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We’re all familiar with the image of the pushy used car salesman, the timeshare hocking “exec”, and the posing-by-my-jet-making-you-feel-silly-for-not-wanting-this-incredible-deal marketing pro. Those to whom the concept of Ethical Marketing is completely unheard of.
People who use fake scarcity, FOMO, and every other persuasion tactic they know, to make you feel like you’ll be throwing your life away if you don’t buy. After seeing the harm some of those tactics do, especially when piled on top of one another, we decided to investigate a different way of doing things.
In this post, we’ll talk about some general ethical marketing principles that can be applied to any business or marketing strategy.
But before you can start marketing according to your ethics, you’ll need to spend some time defining what your personal and business ethics are. Consider this article a jumping-off point – a collection of things for you to consider as you do the laborious work of subjectively defining what’s ethical/not ethical to you.
If you want to talk about building the “know, like and trust factor,” this is where the trust part comes in.
When you coerce someone into buying a product that they’re not a match for, they’re going to resent you. They won’t refer you, and they definitely won’t come back to buy more (unless you convince them that the reason they weren’t successful is that they need to buy the next thing – that’s called “sunk cost fallacy” and it’s discussed here).
By defining and following your own ethical principles of marketing, you'll develop a solid foundation for your business and set yourself up for success in the long term.
What the heck even is ethical marketing?
Ethics are a tricky subject. What does it mean to be an ethical marketer? It probably means something different to you than it does to me. To me, it means not forcing a buying decision that’s not in the best interest of the customer. As a former copywriter who now teaches persuasion techniques, that’s where the biggest ethical questions come into play. How can we be persuasive, without taking away our customers’ ability to think critically about whether or not our programs are the right choice?
Being an “ethical marketer” doesn’t mean you’ll never cross any ethical boundaries. You’re going to mess up, and that’s okay. As long as you’re committed to a set of principles and everyone on your marketing team is aware of those principles, you can give yourself room to make mistakes, own them and repair them, and come back to your base. You’ll do better next time. It’s a dance.
I don’t define myself as an ethical marketer. I define myself as a marketer who is consistently trying to do better, fumbling the ball often, and learning as I go.
Why is ethical marketing important?
You’re here, so I don’t need to tell you that honesty and integrity are important. To me, it’s important because it means you’re making choices that will result in the best possible outcome for your customers, and deprioritizing marketing methods that will simply make the most money possible.
If you care about diversity, equity and inclusion, then taking a deep dive into ethics is essential. Because coercing people into buying products they can’t afford and aren’t a fit for might not be a big deal for those of us who hold a high level of privilege and can bounce back from a bad buying decision quickly, but that doesn’t hold true for everyone in your customer base. As Kelly Diels teaches, a poor spending decision falls particularly hard on the most marginalized people in your audience. Those who don’t have the same level have access to additional credit and new opportunities.
To be clear, these so-called unethical marketing practices might make you money. But who gets harmed in that scenario?
Marketing according to your ethics (I prefer this wording to “ethical marketing”) avoids undue stress or preying upon those in vulnerable positions, as many marketers are prone to do. Not only can you legitimately cause harm to others using unethical marketing, but you may also create a negative experience for your customers before they've even begun working with you.
Benefits of ethical marketing
The following suggested ethical principles aren’t just values-based; they're also practical since you'll build a company culture that’s based on integrity and positive outcomes for everyone that interacts with your brand.
Your customers will trust your company more because they know you’re unlikely to do anything unethical to get ahead (or at least, less likely than the next guy), and this, in turn, will lead to a more loyal customer base that will stick around for the long term, and refer their friends too.
Suggested Principles For Aspiring Ethical Marketers
- Transparency – Ensure that customers know exactly what to expect from you at all times. (That also means not misrepresenting your programs and products to make them sound better than they are!) No one should be left in the dark about what your company does and how it operates, so be upfront about that. How many people are on your team? If you want to report a big, sexy revenue number, you may also choose to publish a profit and loss statement, so it’s clear what you spent to make those numbers. If you send out affiliate links, be upfront and open about your bias since you stand to gain from following those links. If you sell coaching services, be honest about your experience and what makes you qualified. Not all aspiring coaches have “imposter syndrome,” many legitimately have no experience.
