Community Powered Marketing Ep. 5: The Truth Behind Empathy-Driven Brand Storytelling ft: Sarah Panus

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Is your brand storytelling empathy-driven?

There’s been a growing sense of distrust among audiences toward the media. On the other hand, the trust level toward brands has been increasing. 

In this episode of Community Powered Marketing, Sue is joined by Sarah Panus, Brand Storytelling Strategist, CEO and founder of Kindred Speak and the host of her very own podcast, “Marketing with Empathy. Sarah spent 20 years on the corporate/agency side of things, running content marketing, brand storytelling, etc. for a number of very large brands. Most recently, she spent 12 years leading the content marketing team at Sleep Number, a billion-dollar retailer and manufacturer of beds and bedding accessories.

Through their discussion, you’ll learn what empathy-driven brand storytelling is and why it’s becoming a key tool for marketers.

You’ll discover why more and more people are feeling unheard and misunderstood, and how brands can utilize data and insights to provide content that can better serve their audiences.

You’ll learn how marketers and brands can accurately measure the effectiveness of their storytelling efforts and use that data to improve.

And you’ll also discover why an audience that feels heard and understood will be more willing to engage and even advocate for your brand.

Join Sue and Sarah as they explore the fascinating world of empathy-driven brand storytelling and how it can help your business make more meaningful connections with your audience.


About Our Guest
Sarah Panus, Founder and CEO, Kindred Speak

Sarah Panus helps content marketers think like Editorial Directors to build and manage winning brand storytelling strategies using her signature EFD method (empathy+focus+data); pulling from nearly 20 years’ experience helping billion-dollar brands drive leading ROI through brand storytelling. Before starting her Kindred Speak consulting biz, Sarah spent the majority of her career leading content strategy on the corporate side. She comes from a world managing up to $10M budgets, but knows how to get scrappy too.

Full Transcription

Sarah Panus: [00:00:00] There is more distrust in media right now, too. So, I think that you’re right, like the information that’s shared, I think there is kind of a shift of people trusting brands more. And it wasn’t always that way, right? There’s always skepticism, but now I just feel like they trust brands more than they trust the media. And so there’s a great opportunity. And that’s why I say I think brands are the new editor in chief, and I think there’s such an opportunity for storytelling that they can do.

 Sue Frech: [00:00:32] You are listening to Community Powered Marketing podcast, the podcast dedicated to empowering marketers to unlock the sales potential of their audience through an online brand community. At a time of seismic change, we’ve seen community become the single most important tool to drive customer acquisition, retention, and sales. And companies that understand how to leverage community powered marketing are really uniquely positioned to disrupt their industry and dominate their market. So each week, we will help you discover how to cultivate your community, mobilize your brand evangelists, and how to build a game-changing relationship with your most valuable consumers. Your audience is waiting. I’m your host, Sue Frech, CRO of TINT, the single most powerful Community Powered Marketing platform for brands. 

Sue Frech: I am very excited to have Sarah join us today. Sarah Panus helps content marketers think like editorial directors to build and manage winning brand storytelling strategies using her signature EFD method: Empathy plus focus plus data, Pulling from nearly 20 years of experience helping billion-dollar brands drive leading ROI through brand storytelling. Before starting her career at Kindred Speak Consulting Business, Sarah spent the majority of her career leading content strategy on the corporate side. She comes from a world managing up to $10 Million budgets, but she knows how to get scrappy, too. And, like all moms, she wears lots of hats. Minnesota mama, content strategist, podcast host of Marketing with Empathy, and owner of Kindred Speak LLC. Her mission is to add value to the world by helping humanize brand connections, help content marketers reduce overwhelm and confusion, and raising money to fund child trafficking rescue missions. Learn more at So, Sarah, I’m so grateful to have you on the podcast. Welcome.

 Sarah Panus: [00:02:26] Thank you so much. I’m really excited to be here, too.

 Sue Frech: [00:02:29] So I know you’re a podcast expert, so this will be easy for you, but I’m really excited for you to share with the audience. I think the idea of empathy-driven brand storytelling is so important today, and we’ll talk about why it’s maybe even more important than, let’s say, when we started our careers, you know, a couple of years ago, we won’t age ourselves. But why it adds so much value not only to the marketers, but I actually also think, you know, to our consumers, our partners, and everybody we work with. And so I’m so excited to just talk about your experience and why it’s so meaningful. But let’s just take a step back. Can you share a little bit more about your business, why you got started, who you are, and give us your background?

