The Ethical Move
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The Ethical Move

The Space That Ethical Marketing Carries With It

Making an uncomfortable move in the right direction

I believe we should be marketing our products and services in an ethical manner, and you probably do too.

It’s the right thing to do.

It’s that simple.

Except it’s not. There’s a space that right creates that’s not so simple; a space that is fascinating, and challenging, and (perhaps rightly) uncomfortable: the space between knowing what’s right and doing what’s right.

A space that, when it comes to marketing, is full of all the ways that I am tempted to be (just a little) unethical in marketing the business that I love and want to see thrive because those little manipulations and untruths sometimes seem to be the key to the things we want right now: more clients, more work, and more money.

Let me talk you through why my small creative agency, 17DM Creative, has joined the ethical move, a group of people taking a stand for ethical marketing, and the ways that, since making that decision, the inner battle has played out.

I stumbled across the ethical move during a free online one-day marketing event sharing perspectives on and tools for ethical marketing. I have always struggled with the term marketing. I associate marketing with selling; which I associate with lying, being pushy, manipulating, and encouraging unnecessary consumption (and the consumption of unnecessary things). Basically, the kind of activity that your everyday cartoon Satan finds great joy in before he roasts a few sinners and waves his pitchfork about in glee.

However, I also love the work 17DM does and the role it plays in my life. It's where I focus much of my creativity and insights, my gut wisdom and my intelligence. I give it care and energy and time and love; and as a steward of 17DM, I’m consistently and joyously exploring:

What is 17DM?
What is our purpose?
How can this work be of service to the world?
How can it better my life and my partner’s life?
What are our natural next steps?

And… how can we get more clients, secure more work, and make some more money?

This year we’ve been going through the quietest patch we’ve had since I first joined forces with my husband and now business partner, and his solo endeavour, 17 Digital Media, became our joint endeavour, 17DM Creative. It’s not the only project we nurture and find joy in but it’s very much like a favourite child and it’s currently our main source of income. Like so many of us, this year has seen us facing some hard questions about how we live our lives (in all ways), what our future might look like (in every sense), and what might become of 17DM.

So there we were.

A little bit lost.

Realising that we’d have to do some kind of marketing (we’ve never really done much marketing, relying instead on established contacts and long-term clients passing new work our way) but reluctant to enter a world that makes us feel like cats when they see a cucumber (which is weird, actually, ’cause my husband hates cucumbers and now I’m wondering what that implies. Anyway…)

Thank fricking Jesus for the free online ethical marketing day. It was a revelation, sparking numerous light-bulb moments as it re-framed my thinking and attitude about what marketing could mean for us. I left the day energised and excited about marketing something I care so much about by continuing to be generous and helpful to our audience and our clients while focusing more of our time on creating valuable content and building new relationships.

But even in this Ethical Marketing event there were a couple of times that I heard advice that I felt uncomfortable with.

Did you know, for example, that 17DM could add Facebook Pixel to our website, a tool that, in their words, ‘allows you to measure the effectiveness of your advertising by understanding the actions people take on your website’, where one of the listed benefits is that it would log who has landed on our site, along with the actions they take, so that Facebook could then target them with ads related to our business?

Apparently, when we click ‘accept cookies’ on new sites we might be agreeing to have Facebook Pixel track our actions, an agreement I assume lies hidden deep in online small print since I’ve never seen any obvious statements clarifying this agreement I’m entering into. Perhaps we should all take the time to read the small print whenever we agree to a new cookie policy (or just stop agreeing to them) — and I’ll give my husband away to anyone who can prove they read all the small print every time they agree to anything online (he’s a great cook) — but it’s more than just that it might be stated in the small print: it’s that it’s not made obvious enough in the first place.

I’m uncomfortable with the fact that this was recommended on an Ethical Marketing day, but since we started exploring what marketing will look like for 17DM we’ve re-met uncomfortable numerous times.

Here are just some of the ways that uncomfortableness has played out:

Buying followers
As a small business now putting serious focus and care into networking and our LinkedIn page, and trying to build a committed following in a noisy world where the pull on attention is overwhelming at best and aggressive at worst, we could buy 100 supposed genuine followers for around a tenner.

