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How to Do Inclusive Content That Helps Your Audience and Business

Creating inclusive content doesn’t require your brand to make a major statement on social justice or take a big stand on a hot topic.

It does require you to think differently, recognize what you don’t know, and use words more purposefully. But the extra effort is worth it.

Inclusive content is good business

First, let’s explain what “inclusive content” means. Simply put, it’s content that serves and resonates with many people with varying characteristics. I like this definition from Salesforce: “(C)ontent that truly reflects the diverse communities that our companies serve. It means that we are elevating diverse voices and role models, decreasing cultural bias, and leading positive social change through thoughtful and respectful content.”

Now, let’s remind ourselves that the role of content marketing is to attract and retain an audience and, ultimately, drive its members to profitable action. Your audience grows as you share relevant and valuable content that prompts it to connect and, eventually, trust your brand.

One way to build those connections is to create content that’s inclusive. In Microsoft Advertising’s research for The Psychology of Inclusion and the Effects in Advertising, almost two-thirds (64%) of people said they are more trusting of brands that represent diversity in their ads. About the same number (63%) said brands that represent diversity in ads are more authentic.

64% of people say they are more trusting of brands that represent #diversity in their ads, according to @MSFTAdvertising #survey via @CMIContent. Click To Tweet

That same survey also found that the purchase intent for the “most inclusive” ad – featuring people across age, gender, and ethnicity who all had some form of a disability – was 13 points higher than for the “most appealing” ad and 23 points higher than all the ads shown.

“Not only does inclusion in advertising drive purchase intent if someone like you is represented, but it drives it with people who might not be personally represented in the ad,” write the report authors, including MJ DePalma, head of global multicultural and inclusive marketing for Microsoft Advertising, who recently spoke at Content Marketing World with Christi Olson, Microsoft Advertising’s head of global media.

Not only does #inclusion in advertising drive purchase intent if someone like you is represented, but it drives it with people who might not be personally represented in the ad via @MSFTAdvertising’s @MJDePalma @ChristiJOlson. @CMIContent #CMWorld Click To Tweet

Though this research focuses on advertising, it makes sense that those feelings would apply to content marketing.

That concept of addressing one and affecting many can be illustrated another way, as MJ and Christi discussed in their CMWorld presentation.

Think about captions scrolling at the bottom of videos. Originally created for people who have hearing challenges, captioned content benefits a much wider audience, including workers in shared spaces, caregivers who don’t want to wake a baby, and social media scrollers on mute.

MJ and Christi say that when you solve for permanent characteristics (no or limited hearing), you also solve for temporary (a caregiver with a baby) and situational (shared office space).

Solve for permanent characteristics and you also solve for temporary and situational experiences, say @MJDePalma and @ChristiJOlson. #Inclusion #CMWorld Click To Tweet

Consider this graphic, which illustrates permanent, temporary, and situational touch-related issues. If you created content that could be accessed through voice commands (e.g., Alexa Skills), your content will be easier to access for all three.

Graphic illustrating permanent (person with one arm), temporary (person with arm injury), and situational (person holding a baby) touch-related issues.

Think about what content formats you can create that address permanent, temporary, and situational characteristics your audience might have, thereby welcoming more participation.

Know you’re not that smart

You can’t know everything about how to make your content inclusive – and you likely never will. But that doesn’t mean you can’t try. It starts with understanding that we all bring implicit biases to our content creation and distribution experiences.

Implicit bias refers to “the attitudes or stereotypes that affect our understanding, actions, and decisions in an unconscious manner.”

By recognizing that you (and any content creators on your team) have implicit biases, you know to ask more questions, challenge the usual, and take steps to overcome their impact on your content creation.

Recognize implicit bias and you’ll ask more questions and challenge the usual about your content creation, says @AnnGynn via @CMIContent. #Inclusion Click To Tweet

Now, let’s get into more specific action steps to create and distribute inclusive content.

1. Better understand your audience

Your personas or audience descriptions likely tackle multiple characteristics. But do they go far enough? Microsoft Advertising’s Marketing With Purpose Playbook shares three categories of the diversity spectrum as detailed by Harvard Business Review:

  • Demographic: Age, gender (male, female, nonbinary), LGBTQI+, people with disabilities, ethnic minorities
  • Experiential: Values like health or sustainability, adaptive needs, education level, economic diversity, country of origin, physical ability
  • Cognitive: Approaches to problem-solving, ways they think, ideas that shape their thinking

I’ve traditionally viewed audiences and brands like a Venn diagram. Content ideas come from the area where each circle’s interests overlap. While that intersection can reveal some great content topics, it doesn’t reveal much about how to create or distribute the content. For that, you need to dig deeper.

“Uncovering diverse human truths, culture cues, preferred language, needs, and values can point marketers in the right direction to authentically execute inclusive marketing,” according to the authors of Marketing With Purpose Playbook.

Connect with your audience to learn their cues, language preferences, needs, and values. Whether through a focus group, one-on-one interviews, or other research, learn the words and terms they use as it relates to your content. That input is invaluable when you conduct a more inclusive keyword analysis. Who knows what undiscovered opportunities you may find?

