In a previous post, we talked about what role-playing games could teach us about aligning sales and content marketing. We also talked about how important it is to specify a target customer, and tailor your marketing narrative towards the needs and desires of said customer. Today, we’re going to use the keystone of role-playing—imagination—to help us define our audience and discover what they need. The method we will use to do this is called “empathy mapping.”


What is Empathy Mapping?

Empathy mapping is empathy applied in an organized fashion—a dedicated brainstorming session designed to identify the needs and emotions of your customers or audience. It involves sitting down with key stakeholders in your organization in a group setting, and slapping sticky notes all over a whiteboard. If done properly, those sticky notes should contain valuable insight into the hearts and minds of your audience.

An empathy map can be used in any industry to build a firm understanding of those you’re trying to reach. The results of an empathy map can help enhance product and UX design; it can help improve customer experience; it can even be used to magnify the effectiveness of supervisors in managing employees. It all starts, though, with empathy—putting yourself in someone else’s shoes, and imagining how they feel. This exercise in role-playing helps align us with our audience, allowing us to better invite them to participate in our company’s narrative.

Here’s how it’s done.

How Do I Create an Empathy Map?

First, you gather your team. Whether you’re a group of engineers designing a new product, developers designing a UI, or a bunch of marketers trying to target content, the process is essentially the same. You bring everyone together for the brainstorming session, and have them come prepared to think like someone else. That means bringing as much hard evidence and data to the table as possible. If empirical evidence and supposition is all you have to work with, so be it, but use more quantitative information wherever possible.

Make sure your whole team has access to a wealth of sticky notes (you can color code them if you want). You’re likely to go through a few of them during this exercise, so be sure you have plenty.

Next, you build your map. There should be at least four sections, labeled “Thinking,” “Seeing,” “Feeling,” and “Doing.” There are variations on layout, but sometimes the simplest examples are the most efficient. Take a look at this one from Copyblogger to get you started.

empathy map


How you create the layout isn’t critical; using a whiteboard, a large poster, projecting the image, etc. The important detail is to make it big enough for everyone to see, and to provide plenty of space for sticky notes.

Finally, you define your ideal customer/client/audience. Give him or her a little character, so you all have a good idea who you’re talking about. Then start filling out sticky notes.



For this section, ask questions like:

  • What frustrates them?
  • What are their concerns?
  • What decisions are they trying to to make?

You should see answers like:

  • “Why can’t I find answers to my questions?”
  • “I’m not sure if I’m doing this right.”
  • “Hard facts are very important to me.”


Ask yourself:

  • What kind of environment are they in?
  • What kind of environment do they see your content in?
  • What are they looking for?

You should see answers like:

  • “A lot of people are writing about this topic, but they all disagree.”
  • “This business practice is unsafe.”
  • “The cost of the product I want has gone up.”


Ask yourself:

  • What do they want?
  • What are they trying to avoid?
  • What are their ambitions, drives, and desires?

You should see answers like:

  • “I want to spend more time with my family.”
  • “I’m trying to find a new job.”
  • “I’m confused about what choice to make.”


Ask yourself:

  • What do they do with their spare time?
  • What actions are they taking to resolve problems they have?
  • How do they interact with others?

You should see answers like:

  • “I’m playing a lot of video games.”
  • “I tell my friends and family whenever I’ve found a new product I like.”
  • “I drive a Honda Accord.”

Some stickies can reasonably be placed in more than one section, so don’t stress too much about where they end up. The point here is to create a portrait of the person for everyone to see. When we identify what areas the persona is having difficulty with, and what things they need from us, then we will be better prepared to meet those needs with the content we create.


Why Use an Empathy Map?

We’ve all been victims of companies that lacked empathy. If you’ve ever used an app, and found a critical function difficult to find or use. If you’ve struggled to replace a filter or a headlight on a car. If you’ve read an article, and thought “They don’t get me at all.” So frequently, people in business fail to anticipate our needs and feelings, and their performance suffers for it.

In the words of Dr. James Patell of Stanford

One of the founding tenets of the (the Hasso Plattner Institute of Design at Stanford) is human-centered design. Rather than beginning with shiny new technology, we start by trying to establish deep, personal empathy with our users to determine their needs and wants. We must fill in two blanks: Our users need a better way to ___ BECAUSE ___. The because portion is a big deal.
It can sometimes be easy to forget that when we create content, we’re trying to reach a specific audience. The problem is, so long as that audience feels like we don’t understand them, they won’t bother reading, or acting on, our content.


The Importance of Identifying Your Customer

Empathy mapping helps us flesh out the customer we’ve imagined, but only really works if we can decide on a kind of person in the first place. This is one instance where casting a wide net doesn’t function quite the way we want it to. If we assume our audience is “anyone willing to buy our product,” then we will quickly find that few care enough to buy our product.

If we want that “deep, personal empathy with our users,” then we need to be willing to narrow our focus a bit. If we can make a unique subset of customers feel like we’re thinking specifically of them, they will be more inclined to listen to us, to use our products, and to recommend us to their peers of similar circumstance.

That’s what the empathy map can help us achieve. It can help us zero in on the personality of our ideal customer, and give us the tools that will make them feel like they are part of the club. So whether you’re making a system easier for them to use, or telling a joke only they will get, they will want to know you better, because you’ve shown you know them.