The psychology of content

Updated: Feb 21

Ineffective positioning of content can hold back the success of your communications and campaigns. To cut through the noise you’re told to empathize with your customers instead of advertising your products and services. But that seems a bit counterintuitive, right?! Not really, when you think about the psychology driving human behavior.


Empathy plays a large role in content marketing, and today, you can use social data and the science of psychology to create content that connects better with your audience.

Making real connections with consumers digitally is hard!

As a marketer, in the digital world, you’ve got an increasingly difficult job. To reach potential customers there’s more channels, technologies and media to choose from than ever before. Business is a human endeavor, but as customer experiences have become more digital, interactions have become less human. Audience attention is waning and building brand trust with customers has never been harder.


This pressure to create, publish and innovate in a never-ending cycle of content can be exhausting. You’re in an endless dialogue aimed at positioning brands in the hearts and minds of the customer. To grab attention and remain relevant, you’re tasked with connecting the dots between what people think, feel, say, and do, and translating this into stories, content, and exceptional customer experiences.


You’re told that a great customer experience starts with human insights, but these insights can be difficult to get (and act on). When it comes to creating content, success is often held back by ineffective positioning of what drives preferences, choices and behavior among audiences. The trouble is that when analyzing customer preferences, most of the market research is based on claimed data. By asking people what they think about brand communications, whether they remember it and why they do what they do.


Consumers don’t think how they feel, they don’t say what they think, and they don’t do what they say.

This quote by David Ogilvy is just as relevant today as it was when he first said it, many decades ago.


So, how can you interact with someone who can’t communicate what it is that they are looking for or why they behave the way that they do?


It’s true that people can’t often voice their needs, but their non-conscious online interactions can uncover hidden insight into their psyche. How people talk about and engage with content leaves clues as to what is important and subtle indications on their future behaviors. So, let's set out to empathetically connect with our audiences’ true desires - and understanding their underlying psychology.


The psychology of decisions

What was the last piece of content you engaged with online? What was it exactly that made you engage with the content? Forget about a ‘like’ or comment you gave your friend’s latest social post because, well, they’re your friend and you wanted to show face. Think instead about the content from a brand or organization that moved you to take action.


What was so special about that content?


It’s more than likely that there was an emotional connection of some kind because, put simply, people need to ‘feel’ in order to take action. We each make thousands of decisions every day and we don’t go through a process of logical reflection for each one. In actual fact, there’s lots of research that shows the majority of our decisions are made unconsciously and driven by emotions.


In one study, researchers looked a brain activity while people were making a decision, and they could correctly predict what choice people would make 7-10 seconds before they themselves were even aware of making a decision. This means that even when people think they are making a conscious, logical decision, chances are that they aren’t aware that they’ve already made a decision and that it was non- conscious.



All this unconscious thought also affects the content that people engage with, and the bonds that they form around brands or even influencers. In the advertising world, studies have found that campaigns that perform well have a higher emotional appeal (31%) in comparison to a rational rhetoric (16%).


Another Nielsen study found a 23% lift in sales volume by focusing on emotional messages. While rational messages can give an immediate uptake in sales, emotional advertising creates a longer- term success, this has resulted in advice to spread messages to a ratio of 60 emotional and 40 rational.


Emotions should always be hardwired into the fabric of your brand and your content – this requires a good understanding of consumer motivation. Taking this a step further, studies show the emotion of ‘likeability’ is the measure most predictive of whether an advertisement will increase a brand’s sales.


The same can be said for content marketing. So how can we get people to like us?

1. Mirror their behavior

2. Emphasize shared values

3. Be warm and competent

4. See them how they want to be seen

5. Have a sense of humor


Most of all, in your content, they need to see themselves either the real or desired self. The big thing is to get them to imagine what it’s like to be part of your brand.


A secret power you can harness

It’s likely that you already knew this, but it’s important to understand that emotions support decision-making and provide a sense of motivation to make a decision and take appropriate action.

To create better content, build better experiences and make more informed decisions, brands need to put their (emotional) customers at the heart of their business. This is where empathy mapping can be incredibly effective.


