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It’s All About Empathy: How to Understand, Influence, and Connect With Customers

Megan Pratt

Principal Product Marketing Manager @ AdRoll

Let’s start with the obvious: human behavior is more than a little mystifying. It would be great if we all made completely rational decisions; unfortunately, that’s not the case. There’s a reason why there are entire fields of study dedicated to understanding the choices that people make — humans are complicated creatures. Whether you call it consumer psychology or behavioral economics, there’s no denying that predicting human behavior is difficult. Even more challenging is making business and marketing decisions that are meant to impact sometimes unpredictable consumer behavior. Fortunately, people are also wired to connect and empathize with each other — a skill that is essential for marketers to develop.

In my career as a marketer, I've been surprised at how undervalued customer empathy is at times. As marketers, we sometimes get distracted by the latest technology, tactics, and metrics (which are, admittedly, exciting!) and forget that the heart of any good marketing campaign is the desire to create connections and tell stories. To do that, you first have to be able to put yourself in the shoes of your customer and ask yourself what they genuinely need to hear from you at each phase of their journey.

In this article, I'll talk you through how to influence action with target audiences and develop mutually beneficial relationships with them.

Who Is Your Audience Anyway?

The first step to empathizing with anyone is to take the time to get to know them. Whether you're meeting someone new or exploring a new target audience, it's important to ask questions, be curious, and find ways to communicate shared values. Chances are, you have a fairly good idea of who your products or services are meant for. Try answering the following questions to test your knowledge:

  • What are the average ages of your customers?
  • Does it skew to a specific gender? 
  • What hobbies might your audience be interested in?
  • Does your audience generally have a certain level of income?
  • What problem is your product solving for your audience?

How did you do? Don’t worry if you couldn’t answer all of them; there are plenty of resources to help you learn what traits your audience has and what motivates them.

Here are a few to get you started:

Website Analytics

Take a quick look at your website analytics, and you’ll notice that you can see everything from where your audience lives, what ages they are, what other interests they have, and overall consumer behavior. Use this to see what your current audience looks like so you can find more people like them.

Social Analytics & Listening

Social media channels aren't just useful tools to distribute information directly to interested customers; they're also a window directly into consumer psychology. You can see what they comment on your posts, the type of content that gets the most engagement, and who is following your page. Beyond that, you can use social listening tools to see what people are saying about your brand, your competition, and your industry.


The best way to get to know your customers better is to ask questions and listen to what they have to say; surveys can help with this. Creating opportunities to get consistent feedback on your brand and products can help guide your messaging, channel, and product development strategies. These surveys don’t have to be extensive — one or two questions are all you need to make a difference.

Even if you already have a good understanding of your audience, using one, two, or all three of these tactics could provide surprising insights. You might be unaware of important markets, product uses, new products, or selling points that could unlock new potential for growth. Understanding consumer behavior and consumer psychology will help you optimize their journey with your product — moving them quickly from consideration to purchase and bringing them back again.

What Do They Want, and When Do They Want It?

Part of understanding what makes customers tick is figuring out what motivates them to move from consideration to making a purchase. Above and beyond that, you need to know how you can influence those decisions. Let's go through each phase of the standard customer journey. Just remember that your customer journey will be custom to your product, the target audience, and even the season. If you're not sure what your customer journey looks like, the best way to get a better understanding is to map it out.


The awareness stage is where brands try to cement themselves in the minds of their customers. Ultimately, this leads to marketers asking themselves interesting behavioral psychology questions. What makes something memorable? What kind of things can marketers do to make those critical first impressions meaningful? The answers are slightly complicated, but thanks to modern research, we know a little bit about what makes a person remember something.

Basically, it boils down to three things: attention, novelty, and emotional impact. So, for someone to retain a specific message, situation, or image, they have to be paying attention, the thing or message has to be new or different, and it has to make them feel something. Let’s break that down into tangible actions that you can take to make your next awareness-focused campaign more memorable:

  • Use visual, eye-catching mediums like video to express your message.
  • Think about the emotion you want your brand to be associated with. Do you want them to laugh? Feel a sense of longing? 
  • Focus your message on what is new, different, or revolutionary about your product or service.
  • Find something unique to say about your product or brand. 
  • Do some research into the mediums, publications, and social media accounts that your audience pays attention to. Consider influencer partnerships, public relations, and thought leadership that will catch their attention.

Making a target audience aware is only the beginning. Turning their awareness into consideration, and that consideration into a purchase, is where it starts to get exciting.


In many ways, consideration is the most convoluted of all of the customer journey phases. There is so much that goes on when a customer is considering a purchase, and much of that is out of your range of control or visibility. However, there are some things you can do to help speed their journey along and improve the rate at which they move from awareness to consideration.

First, since this article is all about understanding customers and why they make decisions, let’s take a little trip into customer psychology. Think about what emotions, needs, or desires are driving them to make a purchase. What obstacles do they need to overcome to make this purchase (price, sorting through the options, a specific event, etc.)? How long does someone generally take to make a purchase decision? What do customers do when they’re considering a purchase from you or a competitor?

Once you have a frame of reference, you can start to draw some conclusions about what a customer might need to go from merely being aware of your brand to considering a purchase.

