Ethics in Digital Marketing: Ignore at Your Own Peril

ethics in digital marketing

There’s little doubt that digital marketing has taken over the marketing world, which is a testament to its efficacy in delivering results. But as digital marketing continues to take center stage, a pot is bubbling under the surface ready to derail the entire industry over a lack of ethics in digital marketing. Between spam emails, linkbait, inaccurate or misleading product descriptions, fake reviews, false statistics, and lies spread on social media for profit, businesses using digital marketing face a growing challenge to either clean up their acts or face strict government regulations. Like in the traditional marketing sector, the expectation is that businesses will carry out their digital marketing strategies within some acceptable ethical boundaries. When such self-regulation comes off the rails, citizen complaints flood the offices of elected officials and regulators until it’s impossible to ignore the din, and the government steps in with rules and regulations to govern the industry. Failing to comply with these new rules can prove very costly both from a financial and reputations perspective. Plus, given their lack of understanding of how the internet works, let alone understanding how digital marketing goes about promoting brands on social, search, SMS, and email marketing, rules promulgated by the government are inevitably more onerous and difficult to implement than those developed by the industry as it polices itself.

ethics in digital marketing
Image courtesy of Social Media Explorer

So, are you a digital marketer? Are you planning your business’ next online marketing strategy? Remember that ethics in digital marketing matters to consumers. As you can see above, your conduct and honesty demonstrate your ethical conduct which impacts trust. And, trust in a brand greatly impacts intentions to purchase its products, as you can see below.

customer trust
Image courtesy of Marketing Charts

Ethics in digital marketing

Looking at digital marketing, we find a number of unethical behaviors, especially across social media. While this lack of ethics in digital marketing is confined to a few businesses, the impact of customer dissatisfaction and demands for reform threaten to impact every business using digital marketing. Among the unethical behaviors protested by consumers are:

  1. Privacy concerns, consumers feel that brands track them online and invade their privacy by selling or lending personally identifiable information gleaned as part of normal online activities.
  2. Inaccurate or, worse, untrue reviews are posted online to persuade consumers to make a purchase. Consumers expect brands to not only abandon their efforts to upload fake reviews written by employees and friends but to make a strong effort to weed out inaccurate reviews before they’re published.
  3. Misleading or inaccurate product descriptions. We’ve all had the experience of buying a product only to find it is different from the way it was described online when the product arrives. While consumers accepted heavily edited images in traditional media (I once spent days at a major ad agency watching an artist edit a single image in Photoshop to make the model more attractive to promote a product), we expect posts on social media reflect reality. We’ll accept a filter and some good lighting but we don’t want our models heavily edited or animations of the product to reflect anything but the way they really work.

On top of these actions that show a lack of ethics in digital marketing, we tend to paint businesses using digital marketing with the ills we find in digital platforms, even when they’re not responsible. That’s nothing new but digital platforms provide a venue where these attitudes spread unchecked.

Here are just some general ethical concerns voiced by consumers regarding the internet, especially social platforms. Reforms proposed to ameliorate these problems proposed by the government threaten the ability of legitimate businesses to get the most from their digital marketing efforts.

  • Spam, especially messages containing links that damage consumers. Such spam is often called phishing or spoofing and threatens to expose those who open these messages or tap the link to dangers ranging from access to bank accounts and other sensitive sites to identity theft. Increasingly, these messages purport to come from legitimate businesses as a means to collect password information.
  • Cyberbullying of both celebrities and average users.
  • Deep fakes that pretend to show something that happened or someone that never existed to embarrass or hurt someone. Technology advanced the ability to create these deep fakes while not advancing to the point where detection is possible.
  • Misinformation and, a more serious problem. intentional misinformation for political gains or profit. For instance, COVID misinformation caused serious harm according to researchers at The University of Wisconsin – Milwaukee and much of this misinformation came from just a handful of bad actors whose posts were amplified to make a groundswell of misinformation that extended the harm.

