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My 9 Rules for Ethical Marketing in Business

When I was a freshman in college, the world of advertising and marketing disgusted me.

All I could think of was that movie ‘Kate and Leopold’ where Hugh Jackman gets roped into doing a commercial for margarine and later is upset with Meg Ryan because he can’t believe he just promoted such a disgusting product.

Here’s an excerpt from the movie if you haven’t seen it (and yes, it’s one of my favorite films of all time):

And yet, here I am today. My career’s been built entirely on marketing, and I’m totally okay with it. In fact, I love my work.

What I’ve learned over the years is that marketing is not inherently evil. It’s a neutral. What you do with it can be evil or good.

However, as you know, it’s really easy to use marketing for evil. Probably easier than using it for good, if we’re being honest. So today I thought I’d share a few personal rules I’ve set for myself to ensure I’m doing my part of leaving this world better than I found it.

1) Respect your audience

Bad marketing happens when you assume your audience is stupid. It’s tempting to try to sound like the commercials you hear and give into hype and empty excitement. Instead, treat your readers, followers, users, and customers like the people they are. Magic happens when people feel heard.

2) Sell only good things

As a copywriter/marketer, I only promote individuals, products, and services that I believe have a net positive impact. No business is perfect, but I always try to align with those that are doing their best to provide what’s right for their communities.

3) Always provide more value than people expect

Set reasonable prices, but always overdeliver in some way—in your professionalism, in your attentiveness, in some extra time, etc. This not only sets you apart as an outstanding service provider, but it also makes people happy. And happy people make the world a better place.

4) Be honest—Tell more than just the objective truth

Here’s a test: If you’re considering leaving out part of the truth, ask yourself, “What would people think if they heard the whole truth?”

If the thought of them finding out worries you, that’s a sign you need to put it out there and just deal with it.

For example, there are some really shady marketing practices that have been used for so long that they’ve become accepted. Exhibit A: false scarcity. It’s fine to set a deadline to buy a product, but those countdowns at the top of the page that are individualized to each user? Ehhh, not cool.

Objectively, one could say that they have a limited time to buy. But the whole truth? The time limit’s completely fabricated.

This carries into how you present yourself as well. For me, the objective truth is that I’m an experienced copywriter. The whole truth is that while I’ve been in marketing for 5 years now and I studied writing in school before then, I’ve only focused on copywriting specifically for the last 2. If someone cares about my experience, it’s my responsibility to let them know that.

5) Hone your craft

…But don’t let that paragraph above fool you. I’ve invested in my copywriting skills with both money and time. I’m not the best copywriter in the world, but I’m a damn good one. I know my industry’s best practices and I’ve used them myself. I’ve gotten results. I’ve paid my dues.

Whatever your specialty is, strive to be the best in your field.

6) Teach only what you know. Discuss, explore, and experiment with what you don’t

A lot of people get excited by the online course industry and want to do one themselves. Which is great! But make sure you’re teaching something you know.

You can’t teach marketing if you haven’t successfully done marketing yourself. You can’t be a business coach if you don’t know how to run a business yourself. If you try to teach these things without first-hand experience, you’ll only be spitting out what you’ve heard others say.

If you want to teach, you first have to learn—and learn in a hands-on way. And yes, you can charge for that learning. It’s called being a new freelancer. You’ll charge less than an experienced freelancer because you’re still learning your craft, sure. But that’s how it works.

Don’t teach until you’re able to share lessons you’ve learned yourself.

7) Follow the law

This should go without saying. However, there are a lot of solopreneurs and small business owners who hear about privacy policy requirements and email opt-in laws and assume they don’t apply to them. “My business is too small to matter,” they think.

But here’s the deal: Ya gotta know the laws, and ya gotta follow them.

For example, a huge regulation just passed in the European Union that affects anyone who has an email list. There are now specific rules to follow when dealing with EU citizens. And if you’re not following them, you definitely can get in trouble (by the way, here’s a nice little guide on GDPR Compliance for Online Businesses Selling Courses and Memberships).

Just do your best here. If you’re running Facebook Ads, read up on their ad requirements. If you have an email list, look up some articles on SPAM laws (and that article above) to ensure you’re doing things by the book. It’s the best decision for you and the best decision for your customers.

8) Give a damn about more than profit

Caring about profit isn’t a bad thing. In fact, it’s really good—money is what keeps our economy flowing, what gives us the ability to do great things in our lives. But don’t let money be the end-all, be-all. Do work that brings a profit AND something else. At a base level, do something that brings you personal satisfaction. At a higher level, do something that improves the world around you.

Just don’t let profit be the only thing you pay attention to.

9) Define success on your own terms

A lot of bad business comes from chasing bad beliefs. We think that we’re successful when we meet society’s definition of success. Except, that definition is every-changing, and we’re liable to keep chasing ghosts—and cutting corners to get there.

I challenge you instead to consider what you actually need to feel happy. Is it material things like I listed above? Is it more time with your loved ones? Is it the ability to travel? Is it a gym membership?

There’s no shame in wanting ANY of these things. Just be honest about it, and realize that what you think might make you happy might not actually make you happy. This takes a lot of soul-searching and self awareness, but it’s one of the most important exercises you can do.

My idea of success involves making my home into a welcoming space for entertaining, taking interesting trips once or twice a year, having enough savings not to worry too much, and being able to go on little dates with my husband once a week. Everything else is nice, but not necessary.

Having this defined means that I know exactly what I’m working toward, and I don’t have any need to run past that goal.

So take some time to determine what you value. A lot of terrible businesses are built out of the empty pursuit of “more.” They keep growing. They keep hiring new people, keep increasing the bottom line. And that’s great if you have a deep desire to employ more people or have some sort of wider societal impact. But if you’re building a business to support yourself, you can have a specific goal and you can slow down when you get there. It’s okay to have a different idea of success.

What rules do you follow?

What guideposts or ideas do you keep in place to ensure you’re growing a business you can be proud of? I’d love to hear. Share in the comments below.


Further reading

American Marketing Association’s Statement of Ethics

The Morality of Manipulation – Nir and Far

Is Ethical Marketing Extinct? – Top Dog Social Media


Feature photo by Volkan Olmez on Unsplash

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