It’s a fascinating time to be in the marketing game. Social norms have evolved in such a way that numerous once-taboo subjects are on the table, but one misstep can result in swift censure and reputation damage. It’s a high-risk, high-reward environment, and you’ll need a solid foundation of social sensitivity to manage it effectively.
If the brave new world of 21st century social media marketing has your brand a little bit unsure of how to proceed, you’re not alone. It can be genuinely challenging to navigate the new social conventions of digital media, especially when there’s a considerable investment on the line. These five tips will help you create campaigns that reach a diverse audience while avoiding embarrassing gaffes.
Know your audience
This is the closest thing marketing has to a golden rule, and it’s especially applicable here. One thing that vexes many marketers about the current cultural landscape is that there aren’t a lot of hard and fast guidelines. One brand may be able to get away with making boundary-pushing statements on social media, while another is pilloried for doing the same. So, when in doubt, look for context.
Knowing the cultural conventions and context of the audience you’re speaking to will help you avoid awkward situations. A few things to be especially careful of include:
- Statements that may be interpreted as implicitly political.
- Portraying outside cultures in an insensitive way, particularly as “exotic” or “other.”
- Terms that were once acceptable but are now considered offensive.
- Using memes or other elements from Internet subcultures without fully understanding their context.
- Addressing controversial issues in a way that comes across as insensitive or flippant.
Of course, doing due diligence on context is helpful—but the best foundation for a strong social understanding starts within your team itself.
Solicit feedback from a diverse team.
Inviting a variety of viewpoints on your marketing is critical to make sure that it performs well. Hopefully, your team is already sufficiently inclusive (and feels comfortable enough speaking up) that this step is built into your workshopping process. In any case, though, it’s vital to solicit input from people with a wide spectrum of identities, particularly when those identities are on display in your marketing. Don’t be afraid to employ diversity and inclusion consulting services if you’re afraid that you may not be getting the right perspectives.
Also, be careful that you’re not simply using your team as diversity consultants unless that’s specifically the role for which you’re paying them. Real sensitivity comes from teams in which you don’t have to be white, cisgender or male to assume a leadership role. The more that decision-making power flows through a structure rife with cultural diversity, the more you’ll find a level of organic sensitivity developing that can’t be bought or focus-grouped.
Keep up with current events
The world changes quickly, and current events can turn one day’s joke into the next day’s “too soon.” Your social media advertising team plays a key role here. They should be locked into what’s trending in the news and on social platforms and able to help you decide how a piece of content will play. If current events have given one of your campaigns an unsavory cultural context, it might be time to cut your losses and shelve it, at least temporarily.
It’s also important not just to keep up with the events but to know how your audience may feel about them. Nike was able to win its big bet on Colin Kaepernick ads because it knew that many of its most important customers would support the campaign. And if you’re planning on creating a campaign themed around current events, make especially sure that you’re approaching them with sensitivity. You don’t want to walk in the footsteps of Pepsi, whose ad featuring a street protest and a peacemaking Kendall Jenner became a source of widespread outcry and derision.
Don’t pretend to be something you’re not
“Cause marketing” is bigger than ever, but a campaign that comes across as insincere or pandering can do real damage to a brand’s image. In a cultural climate that’s more saturated with ads than ever, consumers (and younger ones in particular) can smell insincerity a mile away. It’s vital to know the brand you’re working with inside and out and to do a realistic appraisal of whether or not your cause marketing will come off as spin.
Brands that are successful with cause marketing tend to have a long history in the field. Toms Shoes, for example, has made their One for One shoe donation campaigns a centerpiece of their culture from the beginning, and they’ve since been able to expand their campaign to embrace a variety of causes, from mental health to ending gun violence. That’s not to say that it’s impossible to realign your corporate culture and values with a cause—just that it’s not a quick or simple process, and treating it like one can create more problems than it solves.
If you make a mistake, own up to it honestly
Unfortunately, as humans, we all make occasional errors in judgment. Another key part of sensitive and responsible advertising is to take accountability for these errors and to learn from them. Many huge brands have had to apologize for insensitive ads recently, so know that you’re in good company and don’t be hesitant about pulling the campaign and apologizing.
Most of all, when you’re taking responsibility, learn how to offer a real apology. Take the example of Heineken, who created an ad with racially insensitive overtones and then offered a weak apology that amounted to “We’re sorry that this ad was misinterpreted.” Being accountable for your marketing campaigns means that, even if you really do think your content was taken the wrong way, your team can see it through the eyes of people who were offended and offer an apology that radiates empathy rather than nitpicking semantics.
Finally, if you’re called out for an insensitive ad, think carefully about why that ad was approved in the first place. Is it because the team responsible for it is not structured inclusively and/or doesn’t understand the principles of socially responsible advertising? It’s okay to make mistakes, but it’s critical to use them as learning opportunities.
It might seem like there are no longer any rules in marketing about what’s acceptable and what isn’t. But if you look more closely, the rules are still possible to discern. They’re just less formal, less codified and more rooted in an understanding of the human impact your marketing creates. Marketers who want to make the new rules work for them have to do their research, create real diversity in the office and be honest and transparent about their claims. These foundational elements create the fertile soil in which you’ll grow marketing that’s effective, ethical and sensitive.