- Protect Your Subscribers’ Data – Back in the day, we used to publish the names of people who purchased our programs by tagging them in our Instagram stories. But our students never consented to that. If you want to run an ethical company, take care of your customer's data. Even if you’re not selling it to a 3rd party, how different is it to use your email list to promote dozens of products they never indicated any interest in? If a person opts in to subscribe to your mailing list and they don't want to be on it anymore, don’t make them jump through hoops to unsubscribe (like entering that email address and unchecking boxes).
- React To Consumer Concerns – When a customer expresses a concern, listen to them, learn from the issues and fix them! Make it easy for customers to give feedback by asking for it regularly and integrating that feedback into your products, programs and business practices. You should be willing to resolve any issue within reason, and if you can't, be open and honest about why that is. In every case, you should strive to help your customer feel heard and validated, regardless of the final outcome.
- Minimize risk for your customers – Obviously, you should be trying to help your clients, not take advantage of them. It needs to be plainly stated because it happens all too often. Minimizing risk is something to keep in mind when deciding how much your clients can reasonably afford to pay for your products, along with considerations for what the true return on investment (ROI) is likely to be for them. Take steps to ensure that the value in your product will benefit them directly.
- Don’t inflate numbers – It's tempting to want to make your achievements seem more impressive than they really are, but this is incredibly misleading for your customers. Fudging numbers and overstating the potential of a product will only lead to issues in the future when clients are unable to replicate the results you've implied they will likely receive, so it's better to be realistic in your numbers. If an example comes up in a conversation that's above average, make sure you clearly say so to avoid confusion.
- Make logical comparisons (don’t compare apples with oranges as a way to manipulate) – When drawing comparisons between two things, it's important that the two elements are truthfully similar. For example, if you're comparing two different coaching programs on your website and one costs 10x more, the point you're making would only hold true if they are otherwise similar in every other way.
- Stay away from unverifiable claims – Unverifiable claims are any that cannot be backed up with evidence. If you promise a customer something in your copy and have no way of proving that you can deliver on that promise, you've potentially set them up for a misunderstanding at the very least, and at worst might discover at a later date that you were wrong and said something completely untrue about yourself or your products. This is something to consider especially when it comes to the conscious use of testimonials, where the short format can lend itself to impulsive statements that can be inadvertently deceptive.
- Don't exploit people’s emotions and vulnerabilities – Great copy is emotive. We buy based on our emotions, and that’s okay to an extent. It becomes a problem when your potential customer feels like they’re being blamed for not getting the results they’re looking for, and like they’ll never get those results unless they buy your product, program or service as often happens in the online teaching space. When a person who is already in pain starts feeling even more pain upon reading your marketing copy, there’s a high chance they'll buy your product just to make the pain go away, and then regret it later. I learned this in real time, from and with Coach Kathleen Oh (who was experiencing it at the time).
Questionable tactics to consider through the lens of ethics
- False scarcity – “Fear-of-missing-out”, or FOMO, is a powerful marketing tactic to consider carefully before using. Are you comfortable tying a sale to the idea that customers will miss out on an opportunity if they don't buy now, even when it’s not exactly true? Customers who purchase out of fear or panic are the least likely to get results because they’re buying for the wrong reasons.
- Not using permission-based email intentionally – Is it ethical to get your subscriber’s permission to send them a freebie, then start 30 promo emails on top of it? You get to decide. But as a general rule, be specific about what you'll be sending subscribers and how often you'll be contacting them. Give them the option to turn off promo emails if you’re doing a lot of heavy sending. Don’t keep sending a heavy amount of promo emails to subscribers who didn’t open or click your last five!
- Recorded webinars that are promoted as “live” webinars – Live webinars are a powerful way to market your business, as are recorded webinars, but would you say it’s ethical to simulate a live environment and “fool” your attendees? As a compromise, you can let them know that it's a recorded session and offer them an easy way to get live answers to their questions via chat.
