Welcome to the future, where every day is a revolution and customer experience moves at lightning speed.

From trivia nights on Zoom to digital-first shopping experiences, the incredible speed of change across industries has made new technologies essential and agile marketing strategies indispensable. As audiences adapt, new expectations have been created and solidified. Evolving brands, no matter the industry, must figure out how to offer the enhanced, empathetic experiences that are expected. Understanding what customers need in the moment is more key to customer experience than ever before, and that requires seeing and thinking about the world from the audience’s point of view. 

Incorporating Empathy

This approach takes us beyond personalized content; it even takes us beyond the current, and relatively simple, understanding of the basic needs that bring people to brands. Incorporating empathy means creating a shared journey for the brand and the audience to take together.

To better understand and engage with people, we must be truly interested and invested in where they are coming from – this requires recognizing emotions and taking the time to validate experiences. When we understand our prospects and customers, we can communicate with empathy every time we reach out. This is vital, as empathy should shine through every piece of content that we put together and every campaign that we send out into the world.

All brands have the foundation to do this moving forward because it’s been such a critical part of the process for the last two years. We’ve seen major brands expanding their messaging in innovative and brand-relevant ways that showed a unique understanding of their customers and audiences:  Oreo has taken its Instagram to the next level with charming and creative cookie content, while Lush brings their ingredients, process, and employees to the fore in their ‘How It’s Made’ video series.

These specific messages are spectacularly impactful because they understand the experience their audience is looking for and invite them to either contribute or buy into the experience that the brand is creating. Built on an understanding of their audience, these campaigns reveal the impact that listening to our customers and finding a helpful and authentic way to meet their needs can have. The mix of tactics emphasizes that there is no “right” way to build empathy and emotional intelligence into a marketing strategy; there’s only what is authentic and meaningful for the brand in question.

What is truly required is honesty and transparency; almost everyone can recall an attempt at brand empathy that fell flat or became a cringe-worthy meme. Nearly all these mishaps can be traced back to a fundamental lack of sincerity; clearly defining your brand values and shaping your message empathetically around them is more genuine and impactful. 

The Importance of Digital Active Listening 

Building a great customer experience means listening, learning, and responding quickly to changing needs. We can start by placing more emphasis on listening and creating opportunities for the audience to connect. Encouraging them to reach out is one thing - asking for a review or asking what they think is standard operating procedure for most brands. It’s what happens after they take the time to reach out that can be a critical differentiator.

It is a truth universally acknowledged that two factors are likely to make people reach out to brands – they’re either extremely happy, or extremely unhappy. The trouble with that accepted wisdom is that it ignores a great many factors that are directly within the control of the brands in question. Are we, as marketers, sitting back and waiting for people to fill out a contact form or post a review? Or are we engaging with people on their preferred channels, encouraging our audience to reach out to us to share their thoughts, impressions, and feedback in the ways that are best for them?

The latter means a commitment to the community, investing in the time and resources required to listen to and understand the audience that we’re trying to reach.  

This is active listening adapted to a digital framework, and it’s critical in building trust.

Active listening can not only help identify and solve problems, it’s also essential for building long-lasting relationships. Digital active listening means going beyond our comfort zone and thinking more broadly about how the customer is interacting with a brand, product, or website from the first touchpoint to the last. Things like net promoter scores (NPSs) which ask customers to choose between a smiley or sad face after the transaction is completed have great value, but they only offer insight into a single customer moment or, at best, a single customer journey out of the many that we hope they will take.

In contrast, digital active listening means paying careful attention throughout the customer lifecycle, establishing goals that track progress and measure success across the customer funnel, and using a SMART (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, and Timely) goals approach to your events tracking. The key is listening to and learning from the results. If your customers aren’t engaging, ask yourself why. People want to know that they’re being heard and understood, that the critical information they are trying to convey is being received. Digital active listening is a great way to be both attentive and responsive as we strive to understand and incorporate the insights the audience shares with us.

Tuft & Needle (T&N) has elevated digital active listening to an art form. T&N has a commitment to the customer experience that shines through the entire business model. From the very beginning, they've understood and leveraged social proof to remarkable effect, driving consumer trust by directing their customers to review on a third-party website. They encourage reviews from ALL customers...even (and perhaps especially) those who didn’t love the product. They’re so good at learning from and listening to their customers that some of their best reviews are from people who returned the mattress, which is a customer service achievement of its own. 

Reviews form the backbone of their strategy and culture, and are their strongest source for leads and for improving the product. Each review is used to improve the experience, which has lowered their return rate and increased their NPS to a world-class 85. Tuft & Needle considers each review to contain a blueprint for the continued success and evolution of their business, and they treat each review as if it is exactly that by using a specific and repeatable process for internalizing and acting on the feedback that their customers provide. There are as many ways to practice active digital listening and empathy as there are brands. Again, there’s not a right way to do this, there’s just a right way for your brand.

If inspiration is what you’re looking for, look no farther than your favorite local small businesses. Customer experience requires building relationships, and small businesses are incredibly good at both listening and inspiring loyalty. They’re also wildly creative and pivoted agilely to provide the excellence and fun their customers have come to expect.

Putting People First 

We can distill all of this to one very simple core principle – listen to and communicate with with your audience as people. Audiences and customer bases are comprised of people. Our audiences and customer bases are human beings, not segments or statistics, and they’re looking to be understood and listened to as such.

The last few years taught us the importance of community building and communication. The next few will provide even more unique opportunities for marketers to practice listening, deepen relationships and build incredible experiences that benefit both their audience and brand for years to come.

Jacqueline Baxter is a Senior Digital Strategist, DX at Sitecore. Find her on LinkedIn and Instagram.