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Social Media Marketing and Ethics

By Kerry Butters

Published: Wednesday 20 August 2014 | Last updated: Tuesday 04 September 2018

The emergence and rise of social media has been a game changer for the world of PR, advertising and SEO. Now, these disciplines have merged and it’s necessary to take a more holistic view when it comes to marketing both online and off. Social has been a positive step for the consumer too, for the most part, despite ongoing concerns surrounding privacy which affect much of our online lives.

Many of us have grown up with advertising being thrown at us from everywhere we look: TV, radio, magazines, newspapers and billboards, so over time we’ve come to be somewhat desensitized to it. However, with social whilst it’s still everywhere, there’s a more personalised experience to be had. Some view this as a good thing whilst others feel that their every online step being tracked by advertisers is a permanent intrusion.

However, there’s more to social media than simple advertising that appears in your newsfeed, there’s also many ways in which consumers can potentially be manipulated by information and interaction.

With this in mind, let’s take a look at best practice and what you can do to ensure that your social media marketing efforts remain within what’s considered to be ethical behaviour.

#1: Transparency

In order to gain and keep the trust of followers, it’s necessary to be transparent about all of the companies and people that you work with and that provide endorsements for your products or services. For example, if you ask a blogger to review one of your products and offer any kind of incentive such as payment or keeping the product, then you should disclose this.

Likewise, if you as a marketer are asked to provide a review, you should ensure that it’s honest. Reviews or endorsements that you’re being paid anything for, even if it’s just in kind, should always be completely transparent about what they are doing. It’s not just small marketers that are guilty of this, in 2006, Wal-Mart were found out after they paid a couple of bloggers to take a road trip around the US and write positive posts about the corporation through Working Families for Wal-Mart.

The story unfortunately (for Wal-Mart and its PR agency Edelman) came to light and since there was absolutely no disclosure that the retail giant was paying for the flight, RV, fuel and blog entries, it ended up with egg on its face.

It’s important to be honest with followers and fans and this goes too for employees that work for the company being marketed. Whilst it might be tempting to tell little white lies about the quality of a product, for example, it can also be very damaging to the brand.

For me, the practice of purchasing followers also falls here. It’s a useless exercise anyway, but it’s also pretending to be something you’re not and essentially, lying about how good you are.

What can be done?

Ensure that everyone working on the marketing or using social media through the company (or even commenting as if they were a member of the public) knows what the rules are. If you use an agency, then get this in writing at contract stage and ensure that you check. It’s sad but true that some SEOs use nefarious tactics in order to gain both engagement and links, so make sure that you develop a trusting relationship where everyone knows where the boundaries lie.

#2: Insincerity

Social media is the king of insincerity and I would urge all brands and marketers to think before posting things that are essentially like-baiting.

By this, I mean jumping on the back of a well-publicised tragedy in order to gain as much engagement as possible. Last week saw the untimely and tragic death of actor Robin Williams and of course, what soon followed was an avalanche of images, quotes and stories surrounding the actor.

Some of these will have been sincere and a lot of the time, this kind of thing mimics what consumers are themselves doing online. That doesn’t particularly make it right though – to my mind, it’s slightly ghoulish and should be avoided if you don’t want to come across as insincere or worse.

The Boston bombing was a good example of this, not only did NBC Bay area post an image of a young victim asking followers to ‘Like’ for a ‘speedy recovery’ but Ford went a step further and created an image to share around social media (which although it didn’t show a victim, still strikes me as tasteless, at best).


As Augie Ray points out: “Not everyone will agree, but I feel that Ford's use of brand imagery not only reduced the sincerity of the message but demonstrated questionable ethics.”

What can be done?

If you’re tempted to jump on the bandwagon when it comes to a publicised tragedy, don’t. Unless it’s something that’s highly relevant to your niche, then just don’t bother. You have personal accounts to express personal opinions and feelings and that’s where they should stay.

#3: Privacy

We live in a time when enormous amounts of data are collected which are concerned with our every online move. This data is hugely valuable to marketers and there’s now an unprecedented amount of it available. With it though comes responsibility and so it’s imperative that you use it always within both the boundaries of the law and in such a way that you yourself would be comfortable with if it were your own data.

At one time or another, most of the social networks have been scrutinised for privacy policies, especially Facebook. Google too has come under fire from various countries for the way that it deals with personal data.

