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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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?
- 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?
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.
- 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.
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.
- 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.