How inclusive creativity drives relevance in content marketing

C3’s Christine Beardsell in discussion with Microsoft’s Ulrike Irmler

Christine Beardsell (left) & Ulrike Irmler (right)

In times when attention is the prime currency of marketing, creating relevant content for a wider and more diverse range of audiences is key. But how do you, very practically, do this?

In the week leading up to International Women’s Day on March 8, C3’s Chief Content Officer, Christine Beardsell, sat down for a fireside chat with Ulrike Irmler, Director of Product Management for Microsoft News, to discuss inclusive creativity in product design and content creation, the power of editorial guidelines, and gender biases in algorithmic programming.

Ulrike Irmler, Microsoft: “One of my first jobs at Microsoft was making our products fit for international distribution. Cultural differences, especially in software usage and technology, are rather big so you have to adjust accordingly. This was when I first realized that products don’t work for everybody if they’re built for a single group of people.”

Christine Beardsell, C3: “You’re an advocate for women in leadership and an expert on gender biases in technology. How did this interest develop?”

Ulrike Irmler: “We had a Microsoft hackathon called ‘Hack for Her’ a few years ago, and after this my thinking expanded from ‘Do products work equally for people from different cultural backgrounds?’ to ‘Actually, do products work differently for men and women?’ There are, of course, many other groups that require specific consideration, depending on the product.”

Christine Beardsell: “Products and content are made meaningful by context, in this case by the individual context of the person interacting with them. Context really is the sum of a person’s individual preferences coupled with larger influences like their background and gender, making the interaction with products a different experience for everyone. How do you translate this knowledge into the creative process?”

Ulrike Irmler: “One way is to look at who is involved in the creative process and fix the numbers, which is an absolutely worthwhile cause. Any time you have a diverse group of people in a room, you will get more perspectives and discover more.”

Christine Beardsell: “But beyond the people part, there’s also a case for looking at the process and methodology of how we create products and contents.”

Ulrike Irmler: “Exactly. The thing is, you can teach anyone to think inclusively. It’s about a methodology that requires you to empathize with perspectives and needs other than your own and include them.”

Representation matters in the Microsoft Newsroom

Christine Beardsell: “Content is a mostly intangible product, how does this approach work in your experience, in very practical terms?”

Ulrike Irmler: “I work on Microsoft News, which aggregates news from around the world. At the same time, we know the media industry doesn’t treat men and women equally: stories feature disproportionately more men than women as protagonists, in more powerful narratives — and it’s not for a lack of stories to tell about women. I did an analysis of our Microsoft News coverage in different countries for 60 consecutive days at one point and found this reflected there as well. While we don’t create the news we consolidate, it’s something we need to absolutely think about because we program the page.”

Christine Beardsell: “Part of shifting the needle is to rethink the role of editors, and you have recently released new editorial guidelines for the Microsoft Newsroom, right?”

Ulrike Irmler: “This is a fairly straightforward measure, but I do think that editorial guidelines can make a difference, for example, there’s a section in the guidelines on representational balance in the images we use. We want to make sure our editors have this in mind when they select imagery. It’s not about forcing a 50:50 picture split, it’s about making better and more conscious choices about the pictures and articles we put on the site.”

Christine Beardsell: “You’ve done some work on more systemic approaches, like biases in algorithms. How does this factor into the Microsoft Newsroom?”

Ulrike Irmler: “Machine learning is interesting because it learns from what you’re feeding it. If your source material, your data set, has biases in large quantities — for example, gender biases, like stereotyped roles in images or an overrepresentation of men as story protagonists — your algorithm will pick up these biases and amplify them.”

Christine Beardsell: “As a news website preparing for more algorithmic programming, how do you course-correct?”

Ulrike Irmler: “What we’re doing right now is asking ourselves what the role of editorial intervention is in the context of machines perpetuating biases. We have a skewed data set in the algorithm, we know it, because our media landscape is skewed. For us, this means figuring out what sort of articles get auto-published and what sort of articles absolutely need a human look-over to ensure we’re not conveying something unintentionally. The other angle we’re looking at is talking to our media partners, in terms of the news we’re getting from them, what we want to see more of, what we want to see less of.”

The business case for equality

Christine Beardsell: “It’s a powerful position to be in with media partners. If you change the KPIs to reflect the fact that we need more women’s perspectives, for example, it will make a difference.”

Ulrike Irmler: “Beyond reducing inequalities, there’s also a solid business rationale behind it: Our product, Microsoft News, is strong but does not attract the younger, female demographic in equal numbers. So, getting a more diverse group to the site is an exciting endeavor, it will benefit the audience, the advertisers and us — but, of course, when we get people there, we have to make sure the site and the content work for them as well, that we truly deliver.”

Christine Beardsell: “Translated into day-to-day content activities, what does that look like?”

Ulrike Irmler: “Let’s look at our finance section for instance. We know it gets good engagement from men over 55 whose goal tends to be to look after their portfolio. But it’s not like finance is not a relevant topic for a woman in her 20s, of course it is. She just has different needs and she relates to different content because her context differs from that of someone older. If we can consciously target content when we know that different audiences require it, we can be more inclusive in our approach.”

Christine Beardsell: “Ultimately, a job for all of us it to figure out how we can become smarter, better, bolder at making everything more inclusive when we come up with ideas, when we create products, when we design things. And this is something we need to put more work into, definitely not just for International Women’s Day, but every day — to create what matters.”

The Microsoft Newsroom is operated by wunder media production GmbH, part of the C3 agency network.

© 2019 by Jonas Friedrich