.

Inspirations are not linear in nature. They come from the give and take of conversation and human experience. I’m sure there are times in my career when I felt inspired by a piece of quantitative research or the revelation of new data. I honestly just can’t remember. What I do recall are those “aha moments” in great conversations with colleagues and research respondents. Almost always, these were spontaneous, “unscripted” ideas and insights. One thing led to another in ways that might make sense in hindsight, but were fresh and revealing in the moment. And inspirational enough to turn ideas into business building actions.

As the late, great, Yogi Berra said, “you can observe a lot just by watching.” But you’ve got to be physically present to truly observe. It’s not just what people say, it’s how they say it. Their body language and tone of voice can be far more revealing than words alone. It’s also about how we take it all in. Reading reports about how much consumers like a new product or why they think the service you provide is lacking simply just isn’t the same than hearing it for yourself.

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