Empathy can deliver more value than market segmentation ever will

27 Mar 2012

I’ve been talking with a lot of people recently about audiences. Every single one of them admits they don’t know them as well as they’d like to.

So today I'd like to invite you to think about one element of your existing or potential audiences to see how well you know them ... the over 55s. Forget demographics, postcodes and reductive segmentation systems. Focus on the human factor. What is it like being an over 55? What are their choices, life challenges and opportunities? What might their current and latent needs be?

The first qualitative research project I ever conducted was with people aged 55 and over who had retired, or were about to retire. They were all recruited through local branches of trade unions and had worked long and hard as miners, nurses, pharmacists, shopkeepers etc. We talked about what it was like being them, about their quality of life, aspirations and fears, and the place and value of arts/culture in their lives up to now and into the future.

My assumptions (and yes, I know researchers aren’t supposed to have them, but hey, I’m human) were blasted out of the water. What might yours be?

Through the conversations we learnt that that an important distinguishing factor between those about to retire was the balance between social and solitary leisure activity in their lives: from community activism and team sports to knitting and reading. 

Socially active people already had a cornucopia of 'action plans' for their retirement based on existing activity and revealed they would be continually on the look out for more. Their radar was in full swing, seeking opportunities for input, stimulation, enrichment and to be with other people in a meaningful, purposeful, active context. 

Those people who were not socially active felt apprehensive about retirement. Whilst gardening, crosswords, craft and reading provided pleasurable, solitary antidotes to the hustle and bustle of work, retirement presented the prospect of isolation. Most felt at a loss as to how to fill the social void because they were not, by nature, gregarious people. What they wanted was something 'less-in-your-face', opportunities to pursue focused, relaxing activites, but perhaps in company.

Many of the people I spoke with were not culturally active (as an audience or visitor that is) and hadn't considered arts/cultural engagement as a retirement activity … but once they got talking about their needs the arts seemed perfectly placed to deliver on them. They were ripe for meaningful arts engagement, they just hadn't realised it ... and if I had asked what they needed they would not have mentioned the arts at all! 

What followed was a process of working with these groups to shape and develop successful entry points into the needs we had uncovered. This (and not the 'art' per se) became the vehicle for meaningful audience development. All it took was a series of conversations and a little empathy ... and the process of talking with them was audience development in action, not just a means to an end.

This research was conducted nearly 20 years ago. A lot has changed. People now live with the prospect of working until they’re older, but they are also living fitter, healthier and longer lives. How will this impact on their needs and priorities when they reach the age of 55, 65, 75? How could the arts occupy a meaningful place in their lives in the lead up to or during retirement? And how are we planning for that NOW?

My point is that empathy can deliver more public and organisational value than market segmentation ever will. Empathy can shape your offer, craft messages, create meaning and enhance quality of life in a way that is hugely people-focused. 

But why the Jane Fonda video? Because in this powerful talk (just over 11 minutes long) she speaks for her age in a way that is eloquent, articulate and profound ... and which might, for some of you, challenge your assumptions about the Third Age. I urge you to watch it. It’s deeply thought provoking. And whilst you watch it, think about empathy and the degree to which your really understand your audiences.