- Fake testimonials / fake social proof – There’s no grey area when it comes to fake testimonials; this is clearly unethical! But even “real” testimonials can be misleading when they feature results from only the top .5% of customers getting the biggest results, and do not contain any context. Think of the most outrageous money claims or weight loss claims you’ve seen. What else was that person doing to get those results? Was it only the result of buying said product, program or service?
- Marking up payment plans – A subscriber on my email list once called this a “poor tax.” Is it reasonable to make those who can least afford your services and programs pay extra? Or is there some other way you could motivate those who are able to pay in full to do so? To be clear, there is a cost to offering payment plans. There’s follow-up involved. A percentage of customers won’t complete their payment plans. This is the cost of doing business. I prefer to build that cost into my business’s overall budget, rather than pass it on to the customer.
- [B2B Only] Focusing on topline revenue instead of talking about profit and loss – If you could spend $1M on Facebook ads and make $1.5M in revenue, wouldn’t you do that all day long? Of course! But there’s a problem when revenue is reported as $1.5M, since the cost, even if we only include ad cost, was $1M. (This happens all the time with sales funnels – this profit margin would be considered off the hook!) Be transparent about expenses. In many cases, revenue numbers look great on paper but there’s little or no profit
- Using lifestyle to attract customers – Storytelling is one of the most powerful marketing tools we have! In online marketing, there’s a common narrative involving location freedom, fewer working hours, more time with the kids, and and and. Rented private jets and mansions are commonplace. But building an online business is a job like any other, and it takes time and resources. The “lifestyle” is what you make it. Especially for those of us who hold a high level of privilege, it’s important to consider whether that dream work-from-home lifestyle is available to those who do not hold those same privileges.
Examples of ethical marketing campaigns
Transparent Business Practices – There are few industries as competitive as fashion, and this has driven many major brands into unethical business practices in their supply chains. Many companies seek to avoid transparency at all costs, and with good reason: their production practices often involve unsafe conditions and the exploitation of workers.
Lucy & Yak decided to make transparency part of their corporate ethos. They refuse to do business with any company that does not treat its workers well, and they ensure this by keeping all of their clothing sourced and created in India where they can keep an eye on how things are done.
They even take it a step further: as a customer, you can watch the entire production process from beginning to end. When they make the claim that they’re environmentally conscious and that employees are cared for, they can prove it.
Empowering, Not Exploiting – June is LGBTQ+ Pride Month, which I love! You’ve probably seen companies leveraging pasting a rainbow flag on their logo to score some virtue signal points. But is any real change happening? When the new “.gay” top-level domain name came out, it was interesting to see what various companies did with it – or didn’t do. Many companies, in fact, just bought the “.gay” domain name and had it automatically re-direct to their preexisting “.com” without any further effort.
One company that handled it right was Compose.ly, which created an entirely unique page for Composely.gay. It included new copy, updated design elements, and clear messages indicating allyship with the LGBTQ+ community. Pushing it further, the CEO made complete statements over social media about the move, and the team linked back to the organization behind the top-level domain (DotGay) and detailed how it was helping nonprofit organizations. To me, that looks like true advocacy – not just emotional manipulation.
Opting Into Countdown Timers – Countdown timers, whether they’re real or fake, sometimes give me the heebie-jeebies. But remember, YOU get to decide if using them in your promotions feels good/ethical or not. In our company, we do use them from time to time, if it feels right.
On one hand, it's clear how adding a countdown timer to the bottom of an email can be anxiety-inducing and push people into an impulse buy that, had they given it a sober second thought, they wouldn't have made. On the other hand, some people don't relate to dates on a calendar, and actually quite like a countdown timer. It helps give them an indication of how much time they have to think it over.
Our solution: let them choose.
We made a simple opt-in that allowed everyone on our email list to click a link that would turn on countdown timers in future emails. Simple, effective, and everyone is happy! We also committed to using countdown timers throughout our launches, so potential customers also see when they actually have extra time to make a decision, and don’t need to purchase right away.
