By Dennis Shiao published September 25, 2019

Ethical Marketing: Are You Crossing the Line?

As I was getting ready to pick up my wife and daughter at the airport, I went to Google and entered the airline and flight number.

I wasn’t expecting what I found.

I expected to see a Google answer box neatly displaying the flight status like I do for simple searches like “time in London,” “100 dollars to Japanese yen,” and “59 degrees Fahrenheit to Celsius.”

I got far more detail than I was expecting. Here’s the top excerpt from the search results:

Gmail content integrated with search results

Notice how the beginning includes a “from” line from the airline?

My wife had forwarded her flight confirmation email to my Gmail account. So Google, the search engine, conveniently accessed data from Google, the email provider.

Below the flight status (and not shown in the image above) were the names of my wife and daughter along with their seat assignments.

Google labeled this information with “Only you can see these results” so I didn’t have privacy concerns. My first two reactions were, “What?” and “What the heck!”

On one hand, Google was providing a utility, using available data to give me the best possible answer.

On the other hand, utility also relates to a user’s expectations. While it’s likely that Google or Gmail’s terms of service (that I agreed to) give them the right to perform this “Gmail lookup,” I had no idea they were doing it.

My reaction to this day remains, “How could you, Google?”

As a passenger on the flight, showing me seat assignments is useful. As the family member doing the airport pickup, seat information is unnecessary. And now that content from my Gmail messages can appear in my search results, has Pandora’s box been opened?

#Content from my Gmail can appear in my search results. Has Pandora’s box been opened? @DShiao #privacy #SEO Click To Tweet
HANDPICKED RELATED CONTENT: Data Privacy Law: Ignorance Is No Excuse

Active participant vs. object of pillaging

In GDPR: The Biggest Gift to Content Marketers in a Decade, CMI chief strategy advisor Robert Rose quotes internet privacy expert Simon Carroll who captures my scenario perfectly:

When someone grants permission they are acting consciously, becoming an active participant rather than a passive source of data to be pillaged. Permission equals engagement. And engagement is the ultimate goal here, isn’t it?

#GDPR isn’t about giving up on personal data, it’s about caring more about the data being given. @Robert_Rose Click To Tweet

While Google’s terms of service might permit their search engine to access my Gmail inbox, I didn’t consciously give them permission to do so. I didn’t check an opt-in box that read, “allow Google to improve search results by accessing your email.”

While I believe Google’s intentions were good, I feel like the “passive source of data to be pillaged” that Simon describes.

Are marketers privacy pirates?

Here’s where my story takes a twist.

In the flight status search, I was the consumer. In my day job, however, I’m a marketer. I’ve instrumented campaigns that target users based on data I know or acquired about them.

I confess to have purchased contact lists, emailing thousands of users without their active consent. A lot of us did before regulations like CAN-SPAM and GDPR. (And some still do today.)

Oh, if only unsolicited email were the only privacy concern. But consider these: Tracking. Targeting. Geolocating. Following. Surveilling. Spying. Many of these practices represent the lifeblood of digital marketing. Are we, as marketers, comfortable with those words describing what we do?

Is it possible to be an ethical marketer and still use data to inform the ways we interact with our customers? Or are we crossing a line that puts us in opposition to our audience?

Consider these recent news stories:

  • Geoffrey A. Fowler, a reporter for The Washington Post, detailed how over the course of a week his iPhone encountered 5,400-plus trackers, mostly in apps, that passed personal information to third parties. The data passing continued even while Geoffrey slept. (Subscription required to access full article.)
  • A New York Times article detailed how phones record minute-by-minute details of its owners’ physical location and how companies have access to that data. “At least 75 companies receive anonymous, precise location data from apps whose users enable location services to get local news and weather or other information,” according to the article. (Subscription may be required to access full article.)
  • Another New York Times article highlighted what someone can learn from a phone number. It goes into how marketers use phone numbers to track and target audiences. (Subscription may be required to access full article.)
  • A CNET article detailed FaceApp’s one-sided terms of service in favor of the company, not the user. FaceApp gained scrutiny after the popularity of its feature allowing users to upload their photo to see how they would look older or younger exploded. U.S. senators, including Chuck Schumer, are calling on the FBI and Federal Trade Commission to look into the national security and privacy risks.

As marketers, how do we stay on the right side of the line? Let’s highlight some approaches marketers can take.

