There is plenty of talk about prejudice and discrimination in the world, and we often think we know what it looks like. But one of the most pervasive and insidious forms of discrimination lies in our inherent bias. Whether we realize it our not, this bias is everywhere—even in our content—and it’s one of the biggest barriers to creating inclusive marketing.
We were reminded of this fact when Devin Zimmerman, VP of Brand at Greenlight, joined us on our Best Story Wins podcast to talk about the ways she and her team approach marketing. Although Greenlight is a financial platform for kids and teens, her team is very thoughtful in the ways they approach their content—and bias is a huge thing she thinks about.
“I think as marketers, we really need to be talking about it really, really often because of the influence that we have on society in general,” Zimmerman says. Indeed, the content you create has great power, and understanding your biases (and uncovering them) is deeply important work that benefits not only your audience but your brand.
How to Create Inclusive Marketing
Fighting bias isn’t easy, of course, nor will you always move through the world without bias. But being aware of it in your marketing can help you make smarter decisions that result in better and more inclusive marketing.
As Zimmerman says, “I think it leads you to uncover stones…you find things you might not have found before because you asked questions that you might not have asked.”
So how can you spot bias and ensure it doesn’t cloud your content marketing? Here are the first steps.
1) Understand what bias is.
According to Merriam-Webster, bias is “a personal and sometimes unreasoned judgment.” Bias can be both positive and negative, but either way, it skews the way you see the world—and can deeply affect the way you interact with your audience. As content marketing is the most powerful way all brands connect with people today, it is crucial to vet your content for bias. But you can only do that effectively when you know what to look for.
Tip: Start by educating yourself and your marketing team about the 14 types of bias to understand how these biases can influence marketing decisions and messaging.
This education is also helpful beyond just marketing. For example, our team has undergone LifeLabs training to combat bias throughout the hiring process—a very eye-opening experience. (Although we think of bias as something prejudicial and negative, positive bias is often just as powerful—and can exclude others.)
2) Be aware of the stereotypes in your field.
Stereotypes are one of the most pervasive problems in marketing (and media) in general. We see it everywhere. It’s the stay-at-home mom in the laundry commercial and the white middle-aged CEO in the insurance ad.
This often happens because marketers make assumptions about their intended audience. This type of bias isn’t always intentional, but it does reflect a level of laziness. Too many brands rely on tired tropes or longheld stereotypes to try to “connect” with their audience. At best, these brands seem out of touch with their audience. At worst, they’re perceived as downright insulting.
For example, when we spoke with Drew Hoffman VP of Brand at cybersecurity company SentinelOne, he complained about the outdated imagery the cybersecurity industry tends to use. (Think sketchy dudes in hoodies hacking into your accounts.) Instead, Drew pushes his team to use more interesting, creative, and relevant imagery to talk about security as a whole. They also pay attention to who their audience is. Because not all IT managers are middle-aged white men, their homepage hero video features a professional woman.
This type of inclusivity isn’t just a trend; it can drastically improve your bottom line.
According to a study by the Association of National Advertisers, campaigns that accurately portray women and girls can garner 2x to 5x incremental sales lift.
Tip: If you want to create inclusive marketing, you need to understand who your audience is, what they care about, and what they aspire to be. Use data to understand your audience’s demographics, behaviors, and psychographics, then use our guide to create marketing personas. With this insight, you can better vet your marketing materials to represent individuals and groups effectively—and make your messaging more impactful.
3) Use inclusive language.
Language is incredibly powerful. You may not realize the words you use are actively excluding people from your content. For example, language that’s too aggressive or hypermasculine may exclude a largely female audience. Language that is too technical may be difficult for the average office worker to understand.
Fun fact: When our own agency rewrote our job descriptions for inclusivity, we increased female applicants 36%.
This is why it’s crucial to vet your marketing materials, including advertisements, website content, and social media posts, to ensure they are inclusive and free from bias. Here are a few key things to consider when you do.
- Use clear, simple, and inclusive language. Avoid jargon and technical terms that might be unfamiliar to some users.
- Avoid gender-specific language. Use gender-neutral terms whenever possible. Instead of using “he” or “she,” opt for gender-neutral pronouns like “they” or rephrase the sentence to avoid pronouns altogether.
- Be mindful of cultural and ethnic references. Be cautious when incorporating cultural or ethnic references to avoid stereotypes or misrepresentations. Research and understand the cultural context to ensure respectful and accurate portrayal.
- Use person-first language. When discussing individuals with disabilities or specific conditions, use person-first language. For example, say “a person with a disability” rather than “disabled person.” This puts the person before the condition.