 Sarah Panus: [00:03:14] Yeah, definitely. So I call myself a brand storytelling strategist. And what I do in my business—my company is called Kindred Speak so I run my own consulting biz. But it’s rather new. I’m newer to running my own business because I’ve spent the last 20 years on the corporate and agency side actually running content marketing and editorial brand storytelling, social influencers, you know, different types of programs for very large brands. Most recently, I spent 12 years at Sleep Number, a billion-dollar retailer leading their content marketing team. And the whole point of what I do and my brand storytelling is such a passion for me because, at the end of the day, I really want to help humanize brands, to create more meaningful connections with all of us. And I’ve seen time and time and time again over the last two decades how storytelling is that connection point, whether that’s through social or through influencers or through your branded content, etc. But you continue to see it and I continue to see it driving top ROI. I continue to see it driving amazing results and value. And for me, I just want to help. Now that I’ve shifted from being on the corporate side and the agency side to running my own biz, what I do now is, I hope, work with brands and specifically help the communicators inside of those brands reduce their confusion and overwhelm that so many of us content marketers feel when we’re trying to build a winning brand storytelling plan. And I just really wanted to be able to do this to help them, but also do it in a way for myself, just personally, that gave me flexible time with my kids and I wanted to take my 20 years of experience and help others. So, what I do is brand storytelling consulting. And so this could play out as one-on-one services with brands where I’m helping them develop plans, and initiatives. I could be helping manage the work and doing more of those one-on-one services. Or, I also have online courses that I have launched and we’ll have some new ones coming up, coaching programs where I can teach folks inside of the brands how to DIY, their own brand storytelling plans, and really just step into being an editorial director for their brand and helping them learn how to do it.

 Sue Frech: [00:05:32] I love it and I love, you know, all the experience you have that you’re able to bring it. But there’s just passion. And I hear it, you know, certainly in your podcast, which people should tune into. And I just want to make sure I get the name of your podcast right. Empathy-driven storytelling or brand storytelling? Can you share?

 Sarah Panus: [00:05:49] Oh, you’re close. Yes. So my podcast is called “Marketing with Empathy” and it is a brand storytelling podcast. And I talk about it like it’s a mix of a content marketing jam session mixed with Chicken Soup for the Soul. So love.

 Sue Frech: [00:06:04] Love that.

 Sarah Panus: [00:06:05] Yeah. So, it’s a mix of like, solo episodes with me kind of sharing tips and things like that. But then I also interview other brand communicators who work inside our brands to come on, and then they share their experiences of how they’re using empathy to drive stronger results in their business. Because I remember being on the corporate side and being inside of an organization, and sometimes you lack mentorship or you just need more inspiration. What are other people doing? And you know, you just want that camaraderie. And so I wanted to create a podcast that serves content marketers, someone, anyone working in a communication role who has to develop storytelling in some way for their company to be able to get inspiration and tips and insights and things like that. So, Marketing With Empathy is the podcast. So everyone listening, if that sounds interesting to you, I’d love it if you hopped over and listened to mine as well.

 Sue Frech: [00:06:54] Yes, we’ll certainly add in the show notes a link to it. So let’s break it down for marketers that aren’t as familiar with empathy-driven brand storytelling. Can you share what that is? If someone were to come in and say, “Okay, Sarah, what is empathy-driven brand storytelling?”

 Sarah Panus: [00:07:09] Absolutely. So empathy-driven brand storytelling is really thinking about “what are those stories, those narratives that your brand can say and talk about that are going to connect with your audience heart to heart and mind to mind?” So really, at the end of the day, that’s what it is. And so I talk about what’s called the empathy filter. So, as you’re thinking through your content plans, the empathy filter is that question of “why is this going to matter? How is this going to connect?” And so, empathy-driven content is really supercharged with a lot of data and insights to understand your audience, to be able to talk to them in a way that they feel like you get them right and you’re going to end up driving stronger engagements, having better quality leads, better quality conversations and all of those things which I’ve seen drive lead to ROI and lead to a 7x improvement in engagements. Because you think about it like, just as people. Just think about you’re having a conversation with someone. Are you going to want to have a conversation and be more interested in someone who actually is showing that they’re interested in you or you feel like you have something in common? Or are you going to want to talk to someone who is just kind of only talking about themself all the time? You know, it’s just how we are as humans and brands. And that’s why I talk about how to humanize brands, is, I honestly believe that brands are the new editor in chief. I think that there is so much growth in the content marketing space with brands right now, and brands have the budgets, they have the team, they have the infrastructure to be publishing, and they have the ability to scale and reach. And so I feel like there’s such an opportunity and responsibility on the brand side to be able to serve your audience and serve them really well and help give them value. Don’t be that person who’s just talking about yourself all the time, but tap in and really relate to your customer base because it will drive stronger results.

