The ethics of online marketing can be complicated, but it doesn’t have to be. That’s what makes it such a useful skill to have—you’ll never be short of an excuse to learn about ethics and the responsibilities that come with it.
The truth is, there are only really two situations where you need to be concerned with online marketing ethics. The first is when you are creating content in order to promote a product or service for commercial reasons. The second is when you are being paid to perform a task for someone, whether that’s posting about a product or service, or using social media to advocate on behalf of a brand.
So which one are you? Are you creating content for commercial reasons, or are you receiving payment for your work? If it’s the latter, you need to be extra mindful of your ethical responsibilities, as there are additional rules you have to follow.
The Difference Between Professionalism and Advertising
You may be tempted to think that ethics and professionalism are one and the same when it comes to marketing. After all, isn’t professionalism just a fancy way of saying “don’t be an adman”?
While advertising and marketing can certainly be included in the same category of “commercial” content, there is a crucial difference between advertising, marketing, and professionalism.
Advertising—the act of promoting a product or service for monetary gain—is, by its very nature, unprofessional (though it can be highly effective).
On the other hand, marketing is a form of advertising that is conducted online. It can be extremely effective and help brands gain credibility, so long as the practitioner is ethical.
An ethical marketer creates content for the sake of the consumer, not the company. They understand that people come first, and that the success of a brand or product is determined by the value it provides to the public. Essentially, an ethical marketer promotes a product or service that they think will be beneficial to those who use it or are associated with it.
It follows that being unprofessional when engaging in marketing can sometimes be just as effective as being deliberately deceptive. If you want to know if something or someone is trustworthy, do you look at their social media posts or their website? More often than not, you’ll end up on the same page.
Responsibility and Liability
There is also a crucial distinction to be made between responsibility and liability. When you are responsible for the content you create, you’re largely shielded from legal action as long as you act in good faith and with reasonable care. This is why, as a marketer, you are often left alone to do the dirty work of promoting products you believe in.
On the other hand, if you are being paid to promote a product or service, you are entering into a contractual agreement and therefore answerable to the company you are working for. If you break the terms of the contract, you could be in trouble, even if you acted in good faith and with reasonable care. This is why you must always be extremely careful when it comes to marketing for commercial reasons.
As a marketer, you are often left to your own devices to do the dirty work of marketing. You are responsible for creating content—whether that’s an email, a blog post, or a piece of ad copy—that will drive traffic to websites and social media accounts. You have a fiduciary responsibility to ensure that your efforts will generate revenue for your employer. That means, at least in theory, that you should always be seeking to improve the bottom line, even if you feel instinctively that something you are doing is good for the company or for society at large. Additionally, you must be mindful of your ethical responsibilities, as there are additional rules and regulations you have to follow.
On the other hand, if you are being paid to engage in marketing, you are entering into a contractual agreement with your employer and therefore answerable to them. You must always be extremely careful when it comes to marketing for commercial reasons, as you never know where your work might lead. Additionally, it is your responsibility to ensure that your efforts are conducted in an ethical manner. This means that you should never post about a product or service you haven’t tried out yourself, or if you haven’t had the chance to try out yet. In the same way, you should be careful about what you say about other products and services, as it could be interpreted as an ethical mishap. Lastly, you should never promote a product or service you don’t believe in, or that you think might be harmful to the consumer. This is often the case when you are being paid to engage in marketing, and it can also be extremely effective in an ethical capacity.