Expertise or Empathy: Which is Most Important for Credibility?

Article by Crystal White
3 minutes 54 seconds read

When it comes to websites, companies tend to focus on discussing who they are, highlighting executives’ bios, and giving features and benefits of their products and services.

Typically, there’s often an “About Us” page, but the entire website could be interpreted as About Us. Companies think this is the correct approach to online branding, believing that all they need do is communicate who they are and what they do in order to answer buyer questions and gain the audience’s trust.

They couldn’t be more wrong.

In our post “Building Audience Confidence,” we discussed ethos, one of three elements of Aristotelian rhetoric, and how it applies to writing for the web. Within that post, ethos was defined as being that information presented that earns the audience’s trust in the writer’s knowledge, experience, and empathy. But, when it comes to content, companies rely too heavily upon communicating their knowledge and experience, without paying enough attention to empathy or goodwill—which is what actually earns the audience’s trust.

In “Communicating Corporate Ethos on the Web: The Self-Presentation of PR Agencies,” Maria Isaksson and Poul Erik Flyvholm Jorgensen studied 60 British, Danish, and Norwegian corporate websites. They selected PR agencies, believing that if any industry understood the importance of building trust, it would be public relations. Specifically, the purpose for the survey was to see if the agencies employed traditional rhetorical devices in order to build credibility, or if instead they employed other strategies.

The data was clear:

  • 55% of the 287 observed instances reflected expertise (1)
  • 20-30% reflected trustworthiness as a goal
  • Less than 20% reflected empathy

But, what makes this the wrong approach? After all, don’t clients primarily want to know our experience?

Not really, no.

At the other end of a screen is a person. Audiences are made up of people, just like companies. What happens, though, is that because of this digital divide, too many viewers see corporations as soulless entities—not as a collection of people. Certainly not people just like them.

What audiences want is understanding. They want identification. They want to have relationships with others, and they can’t get that from a website that only tells them how awesome and experienced the company is. You don’t have to look very far to find companies that understand the importance of goodwill—you need only look at the Fortune 1000 and the top 3 “most-admired” companies in the U.S.

In her study of Fortune 1000 mission statements, L.S. Williams found that all of the Fortune 1000 used “at least one expression of goodwill,” and most “used a first-person point of view” (we/our) to help the audience identify with the company. (2)  Similarly, in 2007, Waeraas and Ihlen examined the environmental messages of the 3 most-admired companies (GE, Starbucks, and Toyota) which follow:

  • General Electric described their customers as “more or less equal partners.” (3)
  • Starbucks wanted to be “your Starbucks.”
  • And Toyota stated it was “a true friend of the environment as well as of its customers.”

So what if some companies have adopted a more inclusive way of writing? Where’s the harm in a me-centered website that relies heavily upon expertise and knowledge?

According to J.C. McCroskey and J.J. Teven, when they examined how companies presented their ethos online, they observed that out of the three dimensions of ethos (expertise, trustworthiness, and goodwill), expertise was the least effective in connecting with audiences. (4)

When the message is that a company is experienced and knowledgeable but lacks a sense of goodwill, the audience then feels that the company is self-serving. This was the conclusion of C.H. Amato and L.H. Amato in their study of how companies presented themselves. Because empathy shows the company identifies with them, the audience then feels included in the company’s goals and motivations. Without it, the audience believes that the company is “express[ing] concern for the client for selfish reasons or hidden motives.” (5) They state that empathy is necessary for “cultivating and maintaining a corporate good guy image in the eyes of various stakeholders.”

With companies focused on pushing content out to audiences, it’s important that they remain mindful of the rhetorical approaches that will help them effectively communicate. In this, efforts should be directed to building relationships with the audience. To learn more about incorporating empathy into your company’s content, see our upcoming posts, “5 Strategies for Building Trust” and “Goodwill Hunting: Companies Who Get It.”


1. Isaksson, Maria and Poul Erik Flynholm Jorgensen. “Communicating Corporate Ethos on the Web: The Self-Presentation of PR Agencies,” Journal of Business Communication 47, no. 2, (2010): 126.

2. Ibid.

3. Ibid., 122.

4. Ibid., 123.

5. Ibid.