White Hat Crew
The Art of Ethical Persuasion • White Hat Crew
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When internet marketing was born a few years ago, it enabled virtually anyone to run an online business with only minimal cost. New areas of opportunity naturally attract innovators, visionaries, and, unfortunately, the kinds of people who are looking for a quick buck, and aren't concerned with whose toes they step on to get it.

These early entrants into the market set the tone for those who followed. The practices they established are accepted by many new entrants as standard and acceptable.

But not all common practices are acceptable.

As the market has matured, government has stepped in to ban some of the most unethical marketing methods. But some still do things that have been banned. And other unethical practice remain, and continue to be invented.

We can't list every ethical and unethical practice in this document. Instead, we'd like to share our beliefs regarding ethics in internet marketing, and how to assess the ethics of particular practices.

White, Gray and Black Hat: Where to Draw the Line?

Some people believe that "marketing ethics" is an oxymoron -- that all marketing is about convincing people to buy products that they wouldn't otherwise choose to buy, and is therefore, even in the most well-intentioned cases, more or less deceptive or coercive.

We disagree, and we believe that marketers should be completely ethical. We believe that the role of ethical marketing is:

  • to help people find products to fulfill their needs and wants,
  • to introduce the products,
  • and to remove barriers to purchasing.

But marketing need not be boring. These things can be done in creative and entertaining ways, as long as they don't violate ethical principles.

Some marketing practices are clearly "white hat" or ethical, and some are clearly "black hat" or unethical. Others are described as "gray hat".

This term is often used to excuse things like behavior that abuses some third party's resources, but doesn't directly harm the consumer. It may also be used to describe techniques that can be applied either ethically or unethically, in order to excuse their unethical application. We oppose any unethical application of such techniques.

How to Assess the Ethics of a Marketing Technique or Product

When you learn a new marketing technique, it's important to consider not just how effective it may be, but whether it's ethical. We encourage you to consider the following questions, which will be discussed in more detail below.

If a technique you're considering fails any of these guidelines, consider how you might adapt it so that it can be done ethically. You may be able to take ideas from unethical techniques and apply them effectively without compromising your ethics.

  • Is it illegal?
  • Is it deceptive?
  • Is it intentionally confusing?
  • Is it coercive?
  • Does it violate the terms of service or intent of those whose resources you're using?
  • Does it create value?
  • Is the product harmful to the consumer or third parties?

Is it illegal?

It is possible for governments to ban ethical activities. Sometimes, in an effort to eradicate an unethical practice, regulations go too far and harm ethical businesses.

This is unfortunate. But an ethical marketer obeys the rules established by those with legitimate authority and works within the system to establish appropriate laws and regulations.

Is it deceptive?

If so, it's unethical. Some people feel it's okay to trick people into doing things for their own good. It's not. If it's really for their own good, persuade them by enlightening them.

Is it intentionally confusing?

Confusing a customer in order to get them to take an action they wouldn't if they understood it clearly is just another way of deceiving. Inducing people to make decisions based on misunderstandings is manipulative and unethical, whether or not you say anything that's strictly untrue.

Is it coercive?

Stepping beyond your authority or shirking your responsibilities in order to induce people to action is unethical. And probably illegal (...but I'm not a lawyer, so don't take my word for it.)

Does it violate the terms of service or intent of those whose resources you're using?

If so, it's unethical. For example, creating webpages that simply duplicate content from elsewhere without adding any value wastes the resources of the search engines as they crawl and index it. It also violates their guidelines for getting content ranked. And efforts to get bad or duplicated content ranked violates the intent of the search engines.

Some would argue that since search engines and other websites can ban those who violate their rules, beyond that, there's no ethical question -- that it's simply a game of cat and mouse. When you get banned, well shucks, you lost that round. There's always next time.

This is incorrect. The marketer who intentionally uses someone else's resources in ways that violate their goals and policies is stealing resources. It isn't just a game.

Are you creating value?

If not, what are you expecting to get paid for? Failing to create value may not actively injure anyone, but extracting value from the system without exchanging it for something of value depletes the system, or at least fails the traditional role of a money-maker, which is to exchange value for money.

Injecting yourself into a value stream that someone else has created in order to extract value without adding any value yourself is unethical.

Injecting yourself into a value stream and adding value is ethical, as long as it doesn't violate any other ethical rules. For example, an affiliate who writes an honest review of a product adds value by helping to educate the customer and giving them an unbiased opinion to guide their purchase decision. But a "product review" that simply copies content from a sales letter or, even worse, deliberately tries to make the product sound better than it is, at best adds no value, and at worst is deceptive.

Is the product harmful to the consumer or third parties?

Marketing harmful products in unethical, even if there's demand for them. Just because someone else would step in to fill the demand if one person didn't, that doesn't excuse those who do.

Some products may be harmful if used incorrectly. In fact, most anything can be harmful if used incorrectly. For example, it's possible to stab a person with a pen. That doesn't make marketing pens unethical.

Marketing products without making an appropriate effort to make them safe and educating customers on how to use them safely is unethical. And marketing products to people who are unable or unlikely to use them safely is unethical. But when proper precautions are taken, or if the risk of harm is trivial, there is no ethical problem.