 Sue Frech: [00:09:04] And we talk about this in community, which I know we’ll get to in a little bit later. And for listeners, you know, we build, manage and power online communities, but the brands that want to just talk about their product and push out their message and have that one-way conversation, that’s not what community is about. It is really the listening, knowing and understanding, and using the insights. So I think it relates so much to what we do. I love that the brands are the new editor-in-chief. So that brings me to another question then: Is this a new concept? I mean, some of the things you’re saying are certainly new in some of the language and nomenclature. But talk about just a little bit about this methodology that you have. Is it brand new to marketers?

 Sarah Panus: [00:09:44] So I think that this is always been a need just because of the foundation of how humans connect and how we communicate with each other. But I do think it is amplified now, more so because of a few different reasons. I think a few different reasons are like, the first one I would say is there’s so much online clutter and growing competition in the digital space. And so you as a brand, you have to go above and beyond to reach your audience base, right? And to actually get them to thumb stop and to look at your content from their scroll and get them to want to keep watching it or listening to it or reading it or whatever it may be and to engage with you. So that’s a huge one. I mean, we all hear about just the growing volume of content that is online. I was looking last night just to see what’s the current numbers and it said there are more than 300 million photos uploaded on Facebook per day and Instagram. Yeah, right. And then on Instagram, there are more than 25 million businesses that are on Instagram. And those that are on it, like Instagram has great data that shows like Instagram stories, the part that disappears after 24 hours. A third of the most viewed Instagram stories are from businesses. So, businesses are having good success on that platform. And then if you look at LinkedIn every minute of the day, more than 120 pros are joining LinkedIn. And on YouTube, their users watch 4.1 million YouTube videos every minute.

 Sue Frech: [00:11:22]  Every minute!

 Sarah Panus: [00:11:24] So it’s just crazy. And I know I focus on the social channels, but I mean, there’s all of that, right? And so as a brand, you have your content on these platforms and on your website and you’re on all these places, right? There’s just so much going on. So I think that’s one big way. And having an empathetic filter and empathy filter that I talk about is one way. It’s to be able to actually connect with them and make sure you’re reaching them. So that’s one thing. And I also think this whole growth in the Internet of Things in general is making this more of a need for brands. You know, more than half the web searches on mobile right now, or people are conducting more than half of their web searches on mobile in general and more than 40,000 Google searches every second. So, you want to help your content be seen from that perspective, too. So I think that’s two things. And then the third one I would say is that just from like how people are feeling is that all the stats and research and a lot of science and things are coming out to showing how loneliness is on the rise. And this started happening before the pandemic. So I can’t even imagine what the research is going to show now of how people are feeling after being isolated for the last year and a half. But loneliness is on the rise. There was some health care research that was done and it showed that three in five Americans are lonely. They’re feeling left out, poorly understood, and they lack companionship. And that was up like 13% from a couple of years prior. And so, like I said, I can’t even imagine how much it’s gone up now after the pandemic and, you know, loneliness. And that just shows how people are feeling and that kind of social isolation. So you hear that feeling left out, poorly understood. So what better reason than from our brand? You have this opportunity to help your customer base by actually understanding them, by actually listening, by actually tapping in and serving them with content that’s going to help them.

 Sue Frech: [00:13:18] And it’s so interesting, you know, we had done a study in the middle of the pandemic. I say middle because I’m thinking we’re on the tail end. But we had done the study early on in last year and really just asked members of our own community about their feeling around brands and how they’re handling everything. And it was incredible how much consumers are relying on brands to get them through tough times and to be the ones to explain things. And even in this crazy political environment, things happening civil. And they were looking to brands so that there is this responsibility, I think. And so I think for what you’re saying, it’s so incredible the numbers and the study and loneliness. But there is this responsibility that brands have to deliver. And so I think maybe that expectation has gone up too.

 Sarah Panus: [00:14:08] Well, that’s a good point, too, right? Because there is more distrust in media right now, too. So I think that you’re right, like the information that’s shared, I think that is kind of the shift of people trusting brands more. They didn’t always used to be that way right? There’s always skepticism, but now I just feel like they trust brands more than they trust the media. And so there’s a great opportunity. And that’s why I say I think brands are the new editor in chief, and I think there’s such an opportunity for storytelling that they can do.

Sue Frech: [00:14:37] Yeah, and you know, I love data. Sata brings me to this other point that the data is so important going into making determinations about your story and your content and your messaging. But what about on the back end, the ROI side of it? How would a marketer listening in measure the effectiveness if they’re looking to really change their strategy and embrace empathy-driven brand storytelling? How do they measure that?

