Walking the journey: How to write empathetic content

When you're vying for the attention of audiences in our busy digital world, there are all sorts of sophisticated content marketing tools and techniques available to propel your content. But as well as being smarter, content also needs human qualities to establish human connections.

In our everyday lives, empathy helps us build strong social connections. It helps us feel heard, understood and supported. And bringing it into your messaging has benefits too. Because if you can see and experience the world the way your target audience does, you can create content that cuts through the noise.

Articulating empathy

The obvious place to start a discussion about empathy in content is to first define exactly what it is – and how it differs from sympathy.

In a nutshell, it's the ability to truly understand how others feel and think from their perspective. Neuroscientists have observed that different regions of the brain work in synergy to produce an empathetic response.

So it's more involved, more emotional and deeply supportive than sympathy. That's not to say sympathy isn't well-meaning. But it's more about acknowledging how someone is feeling from your perspective, not truly understanding it or sharing it. Empathy is walking in their shoes.

Why bring empathy into content?

Arguably, empathy is a necessary ingredient in any type of content. But it's particularly important when it comes to health content. This is because the decisions we all take about our wellbeing are deeply complex and personal to us. These 'determinants' of our health include where we live, our income and education level, and our relationships with friends and family.

Once you understand the intricate nature of our wellbeing, you start to see why empathy is so essential in content designed to educate and support us to make healthy choices. Sympathetic health content might say it's sorry to hear about your health condition. Meanwhile, empathetic health content tries to encourage you to make positive choices and manage your condition.

There are so many shining examples of empathetic health content that has gone on to yield change. Sport England's This Girl Can campaign has empathetic roots, focusing on the behaviours and attitudes that stop women exercising. Let's Call Periods, Periods, an integrated campaign aimed at 16 to 24-year-olds from the Scottish Government used empathy to chip away at the stigma around periods. And the empathetic campaign content from mental health and suicide prevention charity CALM challenges stereotypes and encourages positive behaviour change. It also uses touch points that resonate particularly with men, including sport and comedy.

Tips to help you create empathetic health content

Empathy might seem like an ethereal quality but think back to its core meaning. The most important first steps you can take as a content producer are to widen your perspective and open your mind to the experiences of others. We know at Thrive that the process of reaching users and changing behaviour starts with listening and understanding them.

Edge out of your comfort zone and get to know your audience inside-out: listen, immerse yourself in their lived experiences and find out about the barriers that might be getting in the way of their better health. Amplify voices that are often overlooked. Ask questions: at the core of empathy is curiosity. Sweep preconceived ideas, assumptions and perhaps any biases you might have to one side. Use digital tools like competitor research but do so alongside a human approach. This might include welcoming a sample of your audience directly into the content creation process.

Widening your focus can help you hone each and every aspect of your content empathetically, so it has real depth. For instance, it will inform the very language you use. It's not just about being supportive with well-worn 'we understand', 'we're with you' expressions. It's about fine-tuning every aspect of your tone and style so it's easy to read, understand and absorb. This includes accommodating surprisingly low levels of health literacy in the UK.

The NHS Digital content team is a tour de force in this area. They listen and test rigorously to ensure the words people use when they talk about their health and search online are reflected in every piece of nhs.uk content. This means poo not stools and pee rather than wee in case you were interested.

This user-focused approach to content production can also help you identify where you can best find and target your audience. And from this, how to launch your content and what it looks like. It will inform whether your audience requires accessibility features, the imagery you should use and the social channels you should focus on. For instance, health content for less digitally savvy older men is vastly different to health content for young female audiences.

When Public Health England wanted to target young women not attending cervical screenings, it partnered with salon booking site Treatwell. This is because, in contrast to a 20-year low in screenings, the number of women booking intimate waxes is increasing. Their partnership generated a brilliant example of empathetic content marketing – the Life Saving Wax initiative.

Finally, like an empathetic person in real life, empathetic content listens. After launch, keep welcoming user feedback, monitoring engagement and tweaking content in response. Use learnings for future content projects.

To produce empathetic health content, you effectively need to build empathy into the content production process and develop your own empathetic skills.

Good content is always user-focused. Empathetic content has this focus in spades, but it also has heart.

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