100 genuine followers? For just a few quid?

Yes, we talked about it, weighing up whether the impact of more followers tipped the scales against the fact we both knew it was obviously unethical. LinkedIn themselves state that “Growing the following for your LinkedIn Page is one of the most valuable marketing objectives on the platform. Increasing this total can lead to greater organic reach and more robust audience insights. It’s a critical step toward building your community on LinkedIn.”

The conversation, and the pull, lasted about 5 minutes. And even though we ended up where I hope we’d all end up, i.e. of course we’re not buying followers, even as I write this I have a voice in my head that still asks if I’m making a mistake.

Creating scarcity
I’d never realised before how tempting it is to give the impression that there are just a few places left on a free workshop. Or to state that we will only be offering a free hour of our time to anyone that wants it for a short time. Even if these things were true, language like this has only one goal: make people feel there’s not enough to go around.

When we, as an audience and as human beings, sense scarcity our primal instinct kicks in: make sure that I and my family/tribe have some. Potentially missing out on something that we might not even have wanted can be enough to kick off that nervous system fear response and make us reach out for it.

In a world saturated with scarcity marketing, deciding to be ethical in our marketing led us to wonder if we would be missing out on work and clients (because there’s only so many of those, right?) by not creating scarcity.

And its brother-in-arms: manipulating language
Oh, the temptation to imply things that aren’t true simply to create that Fear Of Missing Out! (Or KIMO, as Seth Godin so brilliantly introduces us to).

When creating our content, we were faced with the pull of the already mentioned ‘Don’t miss out’, when, let’s face it, we have no idea that anyone will be missing out. Maybe their life will be better off without what we have to offer or another company would be a better fit.

We could also exaggerate our involvement in a project and tell our audience that we were key players, lead the work, or drove the design even if those things weren’t exactly true for that particular project.

We could even give the impression that we’re booked up for the next three (six, nine) months and therefore you should think about booking work in with us before it’s too late.

It could have been easy to listen to the voice in our head, the businessman in a suit who smirked and pointed out our naiveté in not projecting an image of busyness/success/unavailability, since that’s how you become successful.

After all, a little exaggeration never hurt anyone, right?

Hiding agreements in the small print
And back to where we started: we could add Facebook Pixels and gain your agreement to it by burying that agreement deep within our small print that nobody has the time or desire to read. If Facebook Pixels holds out the potential for more business by targeting people directly with our ads, not adding it, while it felt utterly wrong, made us wonder if we’re losing business to people that are happy to do just that.

There are many more ways that marketing can be unethical. I’ll leave that to the rest of the ethical move team to explore.

I love my work and I love the work that 17DM does. And I like volunteering our time and care to non-paying causes when we’re moved by them. One of our core values, at the heart of every decision about fees and when we decide to offer our time for free, is we don’t undervalue and we don’t overcharge. And we find every opportunity to be generous.

But we are a business. This is our work. We want a steady flow of clients. We want the opportunity to do more work. And we really want more money coming in than it has been recently.

As small business owners, at times watching others seemingly thrive by using manipulation, lying, creating scarcity, and convincing people that they need things they don’t, it’s scary to take a stand and hope that if we act ethically we’ll do OK.

As much as we may potentially miss out (oh God, FOMO sweat coming on) on work and clients and money by choosing the ethical marketing choice every time, however alluring the seeming rewards of ignoring our gut instinct about what’s right, where we’ve got to is we won’t ever knowingly manipulate or lie, or use tools that our clients aren’t aware of. There’s something more important: living our lives with integrity and care and making choices that we hope better the world. Besides, what can seem like missing out brings something into our life that matters in a very different way. We’re proud to be a member of the ethical move and we’re grateful they’re taking a stand.

We (mostly) believe that marketing ethically will bring us what we most want further down the road. It might just take a little bit of patience. And a lot of trust.

Come and join the ethical move. You know it’s the right thing to do. And if (when) the inner battle starts, let me know what it looks like for you.

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Anna-Marie Swan

Anna-Marie Swan

Organisational design, governance, facilitation, and strategy. https://annamarieswan.com/