2. Don’t make assumptions

I like this seemingly simple sentence frequently used in the University of Idaho’s brand center guidelines: “Ask for their preference.”

While you’ve done your audience research, don’t assume your findings apply to every source in your content. As you interview them, ask how they prefer to be described.

Let’s say you interview a person with partial sight for a piece on accessible content. They may want to be identified as “low vision,” “limited vision,” “visually impaired,” or some other term. Unless you ask them, you won’t know the best way to describe them in your piece.

Asking for their preference can feel awkward. But know it will feel a lot more awkward if you don’t ask, make an assumption, and face criticism later.

In some cases, you may not know to ask an identity-preference question. Inquire on a broader basis. The University of Idaho suggests posing this question: “Are there any aspects of your identity that you would like to share in this article?”

And don’t forget, relevancy matters here too. The University of Idaho brand guidelines speak to that as well: “Do not identify someone’s race, gender, orientation, ethnicity, disability, status, etc., unless it adds value and context.”

Do not identify someone’s race, gender, orientation, ethnicity, disability, status, etc., unless it adds value and context, according to the @uidaho brand guidelines via @CMIContent @AnnGynn. #CMWorld #Inclusion Click To Tweet

3. Think about representation

Even if a person’s characteristics are not directly relevant to the piece it doesn’t mean you don’t need to make sure your content incorporates the diverse people in your community.

For example, if you write about the tech industry, your go-to source list may be dominated by men. Instead of always reaching out to the same easy-to-contact subject matter experts, expand your source database. Find women who can speak on the topic and incorporate their insight into your content. Even if identifying them is not relevant to the story, each person is shaped by their own circumstances and characteristics to bring valuable views and perspectives.

Or think about the examples and anecdotes you use in your content. Are they diverse and representative of the community? For example, if you give an example that involves a family, recognize that family structures are diverse. Not every family is a mom, dad, and kids. Not every single-parent family is the result of divorce. Not every single mom is struggling to survive.

4. Rethink adjectives and other descriptions

I like this tip from the Unitarian Universalist Association’s inclusive language guidance: “Be thoughtful about the imagery you use (in your writing.) For example, words like ‘black,’ ‘dark,’ and ‘blind’ are often used symbolically to express negative concepts. There are many alternatives and ways to diversify our use of certain symbolism.

Be thoughtful about the imagery you use (in your writing) via @UUA #inclusive language guidance via @CMIContent @AnnGynn. #CMWorld Click To Tweet

5. Choose your words deliberately

As you create content, word choice matters. Don’t write or say that your brand is “diverse” and “inclusive.” Show your audience by using words that reflect those concepts.

Don’t write or say your brand is “diverse” and “inclusive.” Show your audience by using words that reflect those concepts, says @AnnGynn via @CMIContent. #CMWorld Click To Tweet

The Marketing With Purpose Playbook highlights three metaphors that indicate inclusion to audiences: connection, openness (being open minded), and balance (bringing a sense of value to all). The authors came up with a list of 50 words that signal inclusion to audiences. Think about incorporating some of them purposefully into your content.

Words that signal connection

  • Accepting
  • Belonging
  • Bonded
  • Care
  • Cohesive
  • Coming together
  • Community
  • Diversity
  • Empathy
  • Family
  • Fit
  • Happier together
  • Involvement
  • Joy
  • Relate
  • Positive
  • Share
  • Support system
  • Trust
  • Understood
  • Unity

Words that signal openness

  • Open
  • Friendly
  • Warm
  • No discrimination
  • Opens up
  • Versatile
  • Open minded
  • Included
  • Open to everything and everyone
  • No limits
  • Free
  • Expanding
  • Safe
  • Secure

Words that signal balance (sense of value)

  • Accepted
  • Progressive
  • Supportive
  • Equality
  • Comfort
  • Welcoming
  • Growing
  • Understanding
  • Caring
  • Validated
  • Authentic
  • Valued
  • Genuine
  • Real
  • Unique

6. Let your images speak

Continue those metaphors of connection, openness, and balance into your imagery. The Microsoft playbook suggests:

  • To show connection, use photos that show a relationship or interaction between or among diverse people.
  • To show openness, include differently abled people, people with various body sizes, people of color, people with intersectionality in diversity, and unique subsets of a diverse population.
  • To show balance, give everyone in the visuals the same or similar prominence and represent multiple dimensions of diversity.

Have purpose in your content marketing

To avoid letting diversity and inclusion become buzzwords or platitudes in your content marketing, think proactively about the actions you can take. Whether it’s making the business case to your boss, expanding your audience view, or using revelatory words in your everyday content, take deliberate steps to lift your content marketing program.

Expand your perspective and application of diversity and inclusion principles. Watch the keynote talks and presentations from Content Marketing World, including the session from Microsoft Advertising’s MJ DePalma and Christi Olson. Sign up today for on-demand access through April 2021.

Cover image by Joseph Kalinowski/Content Marketing Institute