 Sarah Panus: [00:15:03] Yeah, well, there’s definitely way more than one way. And what I would say to start is it ultimately has to ladder back to whatever your business priorities are. So I always work with brands and I say, okay, let’s create a brand storytelling blueprint. Like, what are we? What’s the point? What’s the objective? What is it going to do? What are the pillars you’re going to talk about, etc? But it needs to ladder back to whatever your company priority is, and that will give you a window into what types of things you want to measure. So for example. If you’re looking drive more awareness around your brand and create those meaningful engagements, then engagement is like a very standard metric that you can look at. What’s the volume of engagements, the cost per engagement you can look at, click-through rates and time spent, and all of that, just to understand the quality of the types of content or questions or things that you’re putting out there. How is your audience interacting with them? But if you’re looking as well, like maybe another is what we really want to advance our leadership position in this area and this category. So then you can look at whether it’s externally or internally, maybe with your employee base, right? So there are different ways you can look at it. You can be tracking from an internal comms perspective. Is there movement from pre versus post through like surveying and questions and tapping into your employee base as a community to activate or externally? It can be looking then at leadership positions like how are we doing in terms of other thought leadership pieces that our content is spurring with other thought leaders, with influencers, or with the media, with PR and earn placements? What types of actions is your content driving? What are those key actions for your brand? So maybe you need to generate leads or a list for volunteers. If you’re a non-profit, you’re looking for volunteers to help out on something. So what I see is high-level brand storytelling can generate much better quality leads. So that cost per lead is much more beneficial because you’re really tapping into your people if you’re being authentic to your brand voice and what you care about and who your audience is and you want to get more of those types of people, then you’re able to better attract them. And so you’re getting those signups that that volume. There’s also an SEO play, of course, with brand storytelling. And so you can look at the value of organic SEO as well as other SEO kinds of paid metrics. But organic SEO is interesting because if you look at your written content, it’s an opportunity to think about, like I said, more than half of online searches are done on mobile. So people are looking for things, trying to find information, surprise things pop up when you’re not looking. I mean, we’ve all been there on Google like, oh, that looks like an interesting link. I’m going to click on that. But what is the value of that content to rank organically for SEO? So if you had to pay for that placement with SEM, how much would it cost you? So there’s a calculation you can do there to say, well, this content, the organic SEO value of this content is X dollars. You know how you would pay for it. And another one I’ve seen that’s really interesting, Sue, like just to kind of think outside the box too is you can think about it as like how much money is it helping generate or how many leads or people or actions or engagements and everything, like I just said. But you can also take a look at it too, of how much money might it be saving your brand? I saw a great example with a brand that I used to work at where there were consistent questions that were coming in through customer service. And so we helped develop some questions through an online program and put it filtered those in through it and actually was able to calculate and say, okay, well what’s the cost per call that comes in? Like, how much would we have to pay someone in customer service to answer this call? But now if that call volume is reduced because we’re adding this great storytelling content that actually is answering some of these overarching kind of high-level type questions that people had, then you’re saving money because you don’t have to have as much headcount. So that is an interesting way too. There’s a lot of different ways that you can look at it that go beyond sales, but obviously conversion to sales and I think there is getting more and more sophisticated models of how to track all the way down the funnel to sales that expand. A lot of it is folks will look at like, last-click attribution. So if they run your blog and then they ended up purchasing or doing that action afterward, you get that attributed back to you. But it’s really a limited view, right? Because most people look at multiple things, the multiple touchpoints on just that last-click attribution and so holistically kind of looking at the multiple parts of the phase is really helpful. I was recently talking with, I have two examples of two people actually that I just interviewed for my podcast that were super interesting.

 Sarah Panus: [00:20:07] They’re doing really cool work around this. One is a company called and they have this tool, they call it EMR, it’s enterprise marketing return and it goes real deep beyond last click. You know, they’re holistically looking at lifetime value and tons of details within that in terms of going deeper around incrementality, they can measure online to offline, etc. So that’s one example. And then I was talking with another company called Interview—I was talking with Chris Wallace, their CEO. It’s going to be a future podcast episode that’s going to come out. And he works specifically helping companies think about their employees as a community and then how you tap and measure the result of if your employees are happy and communicating well, then how that trickles to better results because if they’re happy, then they’re talking to your customers and then it’s just going to be this win-win. So they have something called a brand transfer score where they see like, how does that value transfer from their employees to the external. And so it’s super interesting. There are lots of different ways to measure it. So I would tell people if it’s hard to measure actually down to our why from a sales perspective, look outside the box of other ways and tie it back into your company priorities.

