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A systematic approach to marketing with empathy

June 20, 2018

Last month, I wrote that I’m doing a complete re-write of Gather the People (rather than a heavy edit). Since then, as I’ve worked with the clients who will be sharing their triumphs and failures in the new edition, I’ve realized that the philosophies in the first edition are truly only half the story. 

I spent the first 6 years of my career doing the “find a need and fill it” thing. I was successful at it. I built a small team that served a hundred web design clients a year in a highly systematic, profitable way. But I was exhausted, and my work didn’t mean anything to me. I felt like a sell-out. 

Gather the People was my rebellion against that earlier version of me. Instead of “find a need and fill it”, it’s “find out what you need and bring other people along with you.” I wrote it 4 years into shifting gears and making several costly false starts in that direction. It ended up being the thing that stuck, and my work on those philosophies led to my current role as partner and chief of strategy at &yet.

The hard thing about a philosophy that starts with ourselves is that there are some things you really really want to do/make/offer that end up (surprise!) being extremely hard to sell. Technically, you can do it, but it’s like pushing a boulder uphill. Eventually, no matter how much you love that boulder, it’s going to exhaust you and your resources. You’ll find yourself wishing for a boring, meaningless business that makes money and doesn’t take every drop of your energy to make it work.

As with most things in life, the real growth happens when we learn to integrate the two perspectives. It isn’t either/or. It’s both/and.

What does this have to do with empathy?

Having a deep understanding of ourselves helps us avoid meaningless work. Having a deep understanding of others helps us avoid doing work that might mean something to us, but that bleeds us out in an effort to sell it. 

Empathy really is everything when it comes to both product development and business development, and there’s no shortcut to…umm…developing it. Knowing who we are and what we want and need is hard enough. Knowing who someone else is and what they want and need feels next to impossible.

My frustration with most approaches to reaching that “ideal customer” is that they not only feel disingenuous, but they’re based on guesses and false assumptions and do little to help us get to the truth. And carefully research-based tactics rarely get to the heart of things. Even the most self-aware of us barely have enough self-knowledge to articulate our wants and needs to a friend, much less a researcher (or, more likely, an online form) we’ve never met.

I’m reading a book called The Art of Gathering by Priya Parker. On the surface, it’s a handbook for planning memorable events and meetings. But underneath, Priya explores how to understand people and design experiences that allow them to show up as strangers but leave connected more fully to themselves and the people around them.

I’m so inspired by her approach that I’m trying it out on our internal work at &yet and with clients. I want to know if I can design a system that allows us to empathize with both ourselves and the people we do our work for. I believe it will help us make better decisions about what to offer, who to offer it to, how to position it, how to talk about it, how to sell it, how to scale it, and how to be happy and fulfilled while we do it.

I don’t want much, do I?

Anyway, I have a request that will help me experiment with this. Are you (or do you know someone) who:

  • Works at a SaaS company that has an API?
  • Works at an enterprise company that uses a SaaS product?
  • Works at a design agency whose devs use React?
  • Works in the video game industry making story-based games?
  • Works for an editorial publication that commissions illustrations?

If you are, would you be up for a conversation? (These are all specific types of customers for products/services I’m helping create strategy for.) In return, we can also talk about anything you want. :)


P.S. Oh yeah! My friend Tara Gentile had me on the What Works podcast recently. I haven’t had the nerve to listen to it, but a friend of mine says it’s “So good!” (Thank you, Guan.) :)