This article originally published on Ad Age on October 19, 2020.

In the advertising and marketing worlds, the battle for data has grown fiercer while consumers have become ever more distrustful of entities seeking their personal information. Along with that pushback, the expansion of regulations such as GDPR and CCPA and big tech’s elimination of third-party cookies have made data harder to obtain than ever before.

Yet even as first-party data remains the Holy Grail, the industry is shackled to an outdated approach to data-gathering that is bound, in the end, to fail—because it is built around a one-way extraction of data that treats people as consumer automatons and their data as useful solely for commercial gain.

Today people want more than to impersonally transact and consume. Seismic shifts in our society—brought on by COVID-19, the economic crisis and a global outcry over racial injustice—have shown that people derive a sense of self from every brand or business they choose to engage. They expect organizations to play a meaningful role in their lives and solve both personal and societal problems. To succeed, organizations must move beyond transactional data points and instead consider people’s hopes, motivations and fears—the vast layers that make them who they are—in order to define purpose, create differentiation and build trust.

For organizations to achieve relationships with people in which empathy is relayed, value is exchanged and trust is formed, they must reimagine the role of data. This calls for a new approach, one that reverses commoditized concepts such as “data is the new oil.” Such thinking erodes, rather than builds, trust. According to recent Edelman research, people are four times more likely to share their data with a brand they trust versus one they do not.

There’s a different way to build that trust—one in which organizations aren’t extracting from consumers but creating value for people. I call it data with empathy.

A distinctly human approach: Data with empathy

So, what is data with empathy? A theory? A practice? PR fluff?

Data with empathy is a philosophy and process, an input and outcome, with tactical implications that produce real, tangible results. It understands that data alone is not human, but what we do with it is. Data with empathy starts with understanding who someone is at an emotional level. An organization may label people as investors, activists, buyers, policymakers or any other “segment.” Yet to truly connect with them, we must recognize that first and foremost they are people—people who make choices that reflect values and fulfill higher purposes. Whether buying a 99-cent can of Goya beans or a $200 pair of Nike shoes, people interact with organizations that communicate beliefs that resonate most strongly with their own.

Beginning with intrinsic human layers leads to richer, actionable insights. Those insights are then used to act with empathy by creating relevant, earned content and experiences for people that are so compelling, they genuinely resonate, generating earned signals. Cyclically, those signals fuel deep understanding of the person, enabling organizations to drive even more impactful communications.

At this point, a two-way relationship is formed, establishing a mutual data value exchange in which trust is the foundation. It’s the difference between delivering an e-coupon to track someone’s purchase and engaging with them in programming surrounding paternity leave, for example, an issue a particular brand and father might both care deeply about improving. The former indicates how to momentarily buy a piece of media to optimize the next sale, the latter is an example of data with empathy and building shared, long-term value.

How to implement data with empathy

Data with empathy requires bringing together expertise and skills that combine understanding culture and human emotion with robust science and quantitative techniques:

  1. We start by asking different questions. Instead of just looking at who people are on a superficial or purely transactional level, we ask more: How do they think and behave? Who and how do they trust? How will they react? What do they like to think and talk about? How do they decide where to spend their money, time and advocacy? When a CPG company comes to us wanting to target households expecting a baby, for example, we don’t just ask who and what someone will buy next. We ask who are those people as parents? What matters to them and what drives their choices? And, most importantly, why?
  1. We take a multidisciplinary approach to answering those deeply human questions. The question of why people do what they do cannot be answered with yesterday’s transactional data, tools and processes. The ability to combine, interlay and blend data, custom research and quantitative methodologies ensures depth and breadth are achieved. Understanding new parents requires asking them, directly, about their thoughts, beliefs and behaviors. Reaching them effectively means examining how and where they prefer to interact, using inferences and predictions to connect the right explanation to the right person. Social, research, media, third-party and first-party data all need to connect and talk to each other.
  1. We create unique earned content and experiences to build lasting, trusting relationships, establishing a positive data value exchange that earns us the right to ask and share more. By proactively creating emotive, earned communications, everything can be done and fueled with empathy—from employee experience, to marketing, to products and services, to values and purpose. We won’t talk to people as households, simply peddling product in invasive and intrusive ways, but rather as caring, soon-to-be mothers and fathers eager to connect with their babies in both physical and emotional ways.  

Data with empathy: The virtuous circle

At Edelman, we believe trust is earned, not bought. The path to trust depends on an ability to create and apply data in which empathy is the driving force behind communications that both move and inspire people. This process drives real business impact too—from the language and imagery to use to which influencers and spokespeople best tell a brand’s story. It enables an organization to change how and what media to buy and where to place it, identifying which messages will resonate most strongly in each moment.

Most distinctively, it empowers organizations to engage with people differently, activating them in new ways as ambassadors or pilot groups, with an ability to reach even more people who think like them, not just look like them, at scale through deep understanding. This learning is continually applied to fuel new, emotionally relevant, earned content and experiences that continue to strengthen the relationship.

It’s a virtuous circle where trust yields data, data enables empathy and empathy drives trust. When done right, data is not the new oil or gold, nor is it the new form of currency. Data is the gift of empathy.