A Few Examples of Unethical Practices

Following are a few examples of marketing practices that violate the standards listed above. For many, we borrow terminology from Sylvie Fortin's Internet Marketing Sins, which you can get for free for more information. This list is by no means intended to be complete.

  • Illegal:
    • Lazy Ass Marketing (when you steal others' intellectual property)
  • Deceptive:
    • Sleight of Hand Continuity
    • Limited Time Offers (that aren't really limited)
    • Hammerhead Marketing (continually sending out affiliate offers for everything under the sun, regardless of usefulness or quality)
    • "Me Too" Marketing (blindly regurgitating everything you hear from the "gurus", particularly if you're selling it, without verifying that it works, and being honest about how broadly applicable it is to other marketers)
    • Piggy Back Marketing (indiscriminately cutting others who are getting attention down, and attempting to redirect the attention and sales to your own products)
    • Lazy Ass Marketing (selling products that you haven't done the due diligence to verify the validity of, or even bothered to try putting real value into)
  • Intentionally Confusing:
    • Upsell Hell (injecting offers between payment and delivery of your product, particularly if any of the upsell offers are required to get the promised value from the original purchase, of if that's implied)
  • Coercive:
    • Threatening to DOS a site if the owner doesn't pay.
    • Transferring a domain name away from it's owner and demanding a ransom.
  • Resource abusing:
    • Email spamming
    • Comment spamming
    • Auto blogging
    • Article spinning
    • Video spinning (uploading duplicate videos with trivial changes to avoid detection)
    • Using sites for commercial purposes whose terms specify that they're only for only non-commercial use
  • Value lacking:
    • Traffic arbitrage, when the content created to draw in traffic has little or no value (entertainment is legitimate value -- keyword stuffed articles that lack useful information aren't).
  • Harmful products:
    • Cigarettes
    • Pornography
    • ...and other addictive products
    • Poor quality products that create hazards when they break or malfunction

Ethical Marketing

We've spent a lot of time discussing unethical marketing practices. Let's finish with some comments on ethical marketing. As stated above, the role of ethical marketing is:

  • to help people find products to fulfill their needs and wants,
  • to introduce the products,
  • and to remove barriers to purchasing.

How do you do these things ethically?

Help people find products to fulfill their needs and wants.

Advertise. Release "viral" content. Sponsor a worthy cause. Put out a press release. Do a publicity stunt. Etc.

If your product is worth buying and there are people out there who'd want it, then there's no need for your advertising message to be deceptive in any way. You may need to come up with creative ways to get your message noticed by the people who'll want the product, but you don't need to fool anybody into thinking that they want a product if they really don't.

Introduce the product.

When I say "introduce the product", I don't mean to imply that it's unethical to do anything more than reciting a laundry list of features. A presentation that's so boring that it gets skipped by people who'd want the product if they realized what it was is a disservice to the consumer.

As long as you're not violating any ethical standards, there's nothing unethical about making your presentation entertaining, surprising, etc. For example, telling a story that impactfully illustrates something important about the product is a great way to introduce the product, as long as the story is true and isn't skewed to create a false impression.

Remove barriers to purchasing.

This is where most unethical marketing crosses the line -- by removing legitimate barriers to purchasing. A few examples of barriers your marketing should not remove include:

  • The product isn't really what they consumer wants.
  • The consumer can't afford the product.
  • The product doesn't do what it's designed for.
  • Etc.

A few examples of barriers to purchase that effective, ethical marketing can remove include:

  • The consumer isn't aware of how the product will improve their life.
  • The consumer isn't convinced that the product works (but it does).
  • The consumer is afraid the product will be too difficult for them to use (but it won't, or help is available if it is).
  • The consumer is concerned that they might be making a mistake in buying the product (and maybe it would be a mistake for that particular individual, so, for example, you might offer a money back guarantee).
  • The consumer isn't sure that the product is worth the price (which is a subjective issue -- it'll be worth more to some people than others -- so you illustrate and clarify its value, increase the value with bonuses or extra quantities, etc.)
  • The consumer doesn't feel any urgency to purchase now (and may miss out on a purchase that'd be worth making if they procrastinate till they've forgotten or it's too late for some reason).

All of these barriers to purchase may be ethically removed by marketing, as long as it's done in a way that doesn't violate ethical principles.

Final Words

Marketing can be done ethically. Ethical marketing facilitates win-win transactions, where both parties come out with more value than they started with and no one is harmed. Unethical marketing leads to win-lose transactions, where the customer gets less out of the exchange than they were led to expect, or someone else is harmed in the process.

Unless you believe that someone is always harmed when a purchase is made (which is absurd -- no one would buy anything if they thought they'd be worse off for doing it), there's no reason to think that you can't succeed at marketing ethically.

We encourage all marketers to carefully consider the ethics of their marketing practices, to make adjustments if needed, and to promote ethics to others. If you support our vision for ethical internet marketing, please share this page with your friends.

Thank you,

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Get to Know Us

White Hat Crew Hi. I'm Antone Roundy. I'm a strong believer in ethics, and have always tried to practice and promote ethical behavior in an industry where many slip over to the dark side. At White Hat Crew, I'll share insights into internet marketing, with extra emphasis on ethical issues.

Read my Internet Marketing Ethics Manifesto

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