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February 23

Empathic Storytelling: Identifying Appropriate Content for Your Audience

Blog

by | Feb 23, 2023 | Branding, Featured, Podcast

While it is a challenging thing to do, empathic storytelling is worth every effort as it elevates your education brand in the minds of your target audiences. 

In higher ed marketing, it can be a struggle to understand who our target audience is and what their needs are.

Honestly, this is the crux of the entire marketing enterprise you and I do every day. 

If you can understand your audience, your messages will hit the mark.

But if you don’t, no amount of award-winning design or copy will be able to lift your results off the ground.

Powerful marketing means pausing and stepping back to make space so we can meet our audiences where they are through empathic storytelling.

Cutler Andrews, Senior Associate Vice President for Engagement, Communications, and Marketing at Emory University, shares how his team elevates Emory’s brand through impactful content.

Finding Time for Empathic Storytelling

When you think about all the marketing and communications needs of the multiple departments of your college or university, there is a lot of content you must produce every week.

While creating that much content is definitely hard, the most difficult part is producing content at that volume while also keeping it all digestible for your target audience. 

In other words, it has to be intriguing, educational, or entertaining in order to grab their attention and create a connection with your brand.  

When I think about content, I think about it in a broad sense. I think about the events we do as content. The annual giving letter or social media posts—it’s all content. 

For us, we start from the perspective of the audience. 

We’re trying to empathize with the audience and understand them outside of the context of Emory. [The important question is:] What’s important to them?

A trap in our industry is to think that their institution—their alma mater—is the most important thing in their lives. It’s just not. Sorry! 

There are a lot of other things we have to be cognizant of when we build that content out. We have to understand what channels they’re using and what their interests are. 

We have to make sure we’re meeting them where they’re at. There are certain things we want to talk about, but it doesn’t mean they want to hear it.

I have to somehow get them interested in certain things. It’s a negotiation [using] what is going to garner their attention to get them to hear the other things we want to talk about. 

Understanding that our institutions are not the most important thing to our audiences is easier said than done. 

Because to us, our institutions are the most important thing. I mean, our institutions are the only reason that we are there everyday making the content. 

So what does Cutler and his team do to make it all work?

Tools for Empathic Storytelling

We constantly look at it. We challenge ourselves [in regard to the] channels we use, the length of our content, and the messages that we do [to gauge audience response].

Also, we use analytics on the front end to build out the strategy. Then we also use pretty significant reporting and analysis on the back end to understand what was effective or not. 

These are tools you’re probably already familiar with on the technical side of things.

But don’t just think of data in terms of metrics. See your data as a tool you can use to improve your relationships with your audience, to be more empathetic in your storytelling. 

A part of [empathic storytelling] is going out and just talking to people. Qualitative and quantitative data are critically important.

I was traveling this week, visiting alumni and some of our volunteer leaders up in New York. 

It was a really good reminder (as somebody who sits back here in the office a lot as a marketer and a communicator) of the need and value of actually being out on the field. 

Oftentimes, what we do is look at data, analytics, click throughs, and open rates, and we analyze it from that standpoint. 

But to actually sit down with somebody who’s receiving your content, who’s experiencing it from that standpoint [is incredibly valuable]. 

It was extremely eye opening this week to be able to do that to talk through [with our alumni].

What does Emory feel like and look like to you from a marketing communication standpoint? What are the things we can do better?

To be willing to actually listen and to make those changes reminds me that I need to do it more and not sit behind the screen [so much]. 

Communication and marketing go two ways. 

If we don’t have the mechanism for feedback, we’re not going to be able to build value and make the changes that we need to make.

Leveraging Personas for Empathetic Storytelling

Marketing personas are the practical area where we as marketers can think through the needs, desires, and goals our audiences have.

The major challenge with personas is that there is more than one.

It’s much easier to think through how a certain person or group feels about a particular subject. 

But it’s a much more difficult prospect when you’ve got multiple personas at different stages of life, social, and economic backgrounds to think about. 

In our conversation, Cutler shared how he and his team at Emory approach this complicated part of education marketing.

First, they did surveys and ran some focus groups. 

From the data they collected, they built out seven marketing personas.

Then, they assigned a percentage to each of their marketing personas to help guide the amount of content they create for each persona.

Percentages are just a tool. They are not the end-all-be-all to this.

We had to take that persona data and overlay it with school data and then action data. (How are they interacting with us?) 

Where the percentages have been valuable is in slowing us down. 

There’s a quote from [the Disney-Pixar movie] Cars that “Sometimes you have to slow down to speed up.” 

That is a struggle for us because of the amount of content we have to produce. We have deadlines for everything. 

But I have to get to that point and take extra time on the front end to really empathize with the audience and think through this persona. 

[Empathizing with your audience] is the easiest phase to skip because we just want to go right to design or to writing based on what we know. 

So that’s where [personas and empathetic storytelling] has been the most valuable tool for us. 

It [makes us take] a moment to pause and think, to kind of challenge our own assumptions.

The work of empathetic storytelling starts with taking the time to listen to your audience. 

Once you have spent some time with them, the next step is taking those data points and distilling them into marketing personas. 

Then, use those marketing personas to challenge your assumptions on how your audience feels about your education brand. 

See how it changes your approach to the messaging you’re crafting. It really changes everything.

Discover more when you listen to the podcast!

Like all of our blog post reviews of The Higher Ed Marketer podcasts, there’s so much more to learn in the podcasts themselves.

Listen to our interview with Cutler Andrews to get even more insights into:

  • Making digestible marketing content for your target audience (3:37)
  • Redirecting focus to alumni affinity groups (19:20)
  • Challenging assumptions and engaging communities through DEI (27:03)


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In short, you’ll be able to write the copy that makes your digital marketing strategy work for you. Download your copy today!

Featured image via emory.edu

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