As technology ushers in an unprecedented age of globalization, it often seems like the world just keeps getting smaller.
This is especially true on modern social media, where people around the world can interact conveniently in real time, in conversations that can include hundreds of thousands of individuals. For marketers, this means unlimited possibilities, but we also know that social media interactions are legendary in their potential for going sideways in the blink of an eye. Marketers, community managers, and brands (and, to some extent, individuals), are increasingly forced to evaluate what they say with great care before posting.
That’s not necessarily a bad thing.
Due to the sheer number of daily interactions on social media, it’s vital to consider the vast range of perspectives and backgrounds you’re likely to encounter. If you’re sponsoring Facebook posts with paid traffic, many of the individuals reached are going to be a long way from your company’s backyard, both geographically and in their lived experiences. As the front line of a brand, company, or even social movement, try to evaluate your words in a global context. It won’t just save your brand a lot of trouble-- it’s also the respectful course of action when the alternative is adding to the countless microaggressions that many groups experience daily.
If you’re not sure where to start when considering all the ways in which your content might inadvertently alienate some members of its audience (and we all get it wrong, sometimes), below is a basic list of content best practices to get you started. Please note that this list is not exhaustive, will not replace market research, and may not apply to every topic that you or your brand may post about. Common sense, knowing your audience, and maintaining a willingness to turn a critical eye towards your own perspective are also musts for writing inclusive content.
Use person-first language. If you write for a nonprofit, clinical practice, or other organization that deals with medical ailments or disability, be sure to post about these topics using person-first language. For example, use “people with disabilities” instead of “disabled people” or “the disabled.” This may seem awkward and not as concise, but it’s an important distinction. Although a disability may change how someone experiences the world, it is not their defining characteristic. [Note: I would also recommend using person-first language to refer to socioeconomic status. For example, “women living with poverty” or “women experiencing poverty” instead of “poor women.”]
Use humor cautiously. It’s true that humor in brand marketing can lead to more conversions if used properly, but it also has a high failure rate. To help keep your joke from falling flat, most marketing sources recommend steering clear of any and all controversial topics. However, social commentary is necessary for some organizations, including brands that would like to appeal to a specific audience by being “edgy.” If you do decide to stir things up with witty commentary on a social issue, look at it in a sociological and historical context. Does the humor make light of a group that has suffered (or still suffers) oppression at the hands of the majority? Could it possibly be interpreted that way? If so, it’s probably best to scrap that particular joke, even if your brand is irreverent. Try not to frame the issue in terms of the audience lacking a sense of humor. Jokes that make fun of people who already live with some kind of social stigma or racial tension are likely to make some of them angry, and understandably so - jokes can trivialize, erase, and contradict their lived experiences, and justify the harm they have experienced. Instead, make sure your joke is on the majority, not the minority. In other words, make sure your joke calls attention to a problem in a humorous way and doesn’t kick the underdog. Failure to make the distinction between “good” and “harmful” humor might provoke backlash from the people for whom you meant to show support.
Avoid ableist language. Ableism is insidious, partly because many people tend to base their own identities on being able-bodied. For example, being an “avid hiker,” “outdoorsman,” or “athlete” is a common core component of personal identity. While there’s nothing inherently wrong with this, it can make it easy to inadvertently stick a foot in your mouth on social media. Try to avoid words or language in your content that normalize able-bodiedness or carry connotations of mocking those with disabilities, even though many such terms are used every day in casual conversation. For examples and an in-depth analysis, check out Autistic Hoya. [Note: I chose to highlight ableism due to its relative absence from the spotlight in discussions of relevant sociological issues, but the same need for conscious writing applies to race, gender, age, or any other source of widely held prejudice. Keep your content open, non-restrictive, and free of terms or idioms that might stir up unwanted controversy in the comments section or unintentionally contribute to a status quo that you don’t support.]
Think “interests,” not “demographics.” Writing and designing inclusive content goes beyond featuring a range of skin tones and genders in visual content. While it’s to your advantage to know your audience and feature diversity in marketing materials when appropriate, a more meaningful way to be inclusive to your target market is to avoid stereotyping their interests or lifestyles. That is not to say that you should ignore data that describes your audience’s most common desires, goals, and demographics. For example, even though active users on Pinterest are primarily women, try to avoid creating content that conveys any assumption about the race, gender, creed, etc. of your audience. After all, some men enjoy fashion and home DIY projects too!
When in doubt, leave it out. As always, use your best judgement and common sense, and don’t hesitate to fall back on the latest research. If you add idioms and colloquial phrases to your content because it benefits the brand image, do a quick etymology search to make sure the ones you choose don’t come with unwanted historical or sociopolitical baggage. For a commonly cited example, see “rule of thumb.” For a less common (but more factual) example, see “hysteria.” As marketers know, words DO matter. And, not just for boosting your social media performance!
Considering global and sociopolitical diversity as part of your brand’s social presence (and, indeed, in any other context) can be overwhelming, even for those accustomed to thinking about it. We’re all human, and we’re all learning. Mistakes happen—in fact, they’re an absolute certainty if you post frequently enough to a broad audience.
But, that’s okay! The important thing is maintaining an open, flexible perspective and a willingness to learn. If you make an honest effort to express goodwill towards all demographics through your brand, the audience will notice, even as they’re calling out a mistake.
You’ll also have the chance to come out one BIG step ahead of brands that got defensive under pressure instead of offering an inclusive, thoughtful response right away.
—by Erin Maes
Erin Maes is a is a lifelong writer who is passionate about language, communications, storytelling, and how they differ across mediums and platforms.