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We live in a time where digital technology is massively influential, with most modern businesses using some form of online marketing. While the benefits are considerable, giving customers convenient access to information at the click of a button (or the swipe of a screen), our growing reliance on digital technologies also raises some ethical issues for marketers. As martech tools become more powerful and intelligent, their ability to intrusively target individuals begs the question: where is the ethical line in digital marketing?

There’s an awful lot of grey area around what is and isn’t acceptable. Crossing the line can spell doom for a company’s reputation, whether their actions were deliberate or not. When so much relies on consumer trust, digital marketers have a duty to make ethical decisions that will safeguard the brands they represent against potential backlash.

Here are some areas to consider.

The data dilemma

Every move you make in the digital world leaves a footprint. Each time we sign up to a new website or app, we give permission for companies to collect our data without really thinking about how or why it will be used. It’s buried deep down there in the privacy policy, using language we likely wouldn’t understand the implications of anyway. Language like:

“We work with third-party service providers and the Facebook Companies to help us operate, provide, improve, understand, customise, support, and market our services. When we share information with third-party service providers and the Facebook Companies in this capacity, we require them to use your information on our behalf in accordance with our instructions and terms.” – WhatsApp Privacy Policy

Sure, brands often collect data to make better products. But right at the other end of the scale, you have shady organisations that use this data to tap into social media platforms like Facebook and target users with fake news stories – a practice which is believed to have influenced the 2016 US election result.

Our smartphones are listening to us. There are hundreds of apps that are programmed to listen through your phone’s microphone, allowing companies to more precisely target advertisements – even when the apps are just running in the background.

Last week, I met up with my friend Jess and we talked about the tiny house movement and what causes mouth ulcers (among other things – we have fascinating conversations). The next day, she started receiving targeted ads for both. It was creepy.

The internet is supposed to represent a free exchange of information; this freedom is largely dictated by big tech companies. In this emerging era of big data and AI marketing tools, marketers need clearer guidelines around what is and isn’t an invasion of privacy.

To spam or not to spam?

Spamming is effective – it wouldn’t exist otherwise.

We’ve all experienced it in some form or another: a barrage of irrelevant and unsolicited advertising that gets up in your face and tries to sell you things you don’t need. In some ways the opposite end of the spectrum to the laser targeted advertising mentioned above, spammers will show you whatever they want you to see. Privacy boundaries mean nothing; if they get hold of your data, they’ll use it.

A company that prides itself on its positive ethical values should never resort to such disrespectful selling techniques. Ask yourself: have you ever seen spam from someone like Amnesty International? Or the British Red Cross? No – because this would reflect poorly on their business practices.

Most spam is for luxury goods that we don’t really need, using a hard sales approach to create a feeling of inadequacy that can only be fulfilled by their product. Ethical selling requires an honest approach; spam is a warning that the company you’re dealing with likely has questionable morals.

Showing up your competition

Another ethical dilemma is comparison marketing. And there’s nothing wrong with a little healthy competition, as long as you don’t take it too far. Generally speaking, it’s better to showcase the benefits of your own product, rather than discrediting others. And whatever you do say had better be true – or you’ll lose all credibility.

The subject of comparison marketing always makes me think of TV and billboard ads around the general election, which often spend more time slating the competition than they do talking about how their party plans to improve things.

tory billboard campaign    source: daily mail

If you’re planning on creating any promotional materials that show up the competition in favour of your products, you need to triple check the facts, or you could be called out. Worse, you could end up with a lawsuit on your hands. Consider whether it’s worth the risk to lose the trust of your audience and cause a hostile relationship between you and your competitors. Ethical businesses should support one another – not tear each other to pieces.

Marketing to children

Children are among the biggest supporters of internet usage. Today’s young people are digital natives – they’ve known no different. Google has always been there for them, like a wise digital grandfather. But they are also extremely vulnerable.

Children may love the internet, but most don’t realise the extent to which their activities are monitored online for advertising purposes. They’re also less able to critically assess the information they’re presented with. As such, ethical companies have a duty not to present a hard sell to children online. Think of your marketing efforts as informative, not advertorial.

The following advertising bodies offer guidelines that may help:

Transparency and integrity

There are two sides to big data: on one side you have this incredible opportunity to generate lucrative audience insights, and on the other, you run the risk of being perceived as unethical. How do you get around this? With transparency and integrity.

Transparency with online marketing can make or break your business.

If you plan on using customer data to inform your digital marketing, you have a responsibility to use that data in an ethical way, without resorting to intrusive or manipulative tactics. If you collect and monetise data, there needs to be clarity around how and why it’s used. In other words, what’s the value for the customer?

In an ideal world, each customer should grant you their permission to use their data with full knowledge of the consequences, but many of us hit ‘accept’ without bothering to read the terms of service (and no wonder – see the image below). However, the principle of informed consent should be adopted as far as possible.

long app terms of servicesource: twitter

In the digital economy, the most successful businesses will ultimately be those that embrace ethical values such as trust, honesty, and accountability. If your digital marketing strategy isn’t guided by a clear set of ethics, it can all come crashing down around you. It pays to remember that in the end, ethical marketing practices are good for everyone.