SXSW: It's all about the empathy. Do you feel me?
A view from Neil Davidson

SXSW: It's all about the empathy. Do you feel me?

In the heat of all the tech and the focus on data, the very human quality of "empathy" comes to the fore at SXSW.

A few days into SXSW, the world’s largest tech and innovation festival, and there’s one word popping up in all the talks. 


Empathy encompassed many aspects, being touted as an agent of change, a vehicle to drive forward in many different fields. The consistent point was that we have to understand that emotionally driven, unconscious decision-making remains a really big deal, a Ron Burgundy big deal, when we’re talking to people. Connecting with people. 

Alexander Manowsky, futurist at Daimler AG, spoke on the AI panel ‘Humanizing Autonomy’. He succinctly summed up this complex challenge, spanning science, technology and communication, focussing on the simple human truth, the question driving everything.

‘Do you feel me?’

Well, quite.

It’s clear that we have to construct a more empathetic approach to communicate with one another, and in fast-flowing channels like social media, it pays to be aware of context and how we are evoking, or reacting, to people’s feelings.

People are still people, even amidst the escalating noise, haste, memes and hate. Brands and agencies embracing shiny social media digital platforms must never forget that there is a living, breathing, feeling human being at the end of the conveyor belt. 

Brands must embrace new ways of cutting through the clutter. Forging deeper emotional connections with your consumers is a good – and pretty obvious – place to start.

Borrowing the terminology of Daniel Kahneman, people are still dominated by what he calls ‘System 1’ thinking: fast, subconscious responses that are often driven by impulse and emotion.

This theme was reinforced in a lively talk at SXSW on Sunday: "Emoticulture – How Data And Science Create Happiness". Presented by Marcus Collins, senior vice-president of Doner agency; and Saleem Alhabash, assistant professor of public relations and social media at Michigan State University, the session’s title wasn’t a cultural reference to emojis.  Rather, it brought to life the use of emotion to maximise connection, this being in a world where people are pressed for time to consciously, constantly ‘engage.’ 

This session was definitely preaching to the converted at HeyHuman. We’ve been advocates of System 1 thinking and using neuroscience to maximise fleeting interactions for years.

Collins emphasised that emotions are key to improving receptiveness, recall and driving behaviour off the back of communication.

Hear, hear.

A great point he made was that in a world where we’ll see 40 Zetabytes of data being shared by 2020, we mustn’t ‘mistake information for intimacy.’ 

There were three main calls-to-arms made to truly promote better connection: 

  1. Get better behavioural data. Self-reported data just isn’t trustworthy. People are often irrational, and post-rationalise unconscious decisions. Self-reported data isn’t a great motivational indicator, nor a sound predictor of future behaviour.
  2. Tap science to improve effectiveness. Use technology to see how people really behave in response to a piece of communication. Investing in neuroscience and looking at easily usable analysis, such as heat-mapping, can give us a better sense of how to improve effectiveness.
  3. Engender ‘radical empathy’ in communications. As marketers, we must strive to be empathetic so our customers actually care.

Building on these ideas, Alhabash took us through a case study for Pot Belly, a sandwich and coffee business, whose purpose was to make people happy – harking back to their roots as a brand born in an antique store.

He shared the neuroscience of how people behave online based on their attraction to, or withdrawal from, content. What he and Collins both found aligned with HeyHuman research showing that social media behaviours are ritualistic, habitual and, by and large, automatic.

Tellingly, when people press a ‘like’ button, there’s no big emotional spike, no all-encompassing digital hug. It’s like empty-calorie brain candy. So we have to work harder to kick-start people’s emotional activation systems, to demand they respond. 

As well as focusing on the two other elements of being brain-friendly – being easily recognised and using resonant visuals and language – the main focus of this session was context, context, context.

Alhabash shared research proving that the content around a content post affects how people respond psychologically. Surrounding it with positive content makes them more responsive, while negative content makes them less so.

Collins talked about shaping Pot Belly’s social media strategy around increasingly positive social posts, relating these to their interactions. By uniting data with what they know from neuroscience, Pot Belly made people happier and more responsive. If someone was having a bad day, Pot Belly gave them a freebie, that lunch-time, in real-time. Bad weather led to sunny offers based on Pot Belly’s ‘smile scale.’ The results were insanely impressive for such a small budget, including 16 million social views and a 1.4 percent increase in footfall. 

It’s great to see that hard values can be ascribed to what some might see as soft value ‘science stuff’. Amidst the hardware and software, we can’t forget the wetware sitting betwixt our technologised world. 

That is humanity. 

We do still have to look at unpacking neuroscience in communications practice. We need to maximise shallow and fleeting interactions, linking them with emotional intelligence and radical empathy. Only with this more empathetic approach, in both thinking and execution, can we really make connection count.

This way, brands can remain truly, honestly relevant to people in a post-digital world. 

Do you feel me?

Neil Davidson is managing director and partner at HeyHuman