What is empathy?

Empathy is awareness of the feelings and emotions of other people. Research shows that empathy helps designers create more unique and innovative products and there’s evidence to suggest that it can help marketers better relate to customers. Empathy is a key element of emotional intelligence, providing the link between the self and others. It is how we as individuals, understand what others are experiencing as if we were feeling it ourselves.


It's important to know that empathy goes far beyond sympathy. Sympathy could be considered ‘feeling for’ someone whereas empathy is ‘feeling with’ that person, often through the use of imagination. Interestingly, the three types of empathy relate nicely to content marketing and social media analysis.


Cognitive empathy is the ability to understand how a person feels and what they might be thinking. Cognitive empathy makes us better communicators, helping us to relate information in a way that best connect with the other person.


Emotional empathy (also known as affective empathy) is the ability to share the feelings of another person. This type of empathy helps you build emotional connections with others.


Compassionate empathy (also known as empathic concern) goes beyond simply understanding others and sharing their feelings. It actually moves you to take action, to help however you can. It is compassionate empathy you use to respond to customers, to create content and develop experiences - but first, you need to understand how they think and feel.

No one cares how much you know, until they know how much you care.

Of course, you’ll likely know that empathy is the route to success, but it’s often easier said than done. Take the creative process, for example. It’s hard enough to create an amazing piece of content that perfectly reflects your brand and your business objectives. Adding a third dimension, your customer, complicates things even further.


It’s so easy to get wrapped up in the message that you’re trying to send, you end up with tunnel-vision and forget that the best marketing isn’t about the brand, it’s about the customer.


Listening to customers and responding to their needs rather than just talking ‘at’ them. This is where social data and Meltwater Social can help you, but you need to make sure you’re analyzing the right data in the right way. We find that a lot of people are still relying on easy-to- access data and, as a result, are heading down the wrong path.


Why you’re probably using the wrong social data in your content strategy

Research has shown that 81% of people use social data for content ideation purposes. Maybe you’re one of these people. While it’s great that you have a desire to create content that resonates with audiences but, if you’re spending too much time on social trend data to inspire content creation, that’s a dangerous place to be.


It’s really tempting to borrow value and relevance from what’s happening in the world. You know that people are talking about and engaged with this content which could help to boost your numbers - but at what cost? Jumping into the latest trending topic rather than taking the time to build your brand and what it stands for means that brands are getting lost in the sea of digital noise.


Even so, there’s still a few reasons why trends insights are so appealing.


What’s the easiest data to get when analyzing social data? The areas where the largest conversation is happening – trends. The solutions we use to analyze social data can lead us in a direction with easily available insight.


The availability heuristic is a mental shortcut that people use, it relies on immediate examples that come to mind when exploring concepts. In social data analysis, the availability heuristic is generally the auto- generated analysis. Just because that data is easily available doesn’t mean that it’s the right insight to use. Think about it, everyone will be using the same data which can lead to the same thinking, and a lack of content differentiation. The desire to hit current trends can misshape your brand to fit what’s happening in a given moment.


Generally speaking, as humans we want things now rather than later – we seek immediate gratification. This means we have a strong tendency to grab smaller, immediate rewards and skip the larger but delayed reward. Social media is causing the same to happen in marketing – short term needs (likes and clicks) over long term objectives.


The ability to track click through rates, likes, comments and shares and reporting these results is killing what really matters – brand value and customer lifetime value. If you’re only chasing the latest trends, you’re trading culture and short-term metrics which leads to short- term customers.


There’s so much pressure for brands to act and be perceived as “culturally relevant”. We live in world at the whim of the latest trends, where good creative ideas have become disposable. But just because something is trending doesn’t mean you should be engaging in that topic if it doesn’t make sense for your brand to be there.


Your brand values and principles should dictate where, when and how you speak about different topics and trends. Don’t forget about the power of ideas to sustain long-term effects.


How to get it right

To prioritize building brand equity instead of short-term gain with online content, think about three things.