Such data has a positive impact on consumers when used responsibly and properly. It means that marketers can better personalise advertising to suit individual groups and consumers can gain access to more relevant marketing such as special offers.

It’s also important that consumers know that their data is safe. Compliance takes care of a certain amount of this, especially when it comes to financial data, but for other things you should have a privacy policy that’s easily accessible to the public and sets out exactly how personal data is used and shared.

What can be done?

Again, transparency is key, as is the need for a robust and honest privacy policy that sets out exactly what followers can expect if they give their data to you.

#4: User Generated Content

By this, I’m not talking about the chats that you have on your Facebook Page or Twitter feed, but those ‘contests’ that invite people to submit designs, written work and other creative content to win a prize.

According to Forbes, this is what brands call “UGC” and what people within creative circles refer to as “WFF – Working For Free”. Whilst the winner's material is often used in marketing material and commercials, they are often professionals who should be getting paid for the work they’ve done. Of course, it could be argued that they submit the work and so it’s their call if they don’t want to be paid, but often, creatives believe they will get something more out of it, such as an improvement of their own brand.

For creatives, there appears to be something of an internet culture that devalues their work. Writers for example are often asked to submit ‘test articles’ before an order is put in and they then never hear from that company again, although it has used the article anyway. Another trend is for companies to request ideas for social media campaigns and rather than pay for the material they get back, they simply use it anyway and ignore the author or designer.

Not only have many in the creative industries spent a lot of time and money learning how to do the things they do, but they also have kids to feed and houses to pay for like everyone else. Expecting them to work for nothing, trying to dupe them into providing free samples or otherwise attempting to wriggle out of paying a professional for doing a professional job is wrong.

In the early days of my online career I came across this issue often. These days, things like content mills which pay pennies for articles are dying, but the problem still exists.

What can be done?

Pay people for the work they carry out and do so properly. Don’t ask professional writers to produce a 2000 word article for $5 or for a sample when they have a portfolio which is full of work you can look at to check quality. Don’t attempt to knock the web design guy down to a price that means he’s working for $2 an hour – realise that we all have to live and value the people that supply you.

#5: Responsible Sharing

When working with social media, it’s important that you know the dangers that surround the things that you share with your followers. By this I mean posts that are deliberately set up to gather likes and shares and are generally done so with motives which are less than ethical.

Like farming is hugely popular and uses social engineering tactics in order to gather as many likes as possible. User data is then collected and sold on the black market, or the user is directed to a survey scam or even a site infected with malware. As a social media marketer it’s your job to know about these scams so you don’t pass them on to your fans.

A popular scam is one that offers electronic products or shopping vouchers in order to gather as many likes as possible. It’s unfortunate but true that a huge amount of people fall for these each day when a simple and quick Google would have alerted them to the truth.

What can be done?

Use sites such as Hoax Slayer and Snopes to check on posts that you’re not sure about – they generally get information up quickly. However, it’s also worth pointing out that many online scams are older ones that have been jazzed up for social media, so don’t just check recent ones but actually copy and paste the dialogue in the post into Google. You’ll be surprised how many might catch you out until you do this.

Honesty is the Best Policy

When using social media for marketing, it’s always a good idea to keep the saying ‘honesty is the best policy’ in mind. Be transparent if you’re using personal accounts to post on the social accounts of brands that you’re associated with too, or you could end up in trouble.

Avoid anything that’s not associated with your brand or company. We're aware of the need to keep things relevant when it comes to SEO, so ensure that you adopt the same practices when it comes to social. Of course, it’s human to want to share your feelings with the world if you’re genuinely emotionally affected by something that’s happened in the news, but professional social media accounts are not the best place to air it. Keep it firmly to your personal accounts and discuss with your friends, there’s no need to address the world at large.

Educate yourself too on common scams and tricks that cybercriminals use in order to gain likes and data. Once you know the tactics, they’re a lot easier to recognise and there’s also no harm in sharing this with your audience and educating your fans in turn.

Social media is an awesome medium and one that has transformed the way we do business both online and off. If it’s to remain the valuable resource that is currently is, then the way it’s used by marketers should always remain within the boundaries of honesty and decency.

Published: Wednesday 20 August 2014 | Last updated: Tuesday 04 September 2018

Tags: Social
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