 Sue Frech: [00:21:30] Are you enjoying the show so far? We highlight so many resources and tools in the podcast that it can be tough to keep up. We get it. Look, if it’s not obvious already from listening to the show, one of the most important strategies for growing a brand community is how you cultivate and incentivize your consumers. And with ten plus years of experience in the activation and engagement of online communities, who knows better than TINT how to do that? TINT surveyed its own community of 1 million-plus consumers and uncovered the five personas that every marketer should know about to accelerate brand community building. Understanding what motivates and sparks action within each segment will empower you to foster enhanced engagement and drive results for your brand. To get access to this “Incentives Made Easy” report revealing the 5 persons, head over to the TINT website. Now, back to the show. 

 Sue Frech: [00:22:09] But I do love that. Your point is that it touches so many things. I mean, it touches your topline goals and then all your metrics and KPIs. I mean, I think you really can talk about the brand storytelling, the quality content, the empathy that’s built-in is driving so many elements and can really move that needle. One of the things I love to talk about because, and you brought it up earlier, was just the lack of trust in media. And so there’s, again, this very important emphasis on advocacy and word of mouth and whether it’s your employees, which we do have communities that are focusing on engaging their employees because they certainly are advocates as well. But when you think about the advocacy component and brand storytelling, can you just talk from your perspective, how is it turning consumers into loyalists, and what it’s really doing for the overall brand?

 Sarah Panus: [00:23:31] Absolutely. So, you know, like I mentioned before, you think about it just as people, because that’s what you are. Your brand is talking to people. It’s people talking to people at the end of the day. And so when your audience, when a brand’s audience, that company’s audience feels listened to and heard and understood, it creates this vibe that your audience wants to be a part of. So that helps fuel advocacy. Serving content that they’re interested in and that they want to consume and share with other folks. This increases their engagement, their retention, their repeat actions, and their referrals. I mean, I had a program that I worked on for a previous brand and we had a lot of insights that went into it and  people had a ton of questions about some things. We developed this program and as we launched it with the current owner base, first of the company, it increased repeat and referral actions by 300%. It was like the craziest thing and it was because none of it was promotional, but it was under the pillar and the values of the brand. And it was answering these questions that we had seen through lots of data and research. It was like, “people have a lot of questions about this stuff. Let’s create this 30 day program and let’s like give it to them for free and let them walk through it and educate themselves.” And we’ll be the leader and we’ll be the expert that’s helping guide them along, but ultimately want to help them.

 Sarah Panus: [00:24:51] And it was such an easy—what I find with brand storytelling is it’s such an easy way to create advocacy because it’s interesting and it gives an easy excuse to want to share something. It’s a lot harder to ask someone to share a discount or sale or something like that. It’s a lot easier to be like, Oh, there is this really cool article I just learned about how to take care of my house plants and how they’ll actually help me sleep better tonight. That’s interesting. You know, everyone has plants in their house, but did you know these plants are better, etc.? That’s just it’s such an easy way. And then you think, well, this brand is so cool. And so that’s really it. I mean, advocacy. You want to talk about the brands that you like or the things that you like. And so you want to be that brand. You want to be the brand that’s giving your audience the things that they like, but also to get that, you have to listen to them. I always think of it. So I talk a lot about, like with brand storytelling and dating references because I feel like people can get that it’s just like when you’re dating, you have to go on that first date and if you go in that first date with someone and the other person is only talking about themselves the whole time and they’re never engaging with you or asking you anything about what you think, are you going to go on a second date? Probably not.

 Sarah Panus: [00:26:02] And then if they are interactive and that’s the brand, you don’t want to be the brand. Don’t be that guy. Don’t be that guy talking about themselves on that first date all the time. That’s brand storytelling. And then after the first date, once you make it past it, you kind of get into the middle part of the funnel where you’re like, okay, let’s date. Like I want to date you exclusively. Let’s try this out, like I’m going to feel you out. So if we vibe, that’s like that building, that’s an advocacy piece and that’s why community is so important because you’re nurturing at that point. And then when you get down into the final, like the bottom part of the funnel, that’s the marriage proposal, right? That’s where you ask the question. They’re going all-in kind of a thing. So I think about it like that and I think if we just remember, like we’re all humans and that’s how we interact, I think it just helps. It helps give a little bit more guidance so that you’re not just sell, sell, sell, sell, sell all the time.

 Sue Frech: [00:26:57] That is such a great analogy. I love that even though it’s been a million years since I’ve been dating. Totally can relate. And even then once they purchase, so once they’re married, you still need to continue to work at it. So I do love the brands that say, you know, I just want to be a lifestyle brand. And I’m like, you can’t just be a lifestyle brand. You’ve got to go back to your core and again go through those exercises and really find out who you are and the messaging, the story that you’re going to tell. So it brings me to the point of community, which, again, you know, we build online communities. What part do you think does the brand, the empathy-driven brand storytelling play in the strategy? Because obviously, it’s so. critical. I mean, being part of a community when a brand is part of community, there are brands that we have that are there to just be supportive and let the community be run and manage their own community. So the members themselves are the community and then there are others where the brands work in cause or natural products or just experts in their area where they are informational or educational. But what role do you think the empathy-driven brand storytelling plays in community strategy?

