From Manipulation to Empathy: Effective Content Marketing

Here’s a simple content marketing metaphor for you: your target audience is made up entirely of people running a race.

As the sales or marketing copywriter, you’re like a track coach. Your job is to personalize your message to motivate each “runner.”

Your track team is represented by three personas: Amanda, Betsy and Carman. With the knowledge you have, connect and motivate.


Here is all the data you have access to. The external evidence of how well each is running the race (income level). The faster they are, the more accomplished, and likely a harder sell.

So, who’s the most accomplished?

It appears Amanda is doing just fine; Betsy may have some needs; and Carman is really struggling. You might conclude Amanda doesn’t need you and Carman can’t afford you. You might decide to focus your marketing content – your “coaching” – on Betsy.

You might write her a line like: Struggling to run that last mile? We can help, with ____.

This is based on your observation of each runner’s performance. You can do better if you know more.

You can get downright devious.


What if you knew more about how hard they work to be where they are?

Now we’re getting a glimpse into information that only the runners themselves have. This is not how the world sees them, but how they see themselves.

If you knew this, you might see more opportunities to motivate all three runners.

  • Amanda appears to be doing great, but she wants more out of life.
  • Carman is struggling, but she knows she could be doing more.
  • Betsy is doing her best and may be content with her performance.

Betsy might actually be the hardest sell.

There’s a problem with thinking this way, however. Motivation can easily turn into manipulation.

The darkest corners of sales and marketing world are those that seek to exploit the secret shame of customers to get them to buy.

Maybe Amanda feels ashamed of stopping short of her full potential. You pitch her a mocking line like: What do you get for the girl who has it all? Try ____.

Maybe Carman is ashamed of being a loser. You write something like: No excuses … just results, with our scientifically proven weight loss program ____.

Manipulation is evil.

It’s what everybody means when they say they hate advertising. You can do better. You can be empathetic.


To write with empathy, there is one last metric to consider.

We know how far they’ve come in life. We gain insight when we imagine how hard they work. We develop empathy when we realize, in real life, each runner starts from a different starting line.

  • Amanda started out healthy, happy and strong, stamina at the max. That’s awesome, and worth celebrating.
  • Betsy’s stamina was low, but her capacity for effort to overcome it shows it’s temporary. Maybe she’s just had some recent health problems, or a career setback.
  • Carman’s poor performance is due to more than poor effort. She may have had a traumatic childhood. Maybe she’s been fat-shamed all her life (and it has nothing to do with her actual weight).

All three showed up for the race. All three are in your audience. How will you connect with each of them?

Now you’re starting to get into an empathetic mindset.

When you think this way, you can create content that doesn’t make assumptions based on appearances (often ineffective), and doesn’t appeal to fear and shame (often distasteful, a turnoff).

Instead, you can give Amanda, Betsy and Carman content that they may actually want and need. Each of these runners is a persona, but each stands for a real, representative person in your audience.

  • Amanda wants and needs a new challenge. Give her plenty of blog posts about excellence, selflessness and being a gift to the world.
  • Betsy wants and needs a leg up. Send her emails about life hacks, how-to articles and other practical advice.
  • Carman wants and needs hope. Provide for her free, downloadable resources that combine stories of hope and beauty with help and healing.

Now, you might be asking, “How can I possibly know all this?”

You’re thinking about research, surveys, focus groups. About time and money you don’t have.

Take a deep breath and ponder this: While empathy can be based on data, it doesn’t always have to.

An empathetic imagination produces content you believe real people actually want and need, not what you would like them to want or need, or what you coerce them to want or need.

Do it because you want a relationship with your customers that goes beyond a transaction. You want more than their money today, you want their advocacy tomorrow.

That only happens when you show your audience more grace than people tend to give themselves.

It happens when you meet them at their starting line.

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