Ethical Digital Marketing

by the Optimotive Team

Updated October 22, 2020

The Power of Digital Marketing

Digital marketing is powerful... and it's an industry ripe for criticism. Marketers in recent years have distributed political propaganda, launched misinformation campaigns, and perpetrated scams all around the world. At the same time, marketers have built incredible communities, provided free education to millions of people, and scaled the positive impact of organizations and companies across the globe.

On the surface, ethical marketing may seem pretty straightforward: do help good people, don’t market scams. But reality is a bit more complicated than that. We’ve noticed that a lot of digital markers don't talk about that complexity. Whether we like it or not, as web developers and digital marketers we make ethical choices every day. Such as:

Which tactics should we use to reach audiences? 

Which data sets are ok to use? 

How do we talk about the benefits of our products in order to increase sales? 

How do we tell compelling stories while being truthful and accurate? 

Us marketers are now able to track and influence the behavior of billions of people on a daily basis. 

This is an incredible amount of power and many people find it unsettling. Some people go the luddite route, refusing to get a smartphone or use social media. Others are tech-savvy, using VPNs and ad-blockers to shield their exposure to online marketing. But inevitably, online behavior is tracked and translated into data that marketers can quantify, analyze, and interpret. 

At Optimotive, we believe that all digital marketers have a moral obligation to “do the right thing” with this power.

Introducing:
Ethical Digital Marketing

With this manifesto, we at Optimotive are challenging ourselves and our peers to dig deeper into what it means to be an ethical digital marketer. Below we’ve identified six “pillars” of ethical digital marketing. In each section, we share our take on ethical/unethical behavior and some guiding questions to help assess how ethical your marketing might be.

We don’t have all the answers. But we want to start asking the right questions.

This manifesto is a project of transparency as we seek to:

1. Improve our business practices,

2. Create guidelines for the digital marketing work we do, and 

3. Help define an industry standard for ethical digital marketing. 

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1. Platforms

Are certain marketing platforms unethical? Maybe, maybe not.

Most marketing platforms are not inherently ethical or unethical. They can be used by marketers for good or...not so good.

We believe that marketers should critically evaluate their use of platforms in order to make ethical choices about what should or should not be done on each platform.

Marketing platforms (for example, Hubspot, Clearbit, or Google Analytics) are useful to us as things that allow us to operate at scale and advertise goods and services to people beyond the limitations of in-person conversation. 

Often, digital marketing tools are analogous to offline, human, activities. 

However, platforms that offer people’s data for purchase might be unethical in the case of deceptive collection and dissemination of people’s data. We run into this using tools for purchasing leads. Not all platforms like this are unethical. But, we think this is an area that should be explored more with respect to verifying ethical sourcing of leads throughout the “data supply chain” from where data came from in the first place, to how it is used.

What does this look like in practice?

Here are a few types of platforms along with some examples of how they might be used ethically and unethically:

Email marketing

(e.g. Hubspot, Mailchimp, Mailshake, Close.io)

Ethical use: sending emails following up with leads who are a good fit for the products you’re selling, and would benefit from using them

Unethical use: sending emails to 50,000 people who may or may not match what you’re selling (spam) 

Advertising

(e.g. Google Ads, Facebook Ads)

Ethical use: attracting traffic to your website to sell products via honest and clear ads.

Unethical use: using highly optimized psychological copy to imply false claims to “trick” people into clicking your ads. I.e. “clickbait”.

Analytics

(e.g. Google Analytics)

Ethical use: measuring conversions by referral channel to your eCommerce store.

Unethical use: using behavioral and location data to increase prices for people in need after a natural disaster.

Data scraping/mining

(e.g. Phantombuster, GetProspect, )

Ethical use: Using publicly available data to find market insights, or source contact information.

Unethical use: Sourcing data on people from platforms where they expected their information to be secure and unaccessible.

SEO

(e.g. Moz, SEMRush, BuzzSumo)

Ethical use: Identifying keywords to optimize your website for, or build content around.

Unethical use: Finding websites that you can use for a link scheme to manipulate search rankings without adding value

Conversion optimization / UX

(e.g. Fullstory, Hotjar, Mixpanel)

Ethical use: Identifying gaps in perceived value and user experience and improving conversion rates accordingly

Unethical use: Optimizing content and marketing material for “clickbait” - psychologically appealing but empty, false, or misleading.