 Sarah Panus: [00:28:08] Yeah, I actually think it plays three roles. I think it can help with the build phase, the nurture phase, and then the growing. So I actually think it plays throughout. The build phase is so amazing because you can ask questions of that community. You could highlight the value of what’s going to be shared in that community to attract people into it, say, hey, these are the types of things we’re going to be sharing with you, and you include that in the content. But I love, love, love really tapping into existing communities. Then as you’re nurturing to hear their voice, the voice of the customer, and then using that in your content to inform your content. So a super easy way to humanize content is to add quotes from real people into it, like real people into a story, right? Get those quotes from the people in your community, poll them, ask them questions. If you’re thinking like, Oh, I wonder if our audience would be interested in a story about this. Ask them. That’s like the beautiful thing we have done that time and time again. It’s been so helpful to be able to understand like, okay, well, they said they were interested in this.

 Sarah Panus: [00:29:06] We’re going to create some content about it and then we’re going to share it in the community. And guess what? It does really well, and then they want to share it with their external communities that they’re part of. So that’s amazing. And then that just helps to grow that community and keep it engaged, because I think any great community, it’s the conversation, but it can’t be just all about promo and the brand. It has to be like you say, it’s a mix of the lifestyle on the brand, but it’s the value of what you’re offering to them that relates to your brand. And so that’s really what’s going to get them to keep wanting to come back and to share that content. I’ve seen great loyalty programs where you get points for purchasing, but you also get points for sharing the content. And that has been an amazing, amazing engagement driver because it’s more natural and more likely that they’re going to share some content other than always sharing your discount coupon type thing.

 Sue Frech: [00:30:01] Yeah, we love that. We’ve been getting lots of interest lately on these nontransactional rewards and I think complimenting loyalty programs and enhancing them is that component of advocacy and sharing and really that engagement piece of it. You’ve worked with so many incredible brands over the years, particularly even Sleep Number, but do you have an example of a client? And again, if you can or can’t share, but an example of a client that really has implemented and maybe what they look like before and what they look like today after implementing this strategy of empathy-driven storytelling.

 Sarah Panus: [00:30:35] Yeah, I’ll actually use Sleep Number as an example since I worked with them for so long, and I think it’s been a cool evolution over the last 13 years. So I worked with them for 12, like I said, inside and then now I’ve been consulting with them the last year and a half. They have had such an amazing transformation of, yknow, early on in the brand’s start everything was very focused. It was very problem-solution. It was very much marketing solutions to back pain, you know, adjustable beds, things like that. It worked, and that is empathy because you’re listening to your audience have their issues, right? Like their pain and how you could solve that. But what’s really happened over time now is it’s not just that. There are so many other folks who benefit from sleeping well. And so now this overarching umbrella of health and wellbeing, and that opens up some different facets of how you think about it and pairing that in with sleep science and new research. Like, they’ve collaborated, they’re collaborating right now with the Mayo Clinic to do additional research in the sleep science space, because sleep science is pretty new. And so they’re doing a lot more there.

 Sarah Panus: [00:31:44] They’re also doing a lot of active listening and research and understanding and then their product has like sleep tracking in it as well. So they get a ton of insights that way. So they’ve now been able to pair that and to take that to their customer base. And so a very recent example I think is amazing. So, I’m the editor in chief of their external blog. And one of the things we’ve done is—a big facet with health and wellbeing is self-care. And from research and insights and just a lot of listening and hearing from people as in especially like women in particular and moms in particular, is that self care doesn’t always happen. You take care of everyone else and you may feel a little guilty like, oh, I don’t have time to do that. But then there’s also this slight edge of like, well, no, I need to take care of myself because I know that that’s important too. But it’s like this. Push and pull, right? And so a great example is that we’re doing this blog series right now about all the things you tell yourself you should be doing. Oh, I should be doing the laundry, should be doing I should be a little blah blah.

 Sarah Panus: [00:32:50] So, we created this series called Stop Shooting Yourself. And I love that. And so we’re like halfway. We’ve got the first two. We got the third article coming up on the Sleep Number blog. But basically, it goes so much deeper into like the guilt and the feelings that we all have and like how to take care of your own self-care and of course how quality sleep plays into that. But it’s about more. It’s just about that mindset and how you just need to like, stop shooting yourself. And guess what? We’re getting great engagement on that type of content. No surprise because it’s tapping into the mindset of the consumer right now and it’s doing it in a way that’s not overly promotional. It’s starting a conversation and seeing great conversations from women like, Oh, I can totally relate to this and this is me. And so that’s a great example of going from something more rational back in the day to now being able to tap into an emotional state of what people are feeling related to their own self-care habits or lack thereof.