1. Relevance: what does your brand stand for, what’s your brand values? You also need to think about the common associations to your brand, so the pattern fits when your customer is scanning content.

2. Empathy: what is the customer thinking and feeling, what are they trying to achieve and what is stopping them?

3. Creative: how can you tell this story in a way that inspires action and creates an emotional relationship?


It’s one thing to know the topics and emotions that will create an empathetic bond with your customer, it’s another to frame the messages and content effectively. In the next section, we’ll take a look at storytelling in the digital age.


Why it’s time to prioritize storytelling

Today, most brands claim to put customers at the center of their thinking. As a result, brands have started to become content producers in order to pull in relevant and interested audiences. Luckily, people are hungry for good content – after all, it’s why you’re here today.


This strategy makes a lot of sense - brands have lots of information to share, ways to inspire, and value to add. However, many brands struggle to stand out online and build long term relationships. More often than not, this failure is due to their approach to ‘content framing’ – how they present and share their narrative.


It’s natural that brands want to be the central character of their story, but this can be a mistake. Great content is often about getting inside the world of the consumer and becoming part of it. Unfortunately, even with access to unprecedented amounts of social data, giving you previously unquantifiable insights from actual people, it’s still incredibly difficult to translate these insights into creative ideas.


The trouble is, as brands strive to differentiate themselves, they often default to an analytical process of messaging and a literal interpretation of data-driven insights - they forget the art of storytelling.


To make matters worse, in the algorithmic era, storytelling has become a slave to the machine, with over-edited, clinical wording of each message component to optimize for the performance of the algorithm instead of the human mind.


This is flawed thinking.


Throughout time, information has been handed down as stories. Good stories are the essence of society, of your work, social interactions, and the essential foundation of entertainment. As humans, we’re all excited by stories, they frame the way we view the world and provide a foundation for connection.


It’s no coincidence that the best leaders and brands are amazing storytellers. In a world of noise, information overload, hype, and misinformation, stories can cut through to get your message across, and influence people.


As a content creator, you have the unique ability and responsibility to create good brand stories. The trouble with social content is that there is a tendency to look at each piece of content as an individual narrative instead of thinking about how it fits into the whole jigsaw puzzle of your brand.


To start making empathetic content that focuses on long-term brand building instead of short-term gain, there’s a few things to think about:

  1. Gaining a deep understanding of your audience’s needs, wants, desires, concerns and barriers to action before defining your empathetic content approach.

  2. Considering teaching and inspiring to others to do good.

  3. Using emotion - nostalgia, group thinking, strong relationships, fear and triumph work well.

  4. Having a goal in mind but not more than one, and don’t preach. No one want to hear that!

  5. Allowing your audience to draw their own conclusions. You don’t need to ask for a sale or have a cheesy call to action in every piece of content.

  6. Focusing on the positive associations your brand has on their life. Don’t fall prey into discussing negative themes and comparisons to competitors - especially in long form content.

New ways to use empathy

In our exploration of empathy, you found three types of empathy, cognitive, emotional, and compassionate empathy, it is from this understanding of empathy that we can better use social data and content marketing to create an emotional bond with your audiences. The empathetic approach outlined here utilizes both text based and visual data.

You can use all "voice of the customer data" from product reviews, social customer service channels, user generated content, forum content, and other forms of online text and visual "voice of the customer" content. The process is about understanding your audiences' intentions and beliefs through reasoning about the state of mind. Simply, the purpose of following data driven empathetic insights is to make more informed decisions and build better experience by putting your customers at the heart of your brand.


Cognitive Empathy Insights

Cognitive empathy is the ability to understand how a person feels and what they might be thinking. With social data you can uncover lots of conscious and non-conscious thoughts of your target audience. Remember that, with most other market research methods are based on claimed data, by asking people to recall which can lead to a disconnect between thoughts, feelings, behaviors and actions due to self-rationalization. With cognitive empathy you're practicing taking the perspective of your audience - you're imagining what it might be like to actually be your audience in their situation all from data generated in organic online conversations.


