“Nothing About Us without Us”: Preventing Tokenism and Building Authentic Audience Inclusion in Social Marketing

By: Crystal Borde

When disability rights advocates marched for change in the 1960s and 1970s, they used the slogan “Nothing about us without us.” They were fighting for policies that affected their lives specifically and so naturally wanted to be included in their creation, evaluation and implementation.

For social marketers, seeking and integrating audience input seems like a no brainer. However, we can sometimes become complacent and forget to include our audience in every aspect of social marketing planning.

In this time of heightened calls for racial justice action, we are re-examining our social marketing efforts to determine how to better integrate diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) principles. When expediting these efforts, how can all of us — especially communicators from non-BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and people of color) communities — avoid tokenism and create real representation? How can we authentically amplify the voices of under-resourced communities and collaborate as partners in our efforts to create behavior change?

I propose we practice what I call “authentic audience inclusion,” which engages with audience groups by inviting them to become a vocal, contributing part of the social marketing planning process. It’s diversity with representation — creating a two-way street of authentic, transparent partnership and collaboration with our key audiences. It creates opportunities and channels for audience groups to contribute their insights, ideas and feedback throughout planning and implementation phases in an engaged, valued manner.

Unlike tokenism, which is appearing to engage with audience groups to prevent criticism and gives the impression that people are more involved or bought in to a campaign and its messages than they truly are, authentic audience inclusion requires matching our intention with our action. It is the key to building credibility with audiences.

Diversity and inclusion consultant Verna Myers once said, “Diversity is receiving an invitation to a dance, equity is possessing the resources to attend, and inclusion is being asked to dance.”

If practicing authentic audience inclusion is a dance, how do we invite our audiences to dance with us?

Step 1: Awareness, or Scanning the Dance Floor

When we step into this ballroom, we should assess and consider the factors influencing the identity and needs of our key audiences before we ask anyone to dance . We need to include additional considerations for audiences with roots impacted by systemic racism and discrimination. Research is a large component of this and should be used on an ongoing basis to deepen our understanding of identity and the factors that shape it. We should determine how our audiences’ — and our own — culture, institutions, trauma and history may influence, shape or impact our work.

In this phase, we should be reflective and conscious of our own experiences and implicit biases — favorable and unfavorable attitudes or stereotypes that can creep into our world views and involuntarily affect our decision-making. We all have such biases and should actively reprogram or limit their influence. Bringing representatives from our audience groups into the process to review and evaluate content and approaches helps check our bias influence and ensures that our end-product contains as little prejudice as possible.

Step 2: Engagement, or Inviting Our Dance Partners to Dance

After assessing the ballroom and sizing up those looking for partners, it’s time to involve our audience to participate — from the beginning. Identify and invite influential figures or experts within your key audiences to be a part of your campaign planning. Look for a range of perspectives and insights by engaging individuals representing different vantage points within your key audiences. Avoid creating focus groups of one, where we look to one individual to speak for a whole group of people. Instead, cultivate differing voices from audience groups to provide a richness in data, insights and recommendations.

Also, when issuing the invitation, create formality and structure for the relationship. Develop organized, long-term opportunities and activities — such as advisory councils, ambassador programs and leadership summits — in which these audience counselors can participate and contribute. Consider creating leadership roles within the work for audience counselors to feel more invested.

Step 3: Collaboration, or Following Their Lead on the Dance Floor

We found our partner and invited them to the floor. Now we start to dance (or collaborate). Before you start to integrate your audience counselors into your social marketing planning, define and clearly communicate their roles, responsibilities and expectations in the work.

Develop a working environment that welcomes your audience counselors to guide and influence the campaign messaging, strategies, tactics and evaluation. If possible, involve them in the development of the communication goals and objectives. Each phase of social marketing planning will be strengthened by their presence and insights.

Seek their counsel often, if human, budget and time resources allow. Listen to their feedback and document their comments and recommendations on the record. To reinforce the value of their contributions, highlight their feedback in planning documents, messaging platforms, meeting minutes, style guides, etc.

For example, in a public education awareness campaign for the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), a cultural competency committee featuring BIPOC and non-BIPOC individuals who had lived experience with mental illness was formed to inform and shape SAMHSA’s Wellness Initiative campaign as it was developed. Each time the committee convened, their feedback was captured on the shared video meeting screen in real time so that committee members could confirm their comments or provide additional clarification. A summary of the feedback received was shared following each convening.

Step 4: Evaluation, or Adjusting to the Rhythm

As the dance continues, pay attention to changes to the music rhythm or even how your partner is responding.  Social marketers should request and be receptive to feedback from their audience counselors throughout campaign phases, especially during evaluation processes. Listening to the rhythm will make you attuned to the adjustments and mid-course corrections needed based on what you are getting back.  Communicate outcomes — positive or negative — with audience counselors in real time to maintain your transparency and credibility. This also will help you sharpen your listening skills for when the music shifts in again.

However, don’t base campaign decisions solely on the feedback of audience counselors. Verify their feedback through audience consensus and research methods before implementing or making changes, whenever possible. This will save time, money and ultimately, make your social marketing efforts more successful.

Avoiding tokenism and amplifying voices of under-resourced communities through collaboration and partnership is a win-win for social marketers focused on change. By engaging audience counselors to guide and inform our campaigns, we can learn so much more; deepen our audience understanding; and create more powerful, change-making work.

As poet Maya Angelou said, “Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.” As social marketing practitioners, when we know more about our audiences and invite them into campaign planning as collaborators, we will prevent tokenism and develop more inclusive and effective communications.

Crystal Borde is a Vice President and leader of the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Practice at Vanguard Communications, a public relations and social marketing agency based in Washington, D.C. An archive recording and presentation slides from her “Preventing Tokenism: How to Build Authentic Inclusion in Social Marketing Planning Processes” webinar is now available to SMANA members here.

SMANA member Caryn Ginsberg of Priority Visions created the attached visual summary of the webinar. We hope you will use it to revisit key points and to discuss them with your colleagues. Please share on social media with tags #socialmarketing, #DEI and #graphicrecording.


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