Design tools

(e.g. Photoshop, Illustrator)

Ethical use: Enhancing product photos to better show off key features.

Unethical use: Creating a false or deceptive expectation of what people get from your products or services.

Texting tools

(e.g. TextUs, Textible.io, Twilio)

Ethical use: Engaging your audience with content, offers, giveaways, and value-adds that are welcomed on SMS as a channel.

Unethical use: Mass-texting large lists of people where the majority will think your message is spam, even if it results in some sales.

Voice/phone tools

(e.g. CallFire, CallHub)

Ethical use: Engaging your audience at scale via direct one-on-one voice calls to ultimately provide value of some kind.

Unethical use: Spam calling thousands of people to sell them something they don’t want or need.

Conversational / chat

(e.g. Drift, Intercom, Manychat)

Ethical use: Providing a fast way to get answers, help, support, product information, and more directly through chat on your website, while also qualifying leads so sales can help them out better.

Unethical use: Using conversational interfaces to withhold useful information in order to extract contact information from people.

Automation

(e.g. Hubspot, Zapier, Activecampaign, Mailchimp)

Ethical use: Segmenting and enriching leads in your database so that you can automatically send them content that better fits their unique needs.

Unethical use: Triggering marketing campaigns through channels like email that could be considered spam, in the interest of pushing hard to the sale.

Guiding Questions:

  • How accurately am I targeting my ideal audience through this platform? 
  • Does my use of this platform result in ultimately providing value to people I might engage with in marketing campaigns?
  • Are we using this platform to increase sales in a way that actually benefits our customers?
  • Does this platform operate on a channel our target customers expect us to reach them on or not? 
  • What are the normal conventions for using the marketing channels we’re targeting and are we adhering to the social expectations of the channel through our platform?
  • Are we using marketing automation to improve the customer’s experience and match people with the valued solutions to their problems in a faster &/or better way? 
  • Are you using a platform to spread spam?
  • How do we address ethical use of AI in marketing platforms? 
  • Is it ethical to use off-platform methods of marketing (typically data scraping) to do things you can actually just pay for within a platform?
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2. Data

Today, data is one of the most discussed and controversial topics in our industry. 

We believe marketers should only use ethically-sourced data and evaluate their campaigns to ensure the ethical use of data.

When it comes to data, most marketers are mainly focused on compliance with GDPR and CCPA. Failure to comply with data privacy laws comes with stiff fines that no one wants to pay. Compliance so far has mostly pushed the marketing world to throw up site-wide popups and checkboxes on forms. But is this really the best way to comply with the law and meet everyone's privacy needs? Is anyone happy to see those popups? Does anyone even read those terms and conditions? 

To understand data in digital marketing context, let’s start by looking at something we’re very familiar with: the “funnel” (AKA the buyer’s journey). It looks like this:

1. Data is collected

2. Data is enriched and analyzed

3. Data is used for marketing purposes

Within this funnel, there are ethical considerations at each step, illustrated by these examples:

Collection

Ethical example: people know what they’re signing up for, exchange of value is clear.

Unethical example: deceptive advertising, psychologically scammy copy, “implied” consent to be contacted that isn’t really granted outright.

Enrichment + Analytics

Ethical example: aggregate data used to make marketing decisions to help customers and improve products.

Unethical example: a “creepy” level of detail is tracked on individually identifiable people.

Use

Ethical example: Marketers running a campaign have good intentions on delivering value to their audience, with a reasonably accurate match of goods & services to the audience’s wants/needs.

Unethical example: Marketers spam “buy now!” emails to their list every day until the list is burned, and then move on to a new list. 

We have a new way of thinking about this data funnel that we’d like to introduce as a better fit for data in a marketing context: the data supply chain. Essentially, the data supply chain is the steps through which people’s data travels from source to use within a marketing campaign. 

Further, we believe that transparency is very important in the ethical use of data. If you don’t know where your data comes from, it may not have been ethically sourced. Similarly, if you source data that is used by other marketers, you may be complicit in unethical use of people’s data.

As a starting point to working with data ethically, here is a list of guiding questions we’ve developed to help shape your thinking.

