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What Does Ethical Marketing Look Like in the Online Marketing Space

If you’re an online marketer selling the promise of transformation, what does ethical marketing look like? This is an important question that we as online marketers need to talk about.

If you’re an online marketer selling anything other than a physical product, what does it mean to be ethical? When you’re selling a promise of transformation, what does ethical marketing look like?

This is something that not many people are talking about, so I want to start a discussion. This post isn’t going to be me just telling you what the ethical way is or the right way to do things. It’s not about condemning people, moralizing, or making you feel bad about yourself (unless you’re a complete A-hole). I believe ethics is an important topic to talk about because it’s an issue no matter what kind of product you’re selling.

Why We Need To Talk About The Ethical Way

Why is the topic of ethics worth considering? I’m coming from the perspective of a serve-first entrepreneur. I want to spark a discussion about this because I’ve noticed that when I share my views on marketing with people in the online space, a lot of people hear me as attacking them.

I get it because I’m attacking ideas that they may have internalized. After I had this kind of discussion in a group I was in, I discovered that starting an open conversation was a better avenue than me telling people what to do. 

That’s what we’ll be doing here. I’ll ask questions that we can all think about, share my point of view, and let you decide what is right and what is wrong.

If we start thinking carefully about those questions, have an open discussion, and try to work these things out, I think that serves us all. 

What Makes The Online Information Space Different

If you go and look on Apple’s website, they’re not making promises of transformation. Maybe they’re small bits here and there, but mostly they’re describing their products and their features. They don’t need to sell people the notion of the difference an iPhone will make in their life. They only need to convince someone who needs a smartphone that an iPhone is the right one to choose.

In the online information space, what most of us are doing is fundamentally different from that. Oftentimes, we’re trying to convince people that they need the thing that we offer in the first place. We don’t just say, “Hey, if you want coaching, I’m the right person for you.” That’s not gonna work. We need to explain why people need coaching.

Because we’re doing something very different, this creates unique challenges.

Here are some questions we can ask: How are things different for us? Given the fact that we’re selling the promise of a transformation, which, by nature, we cannot guarantee, how does that alter things?

With an iPhone, Apple can guarantee that it will perform as promised. If it doesn’t, there’s a warranty. Right?

I’ll be honest with you, these are things that I have thought about and struggled with. For example, what is our responsibility to tell people how hard it’s gonna be to get the results that we’re promising them? Or do we need to tell them that they’re going to need to buy another thing, like software? What are our obligations for these sorts of scenarios?

If we want to be ethical marketers, and I’m not talking about legal, how should we think about things like wording, our promise, testimonials, case studies, and success stories of our students?

What Ethics Is About

The word ethics might sound scary, but it isn’t. Basically, ethics isn’t a black and white situation or yes or no rule. There are shades of grey, and you can’t conclude automatically what’s ethical and what’s not.

Now some things are clearly unethical by any standard. There’s no doubt about that. And there are things that almost certainly are ethical. But ethics isn’t just about what’s legally required.

Ethics is about the moral or right thing to do.  

I want to be clear, not breaking the law doesn’t mean you’re ethical. For example, it’s perfectly legal for me to treat my audience like absolute dirt and crap, but it sure as heck isn’t ethical to do that, in my view.

Maybe you have a different view, but if you believe that the only thing you have to do is not break the law, that’s not the way to operate.

I can’t tell you that hey, as long as you comply with this, you’re being ethical. As long as you’re following the rules, you’re being ethical. No. Being ethical is something higher than that. It’s about you making your own decision.

The Ethical Standards In Marketing

We’re going to focus on a set of ethical standards that are set out by the American Marketing Association. If you’re a member, you commit to abide by their ethical standards. These aren’t hard rules, but they have three general norms.

1. Marketers must do no harm

This means doing work for which they’re appropriately trained or experienced so that they can actively add value to their organizations and customers. It also means adhering to all applicable laws and regulations, and embodying high ethical standards in the choices they make.

2. Marketers must foster trust in the marketing system

This means that products are appropriate for their intended and promoted uses. It requires that marketing communications about goods and services aren’t intentionally deceptive. It suggests building relationships that provide for the equitable adjustment and/or redress of customer grievances. It implies striving for good faith and fair dealing.

There’s a lot built into this one, but one of the most important things about it is that the standard norm should be making people like and trust marketers more.

3. Marketers must embrace, communicate, and practice the fundamental ethical values

These are basic values that will improve consumer confidence in the integrity of the marketing system. They’re intentionally aspirational and include honesty, responsibility, fairness, respect, openness, and citizenship. You have to act in a way consistent with their values to improve consumer confidence in the whole system.

Let’s Keep the Discussion Going

There are lots of questions to ask and ponder about the ethical standards we should adhere to, especially in the online marketing space. So, let’s ask questions and get into discussions.

One question you could ask yourself is: would I be embarrassed if everybody knew all the details about what I was doing and why I was doing it? That’s a pretty powerful question to begin with.

If you want to learn more about online marketing concepts and how to do online marketing in a holistic way, I’d like to invite you to join my free training program BADA$$ Online Marketing University. This is where you’ll learn how to grow and market your online business without spending thousands on courses.