What is Ethical Marketing?

What is Ethical Marketing?

I mentioned ethical marketing in my welcome video yesterday (heck – it’s even featured in that little green box at the top of the site!), so I figure it’s probably appropriate for me to elaborate a little more on what ethical marketing is and why it’s so important to me.

First of all, bear with me – actually defining ethical marketing is pretty difficult, for two reasons:

1) Ethical marketing is a lot like porn – I can’t easily define it, but I know it when I see it!  More specifically, I know un-ethical marketing when I see it, and you probably do too.  If you’ve ever clicked on to a website and felt a sinking, skeezy feeling in your stomach, you’ve witnessed unethical marketing.

2) Everyone’s moral compass points in a slightly different direction. What I consider to be ethical or unethical might be different than your definition.  For this reason, it’s hugely important to figure out where you draw your line in the sand.  Let me give you an example:

One of my first major website successes was a “flog” – a fake blog – I purchased, of the, “Learn the 1 simple secret to how I lost 35 pounds in 2 weeks…” variety.  Basically, it was the fake blog story of a woman who lost weight using a combination of acai berry products and colon cleansing – two of the hottest CPA products that were being advertised at the time.

The fake weight loss message wasn’t the only thing that bothered me.  The products I was promoting were the scammy kind of CPA offers that sell buyer information to other forced continuity programs and are nearly impossible to cancel (believe me – I know, I tried the acai berry pills myself and then spent a week jumping through all the hoops needed to cancel the “free” trial…).  The site made a ton of money, but I couldn’t handle the deception and sold it just a few months after I bought it.

(Let me be clear – this example isn’t intended to condemn CPA offers or flogs.  I know plenty of people who work with them, and again, everyone’s tolerance for ethical/unethical techniques is different.  This example is merely meant to illustrate how you’ll need to set your own boundaries about what is and isn’t ethical marketing.)


However, even if I can’t define ethical marketing specifically, I can give you a few highlights of the things most ethical marketing sites have in common.

* Ethical internet businesses don’t take advantage of their visitors or attempt to manipulate them.  Instead, they seek to persuade by providing value and building relationships with their readers.

Think of the difference here as being similar to the distinction between a pushy used car salesperson and a talented, relationship-based sales executive.  On the web, this “pushy used car salesperson” kind of mentality can be seen in sites that bury their terms in tiny print at the bottom of the page in the hopes that you’ll miss them (like that acai offer I promoted!) or that use the email address you so thoughtfully provided to send nothing but spam.  Don’t be that guy!!!

I promise you, it is 100% possible to build a business that promotes products in an ethical way and that actually makes money.  You don’t have to compromise your ethics and you don’t have to engage in unethical business practices just to make a sale.  Provide value and build relationships with your readers over time and I guarantee you’ll like the results.

* Sites that utilize ethical marketing are designed to be sustainable income producers.  They aren’t out to make a “quick buck” at any cost.

Have you ever been on a site that’s so focused on making a sale that you’ve had to scroll past numerous opt-in boxes and close several pop-up ads just to find the content you’re looking for?  The kind of site where, when you do decide to leave, you’re confronted with three separate rounds of text box pop-ups offering you a “special” deal just for sticking around?

Now, tell me – when you visit these sites (and we all have), do you feel like the website owners have your best interests at heart?  Are you ready to open your wallet, or are you thinking about bolting for the next website on your list?

Ethical marketers recognize that it’s far easier to sell something to someone who’s already purchased from you, and that it’s easier to keep and retain customers when they believe in the value you’re providing.

* Ethical marketing businesses engage in fully legal practices, and avoid “grey hat” or “black hat” marketing techniques.

The legality part should go without saying, but the reality of internet marketing is that it’s a world full of that grey zone between good and bad.  Think about search engine optimization (the practice of improving elements on your website to boost your rankings in the search engine results pages) for a second.  Even something as widespread and universally accepted as SEO is essentially “gaming the system” for personal profit.

