Real or Fake: Social Media Empathy

Real or Fake: Social Media Empathy
By Jen Cohen Crompton

Empathy, in the most basic of definitions, can be described as a noun: the ability to understand and share the feelings of another; or a synonym: sympathy (resource: concept of empathy in social media is an ongoing discussion between users, companies, and agencies. Michael Brenner tackles the subject in his article on Business 2 Community. The thought is that companies are using social media to show empathy and users like it. Those companies showing a sense of empathy in their social interactions are attaining or retaining more customers because they are showing that they really do feel. Users are generally accepting this notion and gravitating toward companies that seem to care more about their audience than themselves.

But in reality, are these empathetic interactions authentic? And, does authenticity matter?

For the average consumer engaging with a brand via social media, their motivation to engage comes from emotions of excitement, frustration, concern, support, or just simply wanting their “voice” to be “heard.” When a company is listening and responds to a user, it is generally in one of three ways—with a solution, with more information, or with positive reinforcement/acknowledgement. For a company, it is their social media communications team’s goal to determine the appropriate response based on the motivations behind the actual tweet, comment, and/or interaction.

When companies respond, does that show that they care? Does it meet the definition of empathy by really understanding the true sentiment of the user and sharing that emotion? Or is it simply too simple to “act like you care”?Think about it this way. When a user comments on a company Facebook page with feedback and the company “likes” the comment, the user often feels a sense of empathy. They feel that the company has listened and is responding in some form, which satisfies the want to be heard. If the company provides more information or a solution, then they must really care, right?

So, from the flip side—how much effort did it take the company to “like” the comment or post a quick response (possibly canned) and did the response team really feel anything? Does the company really care what the user shared, or did they just do what they were supposed to do through a click or a couple keystrokes?

This sense of “false” or potentially inauthentic interactions can actually result in the reverse effect for companies and lead to users becoming skeptical of the actual feelings of a company. Think about the good old Discover card commercials where they show “Debbie” the mid 40-year-old woman answering the phone from a dirty office, and compare them to their new commercials featuring the slogan, “We treat you like you’d treat you” (this is my favorite). Basically, they are stating that they care about you as much as you care about yourself.

So does social media foster the growth of showcasing authentic empathy from companies, or does it fuel an environment of false empathy that will soon backfire if users discover that companies really aren’t listening, but merely responding as they should?

I think only time will tell…

Jen Cohen Crompton is the President of Something Creative LLC, a marketing company serving local, national and international B2B and B2C companies, focused on integrated marketing strategies and using social media and analytics to drive results. Follow her on Twitter at @jenz036 or find her on LinkedIn.