Guiding Questions:

Sourcing contact info on people
    • Where did this data come from originally?
    • Was it collected deceptively or in good faith?
    • Can we trace the data supply chain to its source?
Enriching data + Analytics
    • Would these people be unhappy or angry to learn what information we know about them?
    • Are we prying too much into the personal lives of these people?
    • For hyper-specific behavioral data, is it tied to a specific person’s identifiable information or anonymized in a way that provides insights but is not creepy?
Using data
    • If marketing campaigns result in these people who you have data on, becoming customers, would they be happy and/or better off for it?
    • Are you acting in good faith that using your marketing data will provide a net positive benefit to people’s lives?
    • Are there ethical differences with respect to different types of data?
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3. Tactics

Which tactics we use as digital marketers speak to our values about fairness, privacy, and honesty. 

We believe that marketers should always avoid unethical tactics, and strive to make ethical choices in the tactics they choose to use.

Many of our peers refer to their choices about these values and their tradeoffs by grouping marketing strategies into white, gray, and black “hats.” The internet is full of current or “retired” black hat marketers talking about their spoils. Other voices helpfully frame the conversation of tactics in terms of value, risk, and time. 

But we have not found many marketers talking about the ethical implications of their digital marketing strategy choices. In this pillar, we try to expand the conversation beyond metaphorical hats to frame our guiding questions as they relate to our broader understanding of ethical digital marketing. 

What does this look like in practice?

As an example, in search engine optimization (SEO), Google looms large as the authority on Webmaster best-practices. Their guidelines provide the specific directions below. 

Avoid the following unethical techniques:

Follow ethical practices like these:

    • Monitoring your site for hacking and removing hacked content as soon as it appears
    • Preventing and removing user-generated spam on your site
    • Creating value-driven and useful content for your audience
    • Setting community expectations and standards

These Webmaster Guidelines are just a starting point.

Content marketing, ecommerce, website development, paid search advertising, and other fields of digital marketing all have nuanced best practices. Digital marketers must consider which tactics align with their understanding of ethical digital marketing more broadly.

Making ethical decisions day-to-day while doing exciting work like building websites and launching ecommerce projects is challenging. It requires discipline to take a sober look at the project in front of you and critically ask the "big hairy questions" about your marketing tactics and resulting costs, benefits, and tradeoffs.

Asking those questions might lose you some cash in the short-run. But we sincerely believe that digital marketers who consistently check their moral compass (and legal obligations) will be happier and more successful in the long-run

And yes, data-driven decisions are key in the digital marketing world, but don't let that fact keep you from listening to your gut and keeping your eyes open for red flags.

Above all, marketing tactics that respect our shared humanity and individual dignity should never take a back seat to tactics that blindly follow ambition. 

Guiding Questions:

Fairness
    • Do the means justify the ends? 
    • Without a guaranteed end, is it ok to use the means?
    • Are there unintended consequences or externalities of your marketing tactics?
    • Did you steal/plagiarize content or sufficiently change it to make it your own?
    • Who is benefitting from your work?
    • To what degree are your efforts negatively impacting your competitors? 
    • Does anyone who wants to contact you with concerns have the ability to do so? 
 Privacy
    • Do you have, and are you aligned with your Privacy Policy? Is that policy readily, publicly available?
    • If your audience found out about the tactics you are using to engage them, would they feel deceived or violated?
 Honesty
    • Are you exaggerating claims to the point of being misleading or dishonest? 
    • Are you using deceptive on- and off-page practices to trick Google and other search engines?
    • Are you breaking any terms of service you agreed to?
    • How do you report to your clients on the success/failure of projects? 
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      4. Sustainability

      Sustainable business practices are important to our team. We choose to work with sustainable brands because we care about the planet and what it will look like for future generations. And we are not alone. Increasingly, more and more consumers want to see their market choices create a positive impact on society and the environment. Accordingly, brands have to align with the priorities of their customers. This means that even companies with vested interests in fossil fuel production (think: BP) are launching campaigns around sustainability. 

      But what does this shift towards sustainability mean for digital marketers? 

      We believe that marketers should be as transparent as possible about the sustainability of their brands and products, and actively work to improve unsustainable products and practices where possible.

