Ethical Social Media Marketing

Don’t let your eyes glaze over tooooo quickly here. We really like this concept.

We’re of the belief that if you can’t find a way to market ethically, you’re not creative enough.

Ahhhh, ethics — the great debate on what we ought to do. I grew up in a pretty religious household. Everything was black and white. And when it wasn’t, I was to assume it was black (in other words, if you don’t know it’s right outright, don’t do it). As an adolescent you peel back those lessons and muddle through as you determine what you actually believe. As an adult, you see a lot of gray.

Morality is all about the black and white. In other words, what do I believe is definitively right every time I encounter a certain type of situation? And vice versa. Heavy stuff. It’s the basis of integrity, though. Trust can be built on integrity and brand loyalty on trust. Trace that backwards and you can see why ethics should be important to your company. Haven’t thought about what your company stands for yet? Start.

It’s not too difficult. Let’s simplify it.

Morality, boiled down.

While we can argue into eternity the details and moral implications of situations, and while there are plenty of exercises in ethics (exercises designed to force a decision with a less than ideal outcome) proving humans can’t agree on one right answer all the time, there seems to be a pretty obvious basis in which morality is rooted.

Here it is. You are not alone. Your needs aren’t the only needs. Your wants aren’t the only wants. Consider the needs and wants of others when making your decisions.

This principle is central to a nonprofit. Thing is, it is to any business as well. For instance, the idea behind “the customer is always right” feels like it’s about avoiding conflict and letting the customer dictate the sales process, but it really draws all the way back to why the product being sold was created in the first place — somebody wanted it. Yes, a company offers it in exchange for money. Sounds mutually beneficial to me.

I’m not saying building a business is inherently moral. I’m not. Certainly there are principles a business must adhere to to consider itself moral.

What ethical principles should my brand consider?

There are probably a lot. I’m sure you’ve already done some of this work. Your morality is your morality and it’s your company. I don’t pretend to have the answers here. So I’ll just give you a few of mine. Maybe one or two will click. Let’s look at it from a marketing and also a social media marketing perspective. Social media marketing poses some unique ethical dilemmata.

Firstly, I’d contend, you have to be an ethical company to market ethically.

If you’re company sells snake oil, none of your marketing techniques could be considered moral. Network marketing often ends up being a good example of this. I’m not saying all network marketers are unethical. Not by a long shot. However, some network marketing schemes are more about recruiting contractors and revenue based on contractor buy-in, than on the sale of the company’s product.

Another example would be when a company places more emphasis on the sales process than the integrity of its product. In this case, the company becomes predatory.

You get it. Marketing can be an extension of what is ethical or unethical. The spirit of your company matters.

Motive matters.

Our societal standards are changing. We expect more from a company, and more from an individual, than ever before. Motive is no longer good enough for the public. The way in which and the rate at which we consume media makes every slip available nationwide in an instant. And our public has no qualms holding anyone accountable.

It’s almost as if the public demands an omnipotent social awareness. Think about H&M’s debacle earlier this year. I cannot speak to what goes on behind closed doors, but…I assume those involved in the creation of the scrutinized imagery had no ill intentions. Whether they did or did not, we can’t know. Benefit of the doubt aside, the root of the umbrage was “How could this possibly get through all the steps necessary to be published? How could no one see this was insensitive? Does H&M employ not one socially aware employee?”

Many people jumped to the conclusion that is was done intentionally because many found it impossible to believe no one caught it. Personally, I can see how it slipped through and I think it starts with the very real possibility that everyone involved had no hate or ill will in their hearts.

Regardless, the public spoke out and held H&M accountable. While many brought H&M’s motives into question, for some it was more about the lack of awareness. Oblivious or not, both of those camps held H&M to the fire with the same fervor. H&M’s motive didn’t matter.

Motive still matters!

You have little chance of being an ethical company without good motives. And if/when you are brought to account, your company can come to that table with a clear conscience.

Be honest.

