man climbing up out of a tunnel
PHOTO: Simone Acquaroli

"The fact that man knows right from wrong proves his intellectual superiority to the other creatures; but the fact that he can do wrong proves his moral inferiority to any creature that cannot" — Mark Twain

Artificial intelligence (AI) is top of mind for many today, with discussions ranging from how to prepare for it, the job losses that will come as a result of it and the moral implications we have to decide upon in some cases. Most articles still talk about the issues with AI as if these issues are still in the future, but AI is already seismically shifting the way we do things. 

No matter how advanced AI is now or will become, I believe that when broad scale internet access began in the 1990s — a precursor to the advancement in AI — it was the true game changer because of how it changed everyones’ lives.

Related Article: The Next Frontier for IT: AI Ethics

3 Potential Marketing Ethics Traps

Much like with AI now, if blogging had been as ubiquitous in the mid '90s, there would be slews of articles on the ethical concerns of the internet. Certainly, since then, many articles have been written on the topic. The internet has not proven to be a place of high ethics or morals. But, it has proven to be a place that has contributed greatly to our economy, given us millions of jobs, and changed certain things, such as marketing, forever. 

Marketing has always been a profession that some people consider ethically borderline. The nature of convincing people to part with their money is never seen as a totally scrupulous calling because people in sales and marketing, from likely the dawn of time, have been liberal with the truth. From soap that is 99.4/100 percent pure and cigarettes that are good for you, to beer that will make you the life of the party, advertisers paint pictures of alternate realities. Most people realize this, but still like the ideas enough to attempt to be a part of the experience advertisers portray.

The difference between the ad-men of the Mad Men era and marketers today is the internet. The internet opened up a world of truths and untruths and reviews good and bad. It made the decision-making process by consumers more difficult and time consuming because now they can research rather than just look at a pretty picture with a slogan. It also gave companies, who in the past wouldn’t have been able to afford marketing, the opportunity to invest in inbound or content marketing. It’s these companies that have the most to lose and are the most vulnerable to unethical practices.

Marketers have an amazing responsibility that shouldn’t be taken lightly. Proper oversight and checks and balance systems need to be in place. If one person is in control of everything — even if you're drowning in leads — that should be a red flag. Even the most principled and well-meaning people can fall into the unethical traps of modern marketing, not because they’re trying to be unethical, but because it’s easy to get wrapped up in day to day operations and forget the big picture. 

Below are three pitfalls that even the most well-meaning marketing leaders should monitor carefully in both their teams and themselves to ensure they stay on the ethical high road.

Related Article: Marketers, Data Collection and the E-Word: Ethics

Spending Responsibly

"Honesty is the best policy — when there is money in it" — Mark Twain

In general, companies spend 6 percent to 12 percent of their revenue on marketing. Marketing has a massive responsibility to spend that money responsibly. This isn’t unique to modern marketing, but modern marketing lends itself to spending a lot of money really fast with little or no checks and balances. To have a consistent event strategy along with an ongoing digital campaign that includes PPC, channel-specific email blasts, native advertising, all while nurturing leads and continually creating relevant content, it doesn’t take long before the budget can find its way into the seven figures.  

It’s easy for marketing teams, especially smaller teams, to put most of their eggs in one basket. This is where the best intentions can sometimes turn into an ethics debacle for a marketing leader. How often has an agency been hired because the head of marketing used to work there? I’ve been guilty of that myself, then watched my new boss fire them and hire his old colleagues. I’m sure no ethics board would approve of any of that.

Beyond agencies, it’s easy marketing to set something and forget it, to buy content, not like it and rewrite it or scrap it altogether and countless other ways to squander perfectly well-intentioned investments. 

Everyone in the company suffers when marketing spends money recklessly which is why spending has to be looked at not just from a responsibility measure (are you staying within budget) but as an ethical measure.   

What’s a Lead?

"Facts are stubborn things, but statistics are more pliable" — Mark Twain

The age-old question of modern marketing … what constitutes a lead? Finding email addresses to add to your database isn’t exactly rocket science. Anyone with a credit card can buy a pretty big list for relatively cheap (not that anyone would do that, but I get about three offers a day for such lists so someone is profiting). On the ethical side of the line, tradeshows and a high PPC budget for a bait-clickable offer are two ways to fill a pipeline with lots of email addresses very quickly. 

The fact is, marketers usually don’t intend to misconstrue what’s happening in their database. But it’s easy to get carried away when you start watching leads come in.  It’s like watching the penny slot machine pay off. Each one might be meaningless, but put them altogether and they mean something, right?  

Leads that aren’t really leads tend to end up in your database more often than legitimate ones and it’s unfair to not report them properly and even more unfair to hand them to sales and expect them to do anything with them. Ethical marketers, which is most marketers, not only understand this but set up lead scoring systems that take that into account.  

Related Article: How Will the GDPR Impact Third-Party Lead Generation?

Messaging for the Company

"Many a small thing has been made large by the right kind of advertising" — Mark Twain

Modern marketing allows for two things that traditional marketing does not: it allows you to fire off content at the click of a button and gives marketers a pedestal to share their own opinions. Most marketers realize the power they have. They put checks and balances in place before publishing a blog post, or even a social media post. 

Modern marketing, unlike marketing of yore, allows marketers a pedestal to preach from. Even with the best intentions, the byline says the writer’s name, not the company they write on behalf of. With the subtle way in which marketing has morphed, it’s easy to forget why you sat down to write an article to begin with. No matter if it’s part of a linking strategy for SEO, thought-leadership or brand awareness, if you’re writing on company time it’s imperative you stay on message and in some way, shape or form, add something of value for who you are actually marketing for. The same goes with webinars, podcasts and interviews. While most marketers understand this and have the best intentions, it’s easy to fall into the trap of marketing your personal brand over the brand that’s paying you.   

The Fine Line Marketers Walk 

"It is curious that physical courage should be so common in the world, and moral courage so rare" — Mark Twain

Undoubtedly, most marketers operate ethically. I raise these points because they are easy traps to fall into, traps I’ve found myself or teams I’ve been a part of in, and things I’ve vowed to keep front of mind before it happens again. Marketing has an awesome responsibility that not many other departments will ever realize. It’s up to us to police ourselves and understand the fine line we need to stay on the right side of. Once we recognize what we owe to our companies, we can get ahead of what we owe to the mass of leads — that we think of as data — and the ethical considerations that come with that completely different responsibility. But that’s for another ethics lesson.