 Sue Frech: [00:33:56] And just think it’s so different than saying, okay, it was just Memorial Day, it’s just the big sale and that’s what our content’s going to focus on. And we’ll just do holidays all year. I mean, what a difference in being a resource and a value and connecting with your audience. I just love that example. Yeah.

 Sarah Panus: [00:34:12] And the big thing too is sometimes Sue, sometimes when I talk about empathy, I do get from some folks like, Oh, that’s just all top of the funnel, woo woo, feel-good stuff. And you know, the example I just gave, yes, but it’s backed by data. It’s not like—and I always say, okay, well if you don’t want to drive seven times better engagement and top ROI, I mean, I don’t feel like that’s top of the funnel woo woo stuff by any means. I’ve seen it play out time and time again, but like those storylines in what you do as a brand, and Sleep Number is really smart with this, is then, of course, they’re tying it back to their product, but in a very conversational way. It’s the importance of quality sleep, like how important that is for your own self-care. And then they’re bringing in science and research and insights and oh, by the way, Sleep Number bed owners get 100 more hours of quality sleep a year. So it just that’s a way you bring it all together.

 Sue Frech: [00:35:02] Oh, my gosh. Love that. And for those listening, they should be clicking right now onto Sleep Number’s site because who wouldn’t want that?

 Sarah Panus: [00:35:07] Do it.

 Sue Frech: [00:35:08] Right? Yeah. Yes, exactly. So I mean, I think that you brought up a really good point. Going back to your earlier point, it’s not so much that this hasn’t always been around, but there is this mind shift that you might have some marketers or leaders or business owners that are saying, Yeah, that works for other brands, but it doesn’t work for me. Or that’s because they are a purpose-driven brand and I’m not. And it’s so interesting that if you were to say to somebody that wasn’t bought in or didn’t understand, they’d say, Well, you know, they might have said, Well, mattresses, that’s not a brand that people would want to talk about. But you’ve just completely given us a mind shift here, which I love. So you’ve shared so much, like what can a listener do right now? What are some of the first steps that they should take before implementing a new strategy around empathy-driven brand storytelling.

 Sarah Panus: [00:36:00] Yeah, I would say three real quick things. I would say just from a getting started perspective, I would say one is as you think about your brand storytelling now or what you want to start is ask the question, what’s the empathy filter like? If you do nothing else, just operationalize that in discussions and brainstorms. When you’re looking at your content calendar, when you’re looking at a content idea proposal from a partner, what’s the empathy filter? What about this is going to connect heart to heart or mind to mind with your audience base. That’s the first thing. And if you don’t have an answer, a good answer for it, it’s not the right thing. Tweak it until you get it to where you have a reason that will resonate with someone. The second, I would say, is to become—I always talk about becoming an empathy plus data investigator. So really a combo of what I’ve been talking about. It’s the pairing of the two and I think the first step is looking at your SEO insights. So look into SEO to understand: What are people searching for? How are they talking about it? Every single time I’ve leaned into SEO insights to inform a story, that content is always in the top ten best performing content for the year. Because SEO is like a big focus group, you know, search engine optimization, people are typing in Google all these different things and they’re really honest because it’s just them on their computer. And so you can get a lot of amazing insight about the right wording to use and questions and things like that that you can use to tap into your customer base. And then the third one I would just say in general too, is as a brand, when you’re thinking about brand storytelling and these narratives that you want to tell, no matter whatever format it is, don’t make your brand the hero in the story. Make your customer the hero in the story. So the customer is the hero ultimately. And then the brand—you are the guide. You are what’s making that hero’s story possible. And that is where I think some brands get it flipped. But at the upper part of the funnel, you want to make sure that your audience or whoever you want to attract sees themself in that story, and that’s going to get them to stop and want to consume it. And then you bring them in and then of course as you get further in mid-funnel, low funnel of course then you start, you get more into like all of your brand details and things like that. But upper funnel, you’ve got to make the customer the hero.

 Sue Frech: [00:38:23] Oh my gosh. That’s such great advice and an easy way to break it down for listeners. I think that’s just an incredible way to say, okay, here’s how I get started. So now to a fun question. You know, community, as you know, again, we build communities. What is a community that you’re either part of right now, or you wish that they had one, that you could be part of and why?