If your company cannot maintain honesty and survive, you have a problem. A problem that could probably be solved with better ethics. I won’t get too deep into the weeds here, but the concept of honesty and what it means for your company is worth spending some quiet time on. Sing one less song in the shower tomorrow.

Stay on message.

I’m not saying don’t mix it up but when it comes to content marketing set goals and stick to them. A good example of a violation of this principle would be when a creative content creator grows a following worthy of pursuit by a 3rd party and he abuses his following by putting that 3rd party’s irrelevant content in front of them.

Consider why you love Google so much. How much money do you think they spend ensuring their algorithm accounts for every possible thing it can in an effort to deliver you the most pertinent search results. People want what matters to them and as quickly as possible. Maintaining your message shows integrity and care for your audience.

Additionally, while you may be able to achieve more feedback — social currency — for your content that carries a more intense emotional complexion, this content may not be on message. It could be considered unethical to push content you don’t believe in, or that is inauthentic, simply to achieve feedback through an inflammatory response.

Preserve the dignity of others.

This is especially important in social media marketing. This form of marketing is unique in that the ego, and the sense of self of every follower/customer is in the mix, publicly, and therefore is ever at stake.

As an example, is what Wendy’s is doing on Twitter ethical?

I doubt Wendy’s would engage in a debate here, but would their first, and perhaps accurate statement be, “Well, he started it.” He did start it and Wendy’s ‘pwned’ him, as it were. While I do think this is a gray area when it comes to how we treat each other, what are the implications of this type of behavior by a brand on social media, and what responsibilities, if any, should a brand have in cases like these?

In the past, a brand expected any of its representatives to maintain a certain decorum. Composure was expected in polite society as well. Now, considering social media affords us all a lack of intimacy and a lack of checks and balances that occur when you look someone dead in the eyes, pettiness is a standard mode of operation. We’re less afraid to publicly undercut someone, because ‘public’ in the landscape of social media has very different parameters. But, has the human condition evolved to catch up with these new rules?

Wendy’s has received a lot of praise since it adopted its snarky, curt, ‘talk-to-the-hand’ approach on social media. With almost 3 million followers it would appear they’re doing something right, right? Following their chains of comments, droves revel in the way they’ve been roasting their haters and competitors. The approach is entertaining and inflammatory. But is it undignified?

You might wonder if it needs to be. While we can imagine the vastness of the interconnectivity of the interwebs, the real truth about the social media experience is that it occurs in its entirety within our own minds. Yes, the stimuli, in the way of feedback, we receive comes from external sources, but it is received as a small packet of information with no supporting structure to aid in the interpretation of its meaning. There are no eyes to look into. No winces. No subtle curlings of the lips. No body language. No spontaneous, reactive interplay as subconscious messaging is interchanged.

It is a unique experience. It is clearly a highly desirable experience. I’d contend, it is so, because we feel more in control of the way we frame the messaging we receive. There’s no one there to indicate, with whatever degree of directness or subtly, that we might have interpreted things incorrectly, or that we might consider thinking of things differently. It feels less jolting. But is it?

Here’s where the responsibility comes in. In all interactions, a person’s sense of self is at play. The more public the interaction the more risky; more people means more potential threats to that sense of self. When a brand positions itself in opposition to a single person, it aligns its followers in opposition as well. Read the comments by the followers of Wendy’s in response to the individual Wendy’s called out. Not quite kind. Definitely more threatening to a person’s perception of their own intellect or social status.

It’s like physically discipling your kids in public. You might think it gets the job done quickly, but the child suffers embarrassment on top of the lesson and punishment. There’s a distinct difference when a brand roasts someone on social media: The other adults praise the disciplining parent in front of the child, and jump in on the proverbial whipping as well.

“Don’t be so sensitive,” you say? Okay. Maybe. Maybe not. If human dignity was a quantifiable resource though, how much of someone else’s are you willing to trade for your brand’s bottom line? How much of your own?

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About the author

Matthew Praetzel

Thinker / Programmer / Late night contemplator More about this guy

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