      As a marketer concerned with sustainability, the first sustainable choice you can make is who you work for. If you make a concerted effort to work primarily with sustainable businesses, you’re off to a great start in terms of your own marketing sustainability. 

      But of course, working for truly sustainable brands is not always feasible. 

      Many sustainability-conscious marketers would love to have the luxury of only working for sustainable companies she 100% believed in. But, that’s not everyone’s reality. As a marketer, sometimes you might be on the fence about the sustainability of the products you’re marketing, even if you don’t work for an oil company. In this case, there is still opportunity to act sustainably. 

      For many companies, ourselves and our clients included, sustainability is a journey. No company is perfect. It’s the work we do to increase the sustainability of our brands and products that makes a difference. So, for marketers in this position we advocate two things: being transparent about your company’s sustainability now, and working towards a more sustainable future. That might be driven by product marketing, market data showing consumer demand for sustainable options, or something else.

      What does this look like in practice?

      Marketing for sustainable and not-so-sustainable products alike, here are some do’s and don’ts you can adopt to really bring it home. 

      • Follow ethical practices like these:
        • Prioritize working with companies that value sustainability
        • Be honest about the sustainability of your product
        • If you are working on an unsustainable product, work to improve sustainability practices at the product-marketing level
        • Get certified, and talk about your certifications in your marketing materials
      • Avoid the following unethical practices:
        • Greenwashing
        • Promoting your company as sustainable when it causes environmental harm
        • Using plastics at every stop along your supply chain

      If you’re unsure where your campaign, strategy, or agency lies in terms of ethics, ask yourself some questions. 

      Guiding Questions:

      • Are you leveraging digital channels?
        • Where traditional marketing requires the production of various materials (think: flyers for in-mail), digital marketing is largely immaterial (minus data storage). 
        • Could your flyer be replaced by a Google Ad? 
      • Where is your data stored? 
        • Is energy efficiency a priority for your data center?
      • Are you cutting out plastics wherever possible?
        • From your packaging? 
        • From your shipping process?
      • Could your messaging be considered greenwashing
        • Do you know what greenwashing is? (LMGTFY)
        • Are you taking into consideration the entire lifecycle of your product?
      • Does your strategy push for over-consumption? 
        • Are you selling people stuff they don’t really need? (eg. Fast fashion)
        • Does the success of your campaign expand beyond “driving sales”?
      • Does your agency encourage working from home?
        • Cutting out commutes is an easy way to offset carbon footprints. 

      Assuming you’ve considered the previous questions, you’re probably on your way to becoming a proud sustainable marketer. 

      As marketers, we have the power to create (and amplify) change. The quality and scale of that change depends largely on the product. But you can still make sustainable choices in your marketing strategy regardless of the brands you’re tied to. 

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      5. Transparency

      Consumers no longer have to always search for what they need. Instead, brands are coming directly to them through paid online advertising. While this allows for relevant products to pop up in a consumer’s browser, in the background there is an eerie sense of being watched. Many companies continue to use consumer’s data without their approval or knowledge in the name of driving greater revenue numbers. 

      We believe that marketers should always be transparent with customers and it is unethical to create a false or incomplete impression of products & services in order to make the sale.

      Beyond the consumer, we’re referring to transparency in digital marketing broadly: transparency within marketing teams, transparency between marketing and other internal teams including the company’s leadership, and transparency for your customers and clients. 

      What does this look like in practice?

      Here are a few examples of how you might treat transparency, ethically and unethically:

      • Follow good ethical practices like these:
        • Be clear with your customers about how they can expect to benefit from your products and services
        • Be upfront about any downsides to using your products that may affect customers.
          Not only is it the right thing to do, but they’ll appreciate the honesty.
      • Avoid the following unethical practices:
        • Hiding flaws, defects, or drawbacks in your product from customers
        • Exaggerating claims about your product to lead customer to believe falsely that your product will do more than it actually does
        • Leaving out key information in your marketing materials that would be important for customers to know, in order to increase sales
        • Implying benefits from your product that are exaggerated, false, or unrealistic, even if you don’t directly state them

      Additionally, the questions below should spark a conversation within your company about how transparent you are really being. 

