empathy in market research


Market Researchers are almost 100% focused on understanding people, but the pressure to meet objectives and get answers sometimes pushes empathy aside. Empathy in market research requires understanding what people like, what they don’t like, but especially what they wish for and fulfilling those unmet needs. Here are five ways to practice better empathy in market research.

Feeling Machines

Neuroscientist, /Antonio Damasio discovered,  “We are not thinking machines that feel, we are feeling machines that think.” Damasio found that every decision we make is grounded in emotion. Really connecting with customers and understanding their wants, needs and welfare is how we practice empathy in market research. You must find the connection you have with the men and women you are interviewing and seek to find a human value that together you share. When you emotionally connect to individuals, you will intuitively know how to communicate with them more effectively about your product’s benefits and the needs of theirs you must meet.

Personal Biases

Dr. Johannes Huttula conducted research with 480 experienced marketing managers. He asked them to step into their customer’s shoes and predict what they would reply in a market test. Surprisingly, the more empathetic the marketers felt, the worse they did on predicting customer preferences and motivations. According to Huttula the marketers used their own biases and personal preferences, assuming that was empathy, to predict what would appeal to their customers.

Huttula also found that telling those marketers about their bias helped them to correct course. Develop awareness about your own preferences to help you step back and better apply customer empathy in market research.


The more data we have, and we have a lot, the further we get from human connections. Data is essential and highly valuable, but market researchers must balance it with empathy. Data doesn’t necessarily lead to authentic connections while understanding your customer does. After you understand what motivates your customers, you can give them what they want or need to solve a real problem they are facing. Empathy is considered a key component of emotional intelligence.


Being a good listener means you are trying to understand buyer intent and seeing past what is spoken. It involves empathetically listening for cues and motivations behind what someone says or does. Paying attention to emotional triggers like guilt, fear or trust can help you craft compelling messages that get to the heart of the issue. Use brand personas or create an empathetic story around your customer’s challenges. “The emotional resonance evoked by a narrative stimulates neural systems related to empathy,” said James Rose of Duke University.


A brand trust survey, The Edelman Trust Barometer Special Report, found that trust is nearly as valuable as quality and value. Consumers ranked trust as a critical factor in making a purchase decision. Consumers place more trust in influencers who are relatable than those who are the most popular. Sixty-seven percent of respondents agreed that “a good reputation may get me to try a product, but unless I come to trust the company behind the product, I will soon stop buying it.”

Interested in discussing your career in market research? Contact Smith Hanley Associates’ Market Research and Consumer Insights Executive Recruiter, Lindsey Bartlett at lbartlett@smithhanley.com.


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