 Sarah Panus: [00:38:45] Mm-hmm. So I actually have two and it’s different points. I have one where it’s a product I own, and then I have another one where it’s not yet a product I own. It’s kind of an aspirational brand, but how they’re keeping me engaged as an example. So the one that I own, I have a subscription to Blinkist. Have you ever heard of Blinkist? It’s great. It’s actually how I do a lot of my reading these days. It’s an app, but it’s web-based as well. It’s kind of like Cliff Notes for books if you will, but there are tons of books and different videos and audio and reading and all these things. And so you can get so much like pared-down reading done. And then what I do  is I’ll look at different topics of books and things I’m interested in, and I’ll read the summaries, and there are different varying lengths of how long it’ll take you to get through it. And then if I’m really interested, then I’m like, cool, I’m buying this book.

 Sarah Panus: [00:39:47] But what I love about that community, in general, is they do a nice job with me. They’ll send out surveys and they’ll ask for the small groups and they’ll ask for our feedback as they’re looking to keep developing their offerings. What do we like? What don’t we like? They look for suggestions and then for me, they add a ton of value because they’re personalizing what I consume based on what I’m already looking at and the feedback I’ve given. Then my online experience just gets more personalized and customized so that I’m seeing the things that are going to be of more interest to me. So it’s easier for me to use it. And so I just love that and I love how they truly do tap into me to ask me for my opinion. I love that. And then the one that I’m not, I would say I’m a lead I haven’t bought yet is there’s a women’s clothing retailer called M.M. LaFleur out of New York. And I’m part of their community, their email and blog community. I’m going to put community in quotes, but it feels like that in terms of how they’ve created this storytelling content around it and they do the most amazing job with upper-funnel storytelling and aligning it to their company values. And they’re very much about targeting a professional businesswoman with quality and ease and things like that. And so they have done an amazing job with stories around career development and women leaders that you can hear interviews with and things like that. And they are, of course, scattering in, you know, different visuals and things like that of people wearing their clothes. And all the women they interview are always in their clothes, which is fascinating. I’m like, This is amazing. I want to be interviewed by them, so they’ll send me some clothes to wear during the interview. But what I appreciate about them is it’s such a nice mix of promo and brand storytelling. They do it very seamlessly and I would say their email newsletter that they send out that highlights their blog is a perfect example of brands for the new editor in chief because it feels like a magazine sent it to me. It feels like it’s that well organized— it’s so great.

 Sue Frech: [00:42:04] That’s amazing. And you’ve given me two resources, which is what I love about you, Sarah, of course. But that’s so incredible. And what I love is that it seems in both cases, you know, again, they really know their audience and they know who their end-consumer and customer is, and they’re talking to them in a relatable, relevant, and personalized way. And so I think that, again, is the foundation of community, even if they don’t have a “community” But they do have a community and I love those examples. So, you are a wealth of knowledge and an incredible resource and your marketing with empathy podcast is a great place for listeners to start. How do listeners find you?

 Sarah Panus: [00:42:49] I love that. I always think of Wedding Crashers. “They’ll find you.” I would love it if you found me, people! So I would say the first thing is, if anyone’s listening, if you like, want more, more brand storytelling tips or any inspiration or things like that. I would love to have you join my email community. I send out a weekly brand storytelling newsletter so you can head over to There’s a pop-up that will come up and you can just sign up for that and get insights on all those tips and inspiration. You’ll hear about my podcast guests and then also any future online courses that I’m launching to help you DIY yourself. And then, of course, you can connect with me on LinkedIn. I’m Sarah Panus on LinkedIn and then on Instagram—I am Sarah Panus on Instagram.

 Sue Frech: [00:43:37] That’s awesome. And I’m sure there are listeners that will be joining your community, which is so exciting. Sarah, thank you so much for your time. I think we could talk for hours and unfortunately, we have to limit it because people are busy. But I’m really grateful for all of your experience and expertise and certainly sharing with our audience today.

 Sarah Panus: [00:43:54] Thank you for having me on, Sue.

 Sue Frech: [00:43:57] I hope you enjoyed today’s episode of the Community Powered Marketing Podcast. Make sure to hit subscribe on whichever platform you’re listening on. And if you like this episode, please write a review and share it. This show exists to showcase how brands can unlock the sales, advocacy, and insights potential of their audience by incorporating community-powered marketing into their brand strategy. Curious about how your brand stacks up in engaging your audience? We’ve done ten plus years’ worth of data crunching so you don’t have to. To see how you rank against some of the best at engagement, advocacy, and insights, and to learn more about how the TINT team can unlock the power of your audience through community, go to to get your audience engagement index ranking. Once again. It’s All right, that’s a wrap. We can’t wait to hang with you on the next episode.

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