- Be mindful of age-related language. Avoid ageism by using inclusive language when referring to different age groups. Refrain from making assumptions or using derogatory terms related to age.
4) Assess your imagery.
Visual communication is the most powerful medium—and it has done incredible harm in perpetuating harmful stereotypes and biases.
If you want to be a competitive marketer, you need a skilled and savvy team that can create content that is interesting, exciting, and thoughtful. This doesn’t just mean you take the college brochure route (aka slapping a group of “diverse” friends on a cover) and call it a day. It means you think deeply about the stories you’re telling and why you’re telling them.
Some things to think about when it comes to visual representation.
- Show diversity—in all forms. Include people from different ethnicities, races, ages, genders, abilities, body types, and backgrounds in your visuals. Represent a variety of lifestyles, occupations, and family structures. Aim for a balanced and representative portrayal of society.
- Avoid stereotypes and clichés. Challenge traditional gender roles, cultural stereotypes, and assumptions about abilities or professions. Instead, think about what images capture your audience’s interest and aspirations.
- Use authentic and relatable imagery. Choose visuals that authentically represent the experiences of your target audience, showcasing real people in real situations.
- Incorporate intersectionality. Recognize that people have multiple identities and experiences that intersect. Reflect this intersectionality in your visuals by featuring individuals who represent diverse identities, such as people of color with disabilities or LGBTQ+ individuals from different ethnic backgrounds.
- Use diverse creators. Collaborate with diverse photographers, videographers, and graphic designers to ensure a variety of perspectives and experiences are represented. (And be open to hearing different types of feedback.) Embrace different artistic styles and approaches that resonate with various cultural backgrounds.
- Portray inclusivity in action. Show people engaging in inclusive behaviors and interactions. Illustrate diverse groups collaborating, supporting one another, and participating in activities together. Depict people from various backgrounds in professional settings, leisure activities, and everyday life situations.
Tip: Although most people think of bias in terms of the people you’re depicting, there are other visual elements that can contribute to negative bias. For example, some fonts have been criticized for furthering racist stereotypes.
6) Create inclusive UX.
According to the CDC, 26% of Americans are living with a disability—yet their needs are often ignored or entirely erased in media, marketing, and technology.
Nielsen research found only 1% of ads include representation of disability-related themes, visuals, or topics.
This is why it’s so important to design inclusive UX. What does that look like in practice?
- Consider those with visual impairments. Use alt text for images and provide captions for videos. Choose color palettes that provide sufficient contrast and are accessible for users with visual impairments. Avoid using color as the sole means of conveying important information or instructions. Use additional visual cues like icons, labels, and text to provide clarity.
- Communicate clearly and simply. Make instructions, error messages, and content easy to understand for users with varying levels of literacy or language proficiency.
- Create responsive design. Create UX designs that adapt to different devices and screen sizes. Make sure your digital product or service is accessible on desktop computers, laptops, tablets, and mobile devices. Consider different orientations, input methods, and interaction patterns to provide a consistent and usable experience across platforms.
- Design for different interaction methods. Consider users who rely on various input methods, such as keyboard-only navigation or assistive technologies like screen readers. Ensure that all interactive elements, such as buttons and form fields, are properly labeled and can be accessed and operated using different input methods.
- Embrace universal design principles. Follow universal design principles to create experiences that are usable by the widest range of users possible. Consider simplicity, flexibility, intuitive navigation, and error prevention to make your UX design inclusive by default.
Tip: Check out the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) checklist—an easy to guide to ensure you’re considering the needs of users with visual, hearing, motor, or cognitive impairments.
7) Expand your network of collaborators.
Bias extends beyond words and pictures. If you want your brand to be successful, you need to build strong, inclusive communities that reflect your audience. Think about who your brand works with (both internally and externally) and how you might add different voices, perspectives, or skills to the mix.
- Who are the influencers you interact with and support?
- Who are the thought leaders you showcase at conferences, on panels, on your blog, etc.?
- Who are the content creators that write, design, and film for you?
Expanding your community can help you reach a wider audience, find different perspectives, and produce stronger work.
Keep Working to Keep Bias Out of Your Marketing
Fighting bias is an ongoing challenge and one that we all face every day. Some things to keep in mind as you progress:
- Encourage open discussions about bias and create mechanisms for reporting and addressing concerns.
- Monitor feedback from customers and stakeholders to identify any potential biases or concerns. Pay attention to social media comments, customer reviews, and other sources of feedback.
- Be transparent about your commitment to inclusivity and share progress and updates with your stakeholders.
Remember that you may not always do things perfectly, but the more you learn and grow and implement systems to catch and combat bias, the better your marketing will be.