      Guiding Questions: 

      • Do you feel like your customers have full knowledge of how their personal data is being used by others?
      • Would you sign your name on ads and marketing campaigns? Do you want to tell people about what you have created?
      • Are your visuals, creative and photos realistic or exaggerated?
      • Are you withholding access of information from clients or customers?
      • Are you making false revenue promises ?
      • Are you using consumer data without their awareness and approval ?
      • Are you using psychological principles in a deceptive or exaggerated way?

      Being able to follow these guidelines should help you think critically about transparency within your marketing tactics. At the end of the day, people feel better when they feel like you are using your marketing knowledge in an honest and effective way. 

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      6. Impact

      The “impact” of digital marketing campaigns is typically discussed using KPIs & metrics: ROI, ROAS, CPA, CPM, brand awareness, reach, impressions. But, just as important as these marketing metrics is the social impact our campaigns may have. If harmful, the consequences of these campaigns may not be worth a positive return on ad spend in the short term. 

      We believe that marketers should always always always consider the potential social impact of campaigns before going live, and avoid campaigns that widen harmful divides in society.

      As an example, let’s take a look at two recent campaigns, both inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement: Pepsi’s 2017 campaign featuring Kendall Jenner and Nike’s “Just Do It” campaign featuring Colin Kapernick. 

      Pepsi’s campaign, in which Jenner diffuses a Black Lives Matter-inspired protest with a can of Pepsi, was a disaster and forced the company to issue a public apology for “missing the mark” while “trying to project a message of unity, peace and understanding.” 

      Nike's campaign featuring Kapernick promoted a controversial message of integrity, “believe in something, even if it means sacrificing everything,” and was a huge success, contributing to an increase of the company’s sales by 31% within a year. 

      For Pepsi, this was a PR disaster. For Nike, this was a huge commercial success. Yet, both campaigns still worked to profit from further fragmenting an already divided country.

      As marketers, we need to accept that the consequences of our campaigns extend beyond the bottom line. Asking ourselves a few questions can help us ensure that these consequences are what we want them to be.

      Guiding Questions:

      • Are you discussing sensitive issues respectfully?
      • Are you considering the views of the stakeholders / groups referred to in the campaign?
      • Are you exacerbating any contemporary social conflicts or divides?
      • Is there any chance that what you’re marketing will hurt people?
      • Does the success of your campaign rely on the alienation of another demographic or group? Is there any “othering” going on? 
      • Can this be classified as an ‘ism’ (racism, sexism, ableism, etc.)?

      To be clear, we are not discouraging provocative marketing campaigns. Provocative campaigns can be powerful tools to instigate change, and in some cases change might be the ethical course of action. The point we’re making is that it’s important to consider the consequences of our marketing campaigns along with the potential upside.

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      TLDR; Our Beliefs & Commitment

      In summary, these are our core principles:

        1. We believe that marketers should critically evaluate their use of platforms, in order to make ethical choices about what should or should not be done on each platform.

        2. We believe marketers should only use ethically sourced data, and evaluate their campaigns to ensure ethical use of data.

        3. We believe that marketers should always avoid unethical tactics, and strive to make ethical choices in the tactics they choose to use.

        4. We believe that marketers should be as transparent as possible about the sustainability of their brands and products, and actively work to improve unsustainable products and practices where possible.

        5. We believe that marketers should always be transparent with customers and it is unethical to create a false or incomplete impression of products & services in order to make the sale.

        6. We believe that marketers should always always consider the potential social impact of campaigns before going live, and avoid campaigns that widen harmful divides in society.

      In the end, the best way to determine the ethical degree of your strategies, campaigns, or tactics is simply with a bit of self-reflection. If you’ve made it this far, you’re probably already in tune with some of these issues, so kudos for that! Now, we’re challenging you to take it one step further. 

      Ask yourself the Guiding Questions we mentioned. Pose them to your colleagues. Did you come up with the same answers? Is there a glaring problem you’ve identified? Address it! 

      At Optimotive, we’ve had to face the music too. We might not be meeting the gold standard we’ve laid out here but we’re actively trying to get there. And that’s what we’re asking of our peers today. 

      We look forward to embarking on this journey with you 🙂

      Thanks for reading,

      The Optimotive Team

      P.S. This project is designed to be a work in progress.  Have any suggestions on ideas or questions we could include?  We would love to hear from you!  Email us at [email protected]