What is ethics in marketing?

In an article about ethics in marketing, Christopher Penn references a concept called utilitarian ethics. According to Chris, utilitarianism defines ethical practices as “those practices that result in the greatest good and/or the greatest happiness for all.”

Utilitarian ethical practices result in greatest good or happiness for all, says @cspenn. Click To Tweet

Chris gives an example of a well-known influencer who had social media posts ghostwritten. Some practitioners called this inauthentic. When considering utilitarian ethics, however, Chris notes, “If the posts were helpful, if the posts provided value, then the practice was ethical in the sense that it was doing the maximum good possible, even if the influencer wasn’t writing a single one.”

If we set our goals to create the maximum amount of good possible, Chris says, we’ll come up with innovative ways of doing the same things. “Do enough good, create enough happiness, and the world will want us to win,” he says.

Pivoting toward ethical marketing

In a post, How to Pivot Your Brand Towards Ethical Marketing, Skyword provides this definition for ethical marketing:

Ethical marketing is all about doing the right thing as a business, doing the right thing in marketing, and using marketing to emphasize that you are doing the right thing.

The author interviews Valerie Stachurski, founder and president of Charming Media, who pivoted her PR business to a more pro-socially conscious brand image. “A commitment to ethical marketing means a commitment to spending the money and time to adhere to the principles you’re touting to the public. It sometimes means choosing the slower, more expensive route.”

A commitment to ethical #marketing sometimes means choosing the slower, more expensive route. @ValCharmingGal Click To Tweet

Brands must grow their marketing on a foundation of ethical beliefs and principles. That requires first considering the ethics of your actions, instead of focusing solely on attracting and converting customers.

Put the audience first

Where do the priorities lie for a company that obtains location data harvested from phones to target their owners with advertising? I’d argue that the priorities of the company are more important than the phone users. In fact, the users are merely a resource to be monetized.

But when marketers put the audience first, we stay on the right side of the line. Look at data as a means to create a better experience. If the resulting experience encourages users to provide more data, consider that a privilege — a symbol of trust that we reciprocate with a reward, an even better experience.

As Robert writes in the GDPR article, we should treat audiences as we would customers and place the same priority and care in our content as we would products released to the market. We can transform the purpose of marketing.

We should place the same priority & care in our #content as we would products released to the market. @Robert_Rose Click To Tweet

As Robert says, “It can go from a surveillance-based process of identifying the optimal targets for persuasion to a valuable experience where audience members are more than willing to identify themselves.”

In a prior CMI post, Robert wrote about a new, critical role on the content team: the audience strategist. To add to the roles and responsibilities outlined in that post, Robert would add a new one, that of a data shepherd, who manages the data collected by a company.

In a ContentTECH Summit presentation, “Integrity In a World of Advanced Technology,” Ruth Carter proposes a similar role. Ruth calls it the data custodian, the person who cares for data once it’s acquired. The data custodian asks why certain data is still being stored.

“Are we protecting it effectively, and if we don’t need it anymore, delete it safely, so that you don’t end up in a situation where millions of passport numbers are being stolen,” says Ruth.

If you don’t have resources to have a dedicated data custodian, it could be the responsibility of the audience strategist.

Have the important conversation

With personal data being generated, collected, and used more than ever and with the growing number of smart devices in our lives, the challenges around data for marketers will only grow. Don’t rely only on the mandates of new regulations to dictate your data policies.

Take a step back to discuss how your brand should access and use the data shared by your prospective audience, current audience, as well as your customers. Root the conversation in fundamental beliefs of right vs. wrong and detail the principles that should never be compromised.

We can’t practice ethical marketing if we skip over the fundamentals of defining our values and beliefs. What are you thoughts on ethics in marketing? How are you practicing it? Where have you seen brands run amok? Share your thoughts in the comments.

We can’t practice ethical marketing if we don’t define our values and beliefs. @DShiao Click To Tweet

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Cover image by Joseph Kalinowski/Content Marketing Institute

Author: Dennis Shiao

Dennis is an independent marketing consultant who works with brands on content marketing, product messaging, and social media marketing. Formerly, Dennis led the content marketing function at DNN Software. Dennis curates an email newsletter called Content Corner and publishes marketing-related content on Medium. Feel free to reach out to Dennis on Twitter @dshiao

Other posts by Dennis Shiao

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