Business Ethics has become an oxymoron. We can look back at companies like Enron and scrutinize their shady accounting practices that ultimately left thousands of people unemployed in its collapse as a case study of business ethics. Surely we can grow and learn from ethical scandals, and develop checks and balances to prevent future corruption and harm, right? Perhaps so, but in the fast pace boom of tech companies, data collection, and digital advertising, we’re seeing a new set of complex ethical dilemmas surface at an unprecedented pace. And more are yet to be uncovered. It’s difficult to keep up with and truly understand the implications of something that is constantly developing and changing every day, and unfortunately companies like Facebook took advantage of that. Now that we’ve had a glimpse behind the curtain after the Cambridge Analytica scandal and we’re working towards privacy protection, it’s time to assess if this new(ish) method of online advertising is truly dangerous for society.
On a scale of one to five, five being high “2016 rigged election” threat, I would rank our current position at a 3.5. Frankly, there is still too much uncertainty and lack of transparency for me to confidently say that these companies will operate more ethically after the Cambridge scandal. Post-Cambridge, rather than seeing companies like Facebook be more transparent about how their data collection and use their algorithms, the fear is that it could mean less transparency in policy shifts, particularly for marketers interested in using Facebook as an ad network to reach consumers. Why? Simply because they can and not enough people outside of the tech bubble truly understand how to operate in the hot commodity of data. The likely argument is that transparency puts intellectual property at risk, but when you’re facing as much mistrust as these leaders are, there must be checks and balances to regain consumer trust.
However, in all of this negativity, I am an opportunist and believe that there are still methods to conduct ethical online marketing to reach your consumer and it’s up to the rest of us to speak louder and influence through ethical marketing behaviors. So, how do we find the fine line between awareness and annoyance? How do we get in front of target consumers most likely to buy, without overstepping and giving off a creepy impression of always watching?
Do Your Research
One of the cornerstones of any successful marketing campaign is understanding the segment or target audience of your product or service. Get to know your audience and their shopping behaviors. This will allow you to be present in the right time while not overstepping and becoming the creepy omnipresent online marketing we’ve seen lately.
There’s always time to course-correct, receive feedback, and ensure the data gathered for targeted advertising isn’t breaching consumer privacy as you try to reach your target audience. Never work in auto-pilot mode. Assess your strategies at every step of your campaign and implement consumer protection policies.
A great way to make sure you’re keeping in check and self-regulating is by being transparent with the consumer and how you’re intending to protect them. Share privacy policies and let the consumer decide how and when they want to share info with you and how you get your data.
If you truly believe in your product or service, do your market research, and develop a marketing communications plan, you don’t have to use deceptive or manipulating language to sway consumers. Tap into your consumer base with testimonials and build trust without cutting corners or spreading misinformation.
Tell the Brand Story
Everyone has a story to tell, what is yours? Tying into transparency and authenticity, streamline those characteristics into a killer story about the brand that is consistent across all online ad channels for recognition.
Digital advertising and pretty much anything in the online universe is moving faster than any of us can keep up with right now. Rules and regulations are constantly shifting, and so are the perceptions of privacy as a culture. We’re building this plane as we’re taking flight, so stay on top of how these shifts affect your business.
Understand Third Parties
Even if you’re proud to say your business isn’t actively participating in big data collecting and sales, using third party sites still runs the risk of them collecting data unbeknownst to you. Know who you’re working with and research software that helps prevent this.
Don’t Cut Corners & Focus on Your End Goal
Tying into authenticity and telling your story, there are many opportunities in online advertising to “cheat the system” so to speak. Some have established consequences like “keyword stuffing” in search engine optimization, others are only in the process of being established. If you build your business on sup par or murky standards, it will inevitably catch up to you as we’ve seen with Facebook and Cambridge Analytica. Is that how you want to showcase your hard work in the end?
Jumpsix. “Ethical Issues in Digital Marketing.” JumpSIX Marketing, 29 July 2019, jumpsixmarketing.com/ethical-digital-marketing-part-1-issues/.
Samuel, Alexandra. “The Shady Data-Gathering Tactics Used by Cambridge Analytica Were an Open Secret to Online Marketers. I Know, Because I Was One.” The Verge, The Verge, 25 Mar. 2018, www.theverge.com/2018/3/25/17161726/facebook-cambridge-analytica-data-online-marketers.
Shewan, Dan. “Ethical Marketing: 5 Examples of Companies with a Conscience.” WordStream, 28 Nov. 2018, www.wordstream.com/blog/ws/2017/09/20/ethical-marketing.
Steimer, Sarah. “The Murky Ethics of Data Gathering in a Post-Cambridge Analytica World.” American Marketing Association, 5 Jan. 2018, www.ama.org/marketing-news/the-murky-ethics-of-data-gathering-in-a-post-cambridge-analytica-world/.