by Adam Ortman, VP Growth & Innovation, Generator Media + Analytics

This article was posted by AdAge on August 12, 2021


In May, Instagram announced a new feature that gives users the ability to add up to four pronouns to their profiles. LinkedIn similarly rolled out a new feature that enables users to display preferred pronouns alongside their names.


On the surface, these straightforward UX changes made it easier for users to represent themselves on the platforms—small but welcome steps forward in inclusivity. However, the timing of this change has bigger, more complicated implications for personal data and how it’s used.


A mere two weeks before Instagram rolled out its feature, Apple released iOS 14.5. The latest iteration of its iPhone operating system includes a privacy feature designed to change how user behaviors and private data are tracked, shared and sold. Specifically, Apple now requires apps to get users’ permission before sharing in-app activity or private data with other parties.


Instagram’s change is at least partly meant to move toward better gender representation, and the move could also help advertisers navigate this change. Armed with this data, marketers could create ads targeted toward specific pronoun groupings—using information volunteered by users rather than from in-app behavioral tracking. LinkedIn’s feature admittedly tells users it might use the pronouns they select from a drop-down menu to infer their gender.


There are two potential outcomes when it comes to marketing based on pronouns. One is more tailored, relevant campaigns delivered to newly represented groups. The other is an insensitive misuse of personal information.


There is power and potential in leveraging pronouns for online ad campaigns, but marketers must tread carefully to avoid driving away and offending audiences they’re trying to reach. Here are three suggestions:


Avoid shortcuts at all costs

Representation in marketing is something every brand should be working to achieve, but it must be done thoughtfully, empathetically and with attention to nuance. Marketers will want to keep this in mind to avoid making blanket assumptions about what pronouns mean or how and when they should be used.


What’s true and appropriate for two groups of individuals, both using “they/them,” might be totally different. You won’t know that, however, if you take shortcuts. To ensure accuracy, you have to put in the work to understand the people and communities you’re trying to engage.


Have a game plan

The concept of various pronoun usages is built on an idea of the nonstandard—a stark contrast to the traditional high-reach demographics that advertisers have leaned on for decades. If you’re looking to speak directly to a nonstandardized audience, you need to have a clear and customized game plan.


Gather as much information and context as you can before you put any messages out into the world. You should also test any messaging or creative with your potential audience. This might seem costly in the short term, but it will pay dividends by mitigating risk down the road.


Practice what you preach

This cannot be stressed enough: Do not capitalize on underrepresented communities or view connecting with people in these communities as an economic conquest. If you’re looking to target individuals, do so because your brand’s products and services can positively impact their lives.


Do your products appropriately suit the needs of your target audience? What is your brand’s stance on issues that are important to them? How are you, as a brand, acting on this stance? Does your desired demographic feel represented by your brand? If so, how? If not, how do you create a brand culture of inclusivity, diversity and safety? Why have you chosen now to engage this group?


If your brand is not truly representing and advocating for the people it wants to advertise to, now might not be the time to advertise to them. There is other work you need to do first.


By making it easy to add pronouns to user profiles, Instagram and LinkedIn are taking positive steps toward helping the world embrace true diversity. For marketers looking to better represent this diversity and connect through more relevant, tailored marketing, the key is to approach the new strategy with sensitivity and respect.