This can be really powerful as you are removing yourself as the brand. We're all really easily led into drinking our brand "kool-aid" and that can lead us down the wrong path as we're no longer relating to our customers from their perspective. With cognitive empathy, you bring your customer back into focus and give them the leading role in your brand story. For your brand, you can close the gap between your audiences' feelings and perceptions of how to meet those needs, and your own brands ideas about how to meet them.


The purpose of generating insights through cognitive empathy is to understand how to relate information in a way that best reaches the other person. Many brands suffer because they cannot effectively frame their content in a way that is attractive to their audience. Luckily, cognitive empathy makes us better communicators.


Some of the questions to answer to generate cognitive empathy insights are:


  1. What is your audience trying to achieve in consuming your brand?

  2. Why is your audience trying to achieve this?

  3. What motivates your audience to act on their needs?

  4. What is their ideal imagined state with the consumption your brand?

  5. In what location or activity is your brand consumed?

  6. What past experiences gets in the way of your audience making a purchase?

  7. What external factors get in the way of your audience achieving their goals?

  8. What does your brand help your audience portray about their lives or personality?

Emotional Empathy Insights

Emotional empathy is the ability to share the feelings of another person. Emotional empathy is one step further from cognitive empathy, you move from understanding the thinking of your audience to developing a shared emotional experience. John O'Shaughnessy, Columbia University business profession believes that knowing your audiences' emotions can help you "identify an emotional script that goes from the triggering event to the thought to the feeling to the action".


When it comes to social data analysis, it is often difficult to pull anything "human" out of the noise. There is a tendency to dehumanize the insight and reduce the analysis to a bunch of numbers that's supposed to show you the way forward. With emotional empathy analysis you apply a human lens to the analysis of social data. Emotional empathy helps you build emotional connections with others.


Here are the questions to answer to generation emotional empathy insights.


  1. How do your audiences' needs arise; what are they feeling?

  2. How does your audience feel about meeting these needs?

  3. How does your audience want to feel in their lives by consuming your product?

  4. How do they want to feel during consumption of your brand?

  5. How do they want to feel after consumption of your brand?

  6. What inner conflicts stop your customer from moving forward?

  7. What feelings of frustration does your customer feel?

  8. What character, feelings and associations does the consumption of your brand mean to your audience?

Compassionate Empathy Action

Compassionate empathy goes beyond the understanding of cognitive and emotional empathy to taking action - it's your creative response to meeting the needs of your audience and this emerges from understanding both cognitive and emotional empathy.

Empathy is a deeply human phenomenon. It should be used as a tool to humanize your brand with the insights being consistently applied throughout your content creation process (and in any new customer experiences created). Through using the insights to tell a story in your online content, an emotional bridge is creating, linking the views to the brand via the characters in your story.


Empathy has been found to inspire creativity. One study found that designer think more creatively and produce more unique, effective products when their primary focus is to imagine how their potential customers might feel when using the products in question. To use compassionate empathy when creating new content and experiences, you must brief teams in a new way - encouraging them to "feel" what it is like to interact with the brand and content.


Provide teams with the insights generated through cognitive and compassionate empathy, and they can apply a create lens to imagine a new way to engage that places them at the center of the story - and reduces the gap between your audiences' feelings and how your brand approaches meeting them.


Your brand identity should still be present in the aesthetic, design and feel but it should be empathetically connected to your audiences' emotions surrounding the use of your brand in their lives.


Parting thoughts

Even niche and sensitive topics can be researched using social data. Fort example, research undertaken by Listen & Learn Research found that the anxiety and uncertainty people feel about returning to work after a miscarriage is widely discussed on social media but not in the workplace, wider media or wider world.


People turn to social forums, communities and feeds to find a safe place to ask questions about how to cope. To speak honestly about their emotions and fears without feeling “weak”, “a failure” or worrying about others’ reactions.


This research can not only be used by organizational human resources managers but also to support agencies to understand the emotional journey and use this to create empathetic content and experiences.


Now imagine the type of empathetic insights that are waiting for you.


Cover image: Pexels

Additional image: Pexels