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Ethics in Online Marketing: Does Brand Morality Matter?

Ethical questions for online brands and marketing agencies. How ethics affects marketing and consumer behavior - and why it should matter to online brands.

With the advent of digital marketing, especially search engine optimization, brands have felt increasing pressure to blur the lines between ethical and unethical marketing strategies.

At the same time, social media has given consumers a much bigger stage upon which to stand and voice their displeasure at brands they find wanting. The answer to the question, “What’s driving your business?” is relatively straightforward. What drives every business is the need to make a profit.

What’s not so straightforward is an answer to the question, “What is the ethical framework of your profit-driven marketing strategy?” This tension between morality and making a profit is as old as the proverbial snake oil salesman.

In traditional forms of advertising, we can usually make the distinction between ethical and unethical marketing. If the promotion lies, conceals vital information or deceives the unsophisticated buyer, the advertiser can be called to account.

On this definition, ethical marketing has been considered anything that does not result in a negative or unsatisfying customer experience.

A good recent example of this would be Samsung and their exploding Galaxy Note 7. Though the issue was not deception, the result was the same. Namely, an unsatisfying customer experience and the possibility of distrust in the brand.

Now, a brand like Samsung can market their way out of this, if they act ethically in the recall process. However, smaller brands, especially those whose livelihood is almost entirely dependent upon the online marketplace, cannot.

When we talk about online marketing, we are talking about more than making a misleading claim or offering a defective product. We are talking about process.We are asking about the methods employed to bring about our marketing goal. In the case of most online brands, the process might include some form of search engine optimization.

The short-term marketing goal being to increase exposure through organic search results in Google or Bing. Where should businesses draw the line when it comes to these processes in online marketing and what are the possible consequences of crossing that line for your brand?

When a brand attempts to work outside of the guidelines of those they want to work with (in this case, it might be Google), they risk flushing their marketing dollar straight down the drain.

Likewise, those who operate outside the ethical expectations of consumers risk an immediate and uncensored backlash from the online community. In other words, small business brands should not be tempted by the promise of a quick win marketing strategy.

Your website, just like your business, is a real asset with real monetary value. If your online marketing strategy is not framed by a very clear set of ethics, the entire business can come crashing down in a single day.

So what are some of the ethical issues that small businesses, especially those looking to take advantage of search engine exposure, need to be mindful of?

What Questions Should Small Businesses be Asking of a Digital Agency if They Want to Protect the Integrity of Their Brand?

1. Are the Claims Being Made Exaggerated?

It’s tempting to highlight a feature or benefit to the point of dishonesty. You want to stand out from the crowd. However, standing out from the crowd through exaggeration has some drawbacks.

Nobody wants to stand out in the crowd for their dishonesty. Be wary of agencies who make exaggerated claims about the benefits of their service. It is one thing to say that a certain marketing strategy will help you rank in Google. However, unless you own Google, it is quite another thing to promise a first-page ranking.

2. Are the Claims Substantiated?

Before you engage any digital marketing agency, you will want to know that they can provide some amount of reasonable evidence for their claims.

Ethical Marketing

Look for data that verifies the claims being made. Talking directly or face-to-face is a good place to start in weighing up their claims. If they restrict communication to email, you might want to rethink your choice of agency. Beyond that, asking to see some verifiable data or examples of their work is a good idea.

3. Who Else will Vouch For the Service?

Customer feedback, the mood of the crowd, and business reviews are powerful tools. For a new agency, this can be difficult. No business starts with 50 (legitimate) five-star reviews.

Reviews are one way an agency can back up its claims, but even here there are some hurdles. “Astro-turfing” – getting fake reviews – is tempting, but not so good for long-term brand reputation.

Nevertheless, customer testimony is a powerful and important instrument for gauging the agency, or the marketing tactic or process being employed in your business.

If you are hoping to utilize search engine marketing, then you will also want to establish that the agency’s processes fall in line with the guidelines of those who run the search engines. This might seem like a tedious task, but the cost to your brand for not doing at least some research makes it necessary.

[pullquote]Whether you are a marketing agency, or a small business in need of a marketing agency, you need to be able to identify the fine line between unethical and ethical marketing processes and practices.[/pullquote]

An ethical marketing practice is one that makes honest claims. One that can satisfy the expectations of your clientele. An ethical marketing process is a process that abides by the guidelines of the system you are trying to work with.

Online marketing that lacks ethics sends the wrong signal about your brand and about your business. The consequences can be financially devastating to a small business and ruinous for digital agencies.

On the other hand, ethical business practices and processes are good for everyone. They are good for the digital agencies who seek a strong online reputation for excellence and quality. They are also good for small businesses who are hoping to build their brand online and not come undone by the unscrupulous practices of others.

All Images created by David Trounce using Pixabay CC0 License and Canva, December 2016.

David Trounce Founder at Mallee Blue Media

David is the Co-Founder of Mallee Blue Media, a Content and Publishing service for agencies and business websites. David is ...

Ethics in Online Marketing: Does Brand Morality Matter?

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