Let's take a brand that sells fitness equipment for home gyms as an example. When brainstorming, observing customer behavior, and listening on social media, the brand may notice the following about their target audience:

  • They're motivated to become more physically fit (e.g., weight loss or muscle growth).
  • They're on restrictive diets. 
  • They're facing obstacles, such as a wealth of options, limited budget, and lack of available space in their home.
  • They're generally doing at least 30 days of research before purchasing — including searching online, following fitness and nutrition pages on social media, and visiting health and fitness publications online.

In some cases, the journey from awareness to consideration and then to purchase will be almost non-existent, meaning that customers may make purchases as soon as they’re aware of your brand. In other cases, the consideration phase will be longer and require you to stay in touch with customers during the process through email, retargeting, and social media. Generally, the larger the purchase price or, the greater the impact a failed purchase will have on the customer, the longer the consideration phase will last.

The impact of a failed fitness equipment purchase is less than, say, the impact from a failed or less than satisfactory car purchase. It follows, then, that the path to purchase for fitness equipment would probably be shorter than the path to purchase a car.


We touched briefly on the idea that something has to happen for a customer to move from consideration to purchase. The question becomes, what do your customers need to feel comfortable with and excited about buying from you?

This gets us into the reality of behavioral economics, the field that studies how individuals make economic decisions. Behavioral economists aim to figure out why people make financial decisions like purchasing product x instead of product y or how they justify buying a $5 cup of coffee but balk at the idea of spending $5 for shipping.

The good news for marketers is that these studies often give us highly valuable insights and tactics we can use to sway people and overcome objections. The tactics below are a few of the classics.


One way to encourage people to stop deliberating and complete their purchase is by creating a sense of urgency. This has to do with the theory that when we feel we have less time to make a decision, our brain switches from a “thinking” mode to a “doing” mode. Limited time offers and flash sales are both examples of urgency.

As with all methods of persuasion, this one is best used strategically. If you don’t, you risk teaching customers to only act when you introduce urgency, or, even worse, losing trust in your brand because they feel excessive pressure.


One way to reduce the friction that can arise during the purchase process is to personalize ads, emails, and the website experience to include what you know about the individual person. This could include recommending products like the ones they’ve viewed or purchased or letting them know when it’s time to buy again.

Social Proof

You can fill your marketing channels with content about how great your brand is, but until a customer hears about how great you are from another person, there is a high probability that they won’t believe you. Our brains trust people who we perceive as our peers much more readily than we believe brand messages. Social proof can include working with influencers, soliciting and promoting testimonials, or displaying recent purchase information (e.g., Joe from Ohio bought this product 10 minutes ago).

Nudge Theory

This theory of behavioral psychology posits that by offering positive reinforcement and indirect suggestions, we can influence customer behavior. Think of things like automatically checking the “please send me email updates” button at purchase, notifications that include urgency (this product has limited stock!), social proof (100 people have purchased this product), abandoned cart emails, and so on.

Customers who purchase are indicating that they trust you enough to provide them a quality product in a timely manner. This is a critical time to build the customer/brand relationship by proving that your brand, products, and services live up to the promises made by your marketing. It’s a big determining factor in how many clients will move to the next phase of their journey.


A customer has made their first purchase with you, now what? If you give enough thought to your retention strategy, this could be the beginning of a long and mutually beneficial relationship.

A good retention strategy takes into account that just because a customer purchases from you once, doesn't mean they'll do so again. The market is too noisy, and customers can all-too-easily be wooed away by your competitors. Customers are more likely to continue to engage with you if you:

  • Use channels like email and social media to connect with them and stay top of mind.
  • Nudge them to purchase again or purchase other products that complement the one they purchased before.
  • Deepen their connection to your brand with helpful, compelling content.
  • Provide them with an excellent product experience and satisfying customer service experience.

It’s more expensive to get a new customer than it is to keep and nurture your current and previous clients. Investing in long-term relationships with your clients will increase your customer lifetime value (CLV) and decrease the costs associated with acquiring new customers.


In the perfect scenario, a customer will speak glowingly about your products and overall experience to others in their network. We've been sharing tips, tricks, and ideas with each other since the dawn of time, and it's only amplified by our ability to reach hundreds on social media. While you don't have much control over if your customer chooses to share your brand with other potential customers, there are some things you can do to influence them and improve the likelihood that they will:

  • Incentivize them to share your brand in exchange for a percentage off their next order or a free product.
  • Make it easy for them to tell people about you by including social share buttons on your website and in emails.
  • Consistently produce shareable content, such as videos and blog posts.
  • Provide each customer with the type of positive experiences that are worth sharing. 
  • Go above and beyond to make your packaging, product, and experience "Insta-worthy," so your clients will hardly be able to resist sharing their excitement with their friends.

Turning your best customers into your best advocates gives you a wider reach, allows you to decrease your overall cost per acquisition (CPA), and helps you more quickly convert new, like-minded audiences.


Much like the song at the end of the beloved '90s kids TV show, Lamb Chop, this is a "song that never ends." Once a customer becomes a brand advocate, they inherently begin a new journey with you. This gives you the ability to bring customers through the cycle again as you roll-out new products — leading to repeat business and a deepening of the customer/brand relationship.


Customers don’t want to feel manipulated, but they do want to feel like a brand understands their needs and wants to serve them. A strategy based on behavioral psychology and customer empathy will help you communicate your unique value, influence consumer behavior at every phase of the customer journey, and create long-lasting customer/brand relationships.

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