Promises And Case Studies: What Are The Ethical Limits?

27 Aug, 2021 By Bobby Klinck
Promises and Case Studies: What Are The Ethical Limits?

In the online marketing space where we sell transformation rather than a physical product, we hear a lot of promises and case studies of amazing results. But what if only 5% of your people are getting those kinds of results? Is it okay to present that as a realistic expectation for people?

Asking these kinds of questions might people feel uncomfortable. But I think talking about these issues is really important. 

We need to be having conversations about the ethical limits on the promises we make and the case studies we share. Because these aspects of our marketing make an impact on people, we need to think through whether they’re serving our people well.

Explicit And Implicit Promises

One of the ethical standards that the American Marketing Association adheres to is to foster trust in the marketing system. 

This has two parts. First, it means striving for good faith and fair dealing to contribute toward the efficacy of the exchange process. Second, it includes avoiding deception in product design, pricing, communication, and delivery of distribution.

What does this have to do with online marketing? Well, the important piece here is there might be a point where the way you describe your promise or use case studies could come close to being deceptive communication. As online marketers, we need to step back and ask whether we:

  • Offer products of value that do what we claim in our communications
  • Stand behind our products
  • Honor our explicit and implicit commitments and promises

Because we’re offering something fundamentally different than those who sell physical products, we need to think carefully about what ethical marketing means when the product is a transformation. 

Sometimes the promise will be explicit, and we can clearly see that it’s a promise. But it’s not always so cut and dry when it comes to implicit promises. 

For example, sometimes online entrepreneurs use a copywriting technique called future pacing to help the potential buyer imagine their future after the transformation. But this could also be considered an implicit promise. That means we need to carefully consider how we handle implicit promises in our marketing.

Crafting The Promise

If we want to be ethical, how do we craft the promise? And are there really only two options? 

If everyone who took our course or used our product got results, it would be a very easy thing to craft a promise. But the truth is most people don’t get case study level results.

That raises the question of how ambitious our promise should be. Do we need to clarify that this outcome isn’t common? There’s no clear answer there, but if we’re promising that our product will get results, then I believe that under the American Marketing Association standards we must stand behind our product.

We could complicate this by saying that we’re only talking about the people who do the work because we can’t control people not doing the work. Okay, fine. Let’s exclude the people who don’t take action.

The norm in the industry is not to talk about the average or the minimum. The norm is to talk about the home run success and what it’s gonna look like if you have all of these wonderful results. Is that okay if only 5% of your customers get that result?

My view personally is that if we promise that they’ll get the results if they do the work but it didn’t happen, it’s unethical.

Being More Transparent

We need to ask ourselves how we can avoid over-promising. How much do we need to think about the extent to which certain people’s natural abilities, resources, and amount of time will affect their abilities to get the results that we promised?

This isn’t one where I have clear answers. I just think we need to be thinking about it. We need to be more transparent than we are.

I don’t believe it’s ethical to present the promise of your product if that’s based upon the results that only 25% of the people who take it and do the work can expect the transformation you promised.

Of course, that’s my personal opinion. I believe if 50% of the people who are doing the work aren’t getting the results we’re presenting as the promise, it’s a problem. That’s why we need more transparency and nuance when formulating our promise.

Case Studies And Testimonials

Let’s use a real-world example to talk about case studies and testimonials. You can find the following testimonial from Alesha Mathis on my opt-in page for BADA$$ Online Marketing University:

“BOMU courses are actually better than most paid courses I’ve taken. You might expect a half-baked course or one with 20 minutes of useable information and 60 minutes of fluff and sales but Bobby’s courses all have valuable and actionable information for the WHOLE time.

The courses are top-notch and are packed with so much really good information that applies to the online space. I have a Bachelors degree in Business and Information Technology with a minor in Marketing and what Bobby teaches is real marketing and real business.”

A testimony and a case study are slightly different things. In a testimonial, the customer talks about what’s great about the program, your service, or your product.

A case study is normally story-based, talking about where they were and their journey until they did it. Case studies are more effective in driving sales because they give more context and facts, so people can relate more deeply.

Now the thing I want to point out from Alesha’s testimonial is that there are no promises of results there. She was talking about her assessment of the quality of the program.

I don’t believe you’re gonna have nearly as many ethical issues if you have testimonials or case studies that are about the ease of use, the quality of the product, the process, and things like that because those are people’s opinions.

Types Of Case Studies And Testimonials

Now here’s a question: even if you don’t present the promise explicitly (as in you will get these results), then what are our obligations in thinking through the kinds of case studies or testimonials we present?

Even if you’re quite clear and careful not to make a promise but still want to present case studies, how do you do that? If you have a lot of people getting results, is it okay to pick only the top 1% and present their case studies?

And the question we all need to be asking is: Is it okay to present case studies that are outliers? Because that’s what we’re doing. Hardly anybody is presenting case studies that are kind of an average, we’re picking our best things because it’s self-selection. Only the people who got the results will give us a case study to start with.

Is that okay? Does that give a distorted perspective? Is that making an implicit promise about results? These are the questions I think we need to be asking.

I believe we have to be very careful about case studies and testimonials that are result-driven and about the ultimate results. If we want to be ethical, we have to ask ourselves: Is that being transparent with our audience?

When using a case study, I believe we have a duty to provide all the facts and context. The context is what makes it more valuable.

leaving out facts that we know are relevant and would affect people’s decision to buy is being dishonest. We can’t simply ignore facts that might make a case study less effective.

How Do We Draw The Line?

When it comes to the promise and case studies, how do we draw the line of not providing false hope that doesn’t accurately represent what most people are going to get from our product? What are the ethical rules about that? What are we comfortable with?

The American Marketing Association has standards that say we have to stand behind our product doing what we say it does. That means if we’re making a promise or giving the implication that our product will do X and then it doesn’t, we have a problem.

Where do you draw that line and how do you think you can present the promise of your product and your case studies in an ethical way?

These aren’t one-and-done questions. I’m interested to hear what you think. Be sure to join my community, BADA$$ Online Marketers, and let me know what you think.

Then if you want to learn more about how to build your online business, I invite you to join my FREE signature program, BADA$$ Online Marketing University.

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Bobby Klinck

Harvard Lawyer and Online Entrepreneur