How to create an ethical marketing plan for your business
Step 1 – Listen to your gut when marketing turns you off
Start looking at other businesses marketing through this new lens, whether it’s an online business or the dance studio up the road. Pay attention when something rubs you the wrong way. Ask why? Is someone getting hurt by this? Have you yourself been harmed in the past by this tactic?
These observations can form the foundation of your business’s ethical principles. What do you believe in and what are the values that drive your business? These things should be reflected not only in your Mission and Values but in your everyday practices.
Step 2 – Make key decisions about the default ways of doing things
Spend time considering how potential customers will be impacted by whatever style of marketing is considered status quo in your business. Some examples to consider:
- Charm Pricing – Pricing something at $99 instead of $100 can make it seem much less expensive, but if this is a major expense for your ideal client then it's worth putting the full $100 price tag up to make sure they can make a safe decision for themselves.
- Flexible FABs – If your product is expensive (obviously this is subjective!), consider whether or not a Fast Action Bonus (FAB) is an ethical marketing move, according to you.
- Payment Plans – Will you offer a markup on your payment plans? Does that number represent the actual carrying cost of those payment plans, or is it inflated because you want to entice people to pay in full?
Step 3 – Review your principles regularly, and audit As You Go
At TKG, we read our mission and values in our weekly team meetings, also at our monthly and quarterly meetings. That means we review our core values as often as 2x per week. Rather than burning down everything your business has done in the past or erasing any bad deeds from the internet forever, you can simply decide what your practices will be going forward, review them regularly, and follow them as perfectly or imperfectly as you’re able.
Ethical Marketing Actionable Tips
Here’s a quick reference to things you can do today to become an ethical marketer:
- Be honest in all your content – Check your facts, avoid implying anything untrue.
- Evaluate all projects/launches/funnels before repurposing them as is – As time goes on everyone grows in how they do things – update your past work to be consistent with your ethics before recycling it wholesale.
- Do you work to confront inherent bias and unearned privilege – Use inclusive language, and avoid assuming everyone’s lived the same life and had the same experiences.
- Adopt permission-based email marketing – Only send people content they expect, and give them the opportunity to opt-in and opt-out of various promotions and content as things change.
- Paid ads – choose the right way to get people’s attention – Consider where your ad will appear and what the viewer will be doing when they see your ad. Do you compliment that experience, or disrupt it? What are the ethical implications of doing so?
- Re-evaluate periodically as the industry evolves – As marketing evolves, platforms change, and new techniques become popular, it’s worth considering the ethics not just of the new space, but how this new space changes the ethics of what you’ve done up to this point.
Recommended ethical marketing resources:
Book: The Speed of Trust: The One Thing That Changes Everything by Stephen M. R. Covey
Podcast: The Ethical Marketing Podcast
Reference Sheet: The Ethical Moves Tactics List
Ethical Marketing Benefits Everyone Involved
When you move toward ethical marketing, you create a company culture that is based on honest and ethical practices; your customers trust your company more because they know you're more likely to prioritize their needs over maximizing profits.
Following the principles of ethical marketing you set out for yourself is about more than just a way to look good in the public eye. It's about respecting your customer and putting them first by only promoting a product or service that will return a predictable, expected benefit to them. These principles will help you be successful in the long run by giving you a solid foundation for your business, as well as a solid track record of happy clients.
I’m a launch strategist, copywriter and educator on all things money—earning it, growing it, and helping others get more of it.
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Looking back, I can’t remember why I even wanted to host an event. I was just following the formula, creating new offers according to what everyone else was doing. It felt like the next step after creating a signature program: host an event to move people to the next rung on the ladder of offers, which usually looks like a pyramid (which should be the first clue):
Y’know those times when you get 75% of the way to completing your purchase, and then change your mind at the last minute? …only to find your inbox pinging with a predictable sales message: “Did you forget something? Click here to complete your purchase.” If you’re patient enough – or ignore these emails for long enough – maybe you get a promo code.