Empathy – the secret ingredient in social media engagement

by | Jan 20, 2021

Empathy is one of the core elements to getting your social media content and tone of voice spot on.

First off, knowing who your audience is: (it’s not everyone!) – then getting their attention by demonstrating that you know just how they feel.

When you design your ideas, empathy is what separates the boring, corporate messages, from the top-notch engaging content.

Here’s a post that demonstrates this beautifully.

Facebook post - text reads: Surrey Heath, 11 January · We get it. We know everyone is fed up at the moment. Fed up of being told to Stay Home when you're desperate to go out. Fed up of not seeing your family when you really want to give them a hug. Fed up of only being able to catch up with your friends on video calls. Fed up of juggling work, homeschooling and just general life at the moment. We get it. We're human too. But we know that Surrey has one of the highest Covid-19 rates in the country at the moment - and it's still going up. We can also see the huge pressure our local NHS are under, at Frimley Park Hospital and beyond, doing their best to cope with the rising numbers of Covid-19 cases being admitted every day. And we cannot ignore the reality of the temporary mortuary set up in Leatherhead to deal with the sharp increase in Covid-19 deaths, as local hospital capacity has been exceeded. These people are not just statistics - they are mothers, sons, grandparents, family members and friends, each one mourned for and missed by those who loved them. We also know that every person who doesn't follow the lockdown guidance risks spreading the virus - perhaps unknowingly - in turn adding to the pressure on the NHS. And that anyone who catches Covid-19 could end up in hospital themselves - or, worst case scenario, in the mortuary. This is real. This is the reason we are asking everyone, however fed up you are with the lockdown, to please play your part to help #KeepSurreyHeathSafe. For yourself, your loved ones, the vulnerable, and our community as a whole. Stay Home. Protect the NHS. Save Lives. Thank You. 💙

Not-for-profits in particular have to do a lot of work to remind their audience that there are real people behind the logos.

Your audience’s opinion on your public service or charity brand’s reputation will improve if they think of the heroic individuals who work there, rather than news headlines or recalling that one time they has a bad experience with you or a brand like yours.

They need to know that real people care about what they think, not just what you have to do.

You need to be human, not corporate.

At Comms Creatives, we believe empathy is more than a ‘soft skill’  – it’s actually a technique that the best comms experts use.

We even have a module on empathy comms in our Social Media Expert course.

Photo of Joanne Atkinson in stripy jacket and shades on her head, smiling and looking utterly fabulousSo I’m delighted that the fabulous Joanne Atkinson, PR Officer at Surrey Heath Borough Council, has shared the thinking behind this awesome post.

Over to Joanne:

“Ten months on, in Lockdown 3 in England, like many we’d found that the engagement had dropped significantly on our social media posts asking people to #StayHome and follow the government guidance.

We felt we needed a different approach to cut through the Covid fatigue, and after a team chat decided to be honest and human about it.

Our comms team understood how our audience felt – almost a year on from the first lockdown, we were pretty fed up with it too.

But we also knew the vital importance of people continuing to follow the rules, because of the extremely high case numbers in our local area, the highly contagious new variants of the virus, and the resulting pressure on the NHS.

So we put together a post saying just that.

Basically: ‘We get it. We’re human too. We’re fed up too.

But we are asking you to keep following the lockdown rules because otherwise our local NHS will be overwhelmed, and more people will sadly lose their lives.’

We used a very simple graphic, deliberately different from the government issued Covid-related comms graphics, to distinguish this post from others people might have started to scroll past.

And we took the plunge and posted it on our social media channels.

We kept an eye on it for a few hours, in case we’d misjudged it! We also responded to comments where relevant as they came in, to emphasise the human message.

We were really chuffed with how well it was received.

Very soon on Facebook it had dozens of positive reactions, comments and shares, including in the local Facebook Groups we’re members of.

We’re a fairly small borough council, and within a few hours it had been shared more than 100 times which is a huge result for us.

A few days on, there’d been nearly 500 reactions on the original Facebook post (none negative, which is a miracle in local gov comms in our experience!), almost 200 shares, more than 60 comments (again the majority supportive), and a reach of almost 25k.

It’s been a really positive experience for us as a team too, feeling that we’ve managed to engage with our intended audience with a really important message, struck a chord which connected with them and hopefully encouraged them to keep following the rules, for the common good.

Following the positive reaction to our attempt at #HumanComms, we’ve since put out another post in a similar style (both in tone and visually) about the use of our parks and playgrounds in lockdown, which also received good engagement and responses, so maybe this will grow to become a whole campaign!

For anyone in a similar position, wondering whether to post something slightly different to the norm, we’d recommend being brave and going for it – it definitely paid off for us.”

Making a difference takes bravery and boldness.

A massive ‘hats-off’ to Joanne and the team at Surrey Heath Borough Council for excellent work, which ultimately keeps us safe and saves lives.

If you want to become an effortlessly creative social media expert, we have social media training workshops, inspiration and cool tools…all inside our Social Media Academy for comms professionals.


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Hel Reynolds

Hel Reynolds

Author of this post

Hel is social media trainer and boss of Comms Creatives. She has been working in comms since 2005, and has been brushing up her expertise in social media for brands since the good old days of MySpace. She also draws the Comms Cartoons, and is usually attached to a mug of coffee.

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