So is that ethical?  Again, this is an example of a situation where you’ll have to draw your own line.  Personally, I’m a huge believer in the gut check.  If you’re reading up on a new web marketing technique that everyone else is raving about, but your gut tells you is wrong, listen to that instinct and find a different way to grow your business ethically!

* Ethical marketing follows the Golden Rule – “Do unto others as you would have done to you” (not, “Whoever has the gold, makes the rules”).

My goal as an affiliate marketer is to create websites that provide value for their visitors.  They don’t have to be big sites with tons of content, but they do need to meet at least part of the need that the visitor was hoping to satisfy when clicking on to my website.

To make sure I’m succeeding in this, I take a day or two off after building a new website and then come back to it with a fresh set of eyes.  I try to evaluate – if I were a first-time visitor to this site, would it be useful to me?  Occasionally, I catch myself pushing too hard for a sale or not following through on the value I promised, so it’s important for me to check that I’m in line with the Golden Rule – and I recommend you do the same.


Now, I do want to apologize for starting out on a somewhat theoretical note.  I know this isn’t concrete advice that you can use to actually move your business forward, but I hope it’s something that you’ll keep in mind as we get into that type of conversation on this site in the future.

If you’ve spent any time whatsoever studying internet marketing techniques, you know how easy it can be to get sucked down into unethical practices.  Bookmark this post (seriously – do it now!) and come back to it whenever you feel that pull.  I’ll always be here to give you that swift kick in the pants you need to keep things on the straight and narrow!

Anyways, on Wednesday and Friday, I’m going to get more into the importance of business planning and how you can set yourself up for success with internet marketing if you’re just starting out.  Even if you’re an experienced marketer, you’ll benefit from reevaluating your core business strategies using this framework.  I can’t wait to share this great information with you!

Talk to you soon – thanks for reading!

8 Responses to What is Ethical Marketing?

  1. Howie says:

    Really great post, Sarah. I found your blog through Pat Flynn’s blog.

    I don’t ever recall pondering one small sentence so much:

    “SEO is essentially “gaming the system” for personal profit.”

    I guess I’ve just never looked at it “that way”, however, I can see what you mean. Fortunately, Google’s think-tank and algorithm are so dyanamic, that it’s really become like the battle of two converging forces: IM’ers who want to realize the most success, against Google, which is attempting to serve up a global population the most accurate/helpful resources.

    I think the entire internet should read this post.

  2. Sarah says:

    Hi Howie – Thanks for stopping by! I love Pat’s blog 🙂

    I think there’s a lot of potential for overlap between IMers and Google. I mean, if my niche site really does provide the best content in the niche, what’s so wrong with using what I know about SEO to get Google to share it with more people?

    In general, though, I think it’s really valuable for IMers to take a step back every so often and reevaluate whether what we’re taught over and over again as the “only” ways to make money online are either ethical or true.

  3. I came here from Think Traffic and I clicked on your icon because I think you’re pretty.

    Nice blog.

  4. Sarah says:

    Jonathan – Thanks for stopping by!

  5. Jon says:

    The acai berry was a big deal; there were some heavy-hitters doing content network/media buying having 50k net days with those weight loss campaigns. Wild.

    Pop ups: I have one client site that I installed Pop-Up Domination on that experienced a 33% increase in opt-ins on her main page. It really does come down to whether you feel skeevy about having pop-ups (and monitoring visitor feedback).

    My personal preference is to select products to promote that I have used or thoroughly researched. Last thing I want is to be completely blind-sided by a question from an interested buyer.

    SEO and “content that cares” win; and yes, for personal profit. Unless you blog or design sites as a hobby you’re doing this to earn or supplement a living!

  6. Sarah says:

    Jon – I’m not going to lie, it wasn’t a completely easy decision to give up my acai site. I wasn’t in the 50k/day group, but I was making enough that it hurt a little to see it go!

    Pop-ups I go back and forth on. When well-executed, I know they can be effective, I just see them done so poorly, so often that I usually steer clear (ironic that you bring it up – I just got out of a big discussion thread on the Warrior Forum about this topic).

    And the rest of your comments are right on the money – promoting products that you personally approve of and putting good content out there is the best way to build a business 🙂

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