Legislation versus ethics in digital marketing

To combat the harm caused by a lack of ethics in digital marketing, laws, regulations, and rules changes implemented by platforms now restrict certain behaviors. For instance, legislation in both the US and EU now restricts certain types of email marketing efforts that result in spam in an effort to protect consumer privacy. Most search engines are removing 3rd party cookies later this year as a way to provide better privacy controls in the face of organizational abuse. Google and other search engines hide more information from website owners every year as a means to obscure personally identifiable information on visitors. Twitter and, to a degree, Facebook moved to eliminate profiles responsible for false information, especially those used to coordinate negative events such as the January 6th events at the US Capitol. Other legislation seeks to protect users younger than 13 from exposure to social media although Instagram and other platforms plan to go ahead with social platforms specifically targeting children.

These laws, regulations, and policy changes make it harder for legitimate businesses to use digital marketing in support of their efforts. For instance, Facebook now applies enhanced scrutiny to ads involving politics to reduce the impact of international efforts to affect US elections but they also make it harder for political candidates to reach constituents with their political platform and priorities these constituents need to make an informed choice at the polls.

In essence, the lack of ethics in digital marketing displayed by a handful of entities is making it harder to use digital marketing for legitimate purposes. And, that’s about to get even harder as new legislation makes its way through Congress and state legislatures in response to community concerns.

The solution is for companies and industry associations to set up strong policies covering ethics in digital marketing, then police themselves to ensure companies adhere to these rules. Abducting their responsibility to provide guidance ensures the rulemaking falls to politicians who have little understanding of what rules to pass.

Dilemmas for ethics in digital marketing

Consumer marketing

You’ve probably seen many content creators use clickbait to lure online readers into viewing their content by giving them false expectations. Clickbait drives traffic to a website where, often, the owner makes money from ubiquitous advertising contained on the site without delivering on the promise of the headline or attempts to sell a product rather than provide information.

In traditional marketing, we have laws prohibiting businesses to market false claims in an attempt to influence the buying decisions of their target customers or mislead their current consumers. Yet, the laws haven’t kept pace with online practice to limit or outlaw clickbait. And, that’s just one example of unethical efforts to drive traffic to a website.

Online marketing ethics require marketers to produce only evidence-based marketing claims and use honesty in their representation of content in their ads and posts.

Intellectual property

It’s not uncommon to see online marketers take advantage of other content creators’ online property to aid their own marketing campaigns. Such intellectual property could include copyright materials like photos, images, artwork, video footage, music, or written content. Sometimes website owners copy and paste content, presenting it as their own.  In most cases, these online marketers use such materials without express permission from the content creator or without paying for them for their intellectual property. While some marketers get away with this, you can land yourself in hot legal water if you’re caught. You’ll also destroy your marketing campaign, damage your brand, and incur hefty financial losses.

While popular search engines like Google may make content available to the public through its search results, others can’t automatically use content without permission or paying for the content. Google now penalizes brands that use content unethically. For instance, duplicate content doesn’t gain any value for the website and may incur a penalty. Only use the content you purchase or ask permission from the content creator before using their content.

However, this issue isn’t as straightforward as it seems. For instance, it’s common practice to create content, even images, and infographics, for the express purpose of attracting backlinks from other websites. These backlinks benefit the website by providing evidence supporting the value of the content, which improves the creator’s rank in search. Hence, using content from other creators with attribution in the form of a backlink is common practice.

Privacy and personal data collection

Many online marketers rely on various forms of marketing data to evaluate their marketing strategies and make future projections. The availability of several analytic tools, especially on websites, makes it possible to source data from web users to help tweak advertising efforts. While there is a lot of readily available data as well as a wide range of data types you can use, you need to use them in accordance with legal provisions. For instance, you can’t share your personally identifiable data with other businesses.

First, you need to notify people prior to collecting their personal information, including your current customers. It is also important to ensure that you list every type of information you collect, the process you use, the reason for collecting it, and how you plan to share it. Make this information available as part of your privacy policy. Then, ensure you have procedures in place to detect and eliminate any actions that violate your policy. With various forms of cybercrime like credential stuffing, identity theft, and scams on the rise, you need to be careful about how you collect and use personal data.

Spam and unsolicited email

Many online marketers use email marketing as a way of marketing to a mailing list of subscribed readers, which is ethical and very effective. But sending unsolicited emails to prospects to gain their attention is unethical and even illegal in many jurisdictions. So is selling or sharing your lists as subscribers must provide explicit permission before you send messages.

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