Is Your Content Marketing Ethical?
by Al Gomez
There’s no doubt that content marketing is going to be important in years to come. Its strategies have helped build businesses, support freelancers, and educate online users with useful, well-researched content (among its many benefits). From articles, images, to video: it’s a win-win for clients, audiences, AND digital marketing agencies. In recent years however, there’s been a quiet debate in the industry about branding and ethics.
Thus, several questions arise, such as: does content marketing need disclosures and disclaimers? What’s the difference between a piece written by a journalist vs. that from a blogger? Should other forms of content (i.e. video) be subject to restrictions?
Content Marketing: The Gray Area
Not so long ago, the difference between journalism and marketing was clear. Ads are ads – regardless of whether it was a pay-per-click on a suspicious site OR an advertorial on a popular magazine. When people say journalism, it typically involves hours of research, interviews, proofreading, and citing sources. You can’t ask journalists to even mention your name – unless it involves big news benefiting public knowledge.
As the publication industry has mostly moved on the Web, the lines that were once clear as day became blurred. One reason traditional ads are not as effective anymore is due to ad blockers. Lift Igniter co-founder and head of business Adam Spector cites in a blog post that in 2016, lost revenue thanks to ad blocking will be up to $41 billion.
So if people are blocking ads they don’t want, how can companies – especially small businesses – promote themselves without spending thousands? This is where content marketing steps in. According to Content Marketing Institute, this is:
“…a strategic marketing approach focused on creating and distributing valuable, relevant, and consistent content to attract and retain a clearly-defined audience — and, ultimately, to drive profitable customer action.”
There are in fact, a couple of things involved in a good content marketing strategy. More than just getting mentions in an article, it should also contain social media, PR, SEO, and a bit of email and PPC. Numerous brands that have conducted successful content marketing include Coca-Cola (Share a Coke campaign), Microsoft (Stories), and McDonald’s Canada (burger patty Q&A).
But it’s not always the case for most businesses that jump into the exciting – and often complex – world of content marketing. Many believe that simply hiring writers to craft content and then submit them to authoritative online publications is enough. This demand has unfortunately brought several bloggers and journalists to question their ethical stand on this subject.
Journalist Amy Westervelt writes on Medium how the wrong notion of content marketing has driven her to stop accepting marketing requests. Tech and media journalist Simon Owens on the other hand, discusses how today’s writers are shifting into the role of content marketer due to financial problems faced by the publishing industry. Both don’t condemn writers who found a better profession through the growing demand. However, the challenge is to practice moral when it comes to accepting marketing requests – particularly shady ones.
Like black-hat SEO practices of the past, it seems this sustainable marketing approach is also being abused today. In a post by professional writer and founder of Taylored Editorial, LLC, Taylor Mallory Holland mentions a couple of examples of busted content marketing tactics that did NOT adhere to proper ethical standards set by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC).
One of these cases involved a pharmaceutical company that apparently used a marketing agency and a blogger to “candidly” promote its dietary supplement that claimed to help menopausal women lose weight. As the company and the blog did not present proper disclosures as to the advertorial nature of the content, FTC filed a lawsuit for misleading claims in advertising.
This brings us to the next set of questions: how do you make content marketing ethical?
Make Your Content Marketing Strategies Ethical
The FTC has created guidelines businesses and digital marketing agencies can follow when promoting their stories on the Web. This is important because a lot of online users might feel like they’re being deceived (especially by editorials or blog material) if no proper disclosures are given. This could lead to feelings of distrust, affecting the entire e-commerce sector, not just content marketers.
Imagine participating in a hashtag campaign, only to realize later on that the concept behind it was not the blogger or Influencer that you admire. For many consumers, this is not only disappointing – it’s unacceptable.
Being transparent with clients AND online users has numerous advantages, including sustainable relationships. After all, the new currency today is not money, but trust. And that is easier destroyed than earned.
If you want to be distinguished as a real thought leader in your niche, build lasting partnerships, as well as convert leads to paying customers, make your content marketing strategies ethical. Here are a couple of suggestions to get you started:
1. Create your own code of ethics.
This goes back to your mission and/or vision. What does your company believe in? What values do you want to uphold? How do your employees execute processes? Are they in line with the agency’s beliefs? Successful digital and content marketing agencies are thriving not only because of their strategies – it’s also because they are clear about what they want for their futures.
Content marketing agencies like Contently and Concentric have created their own code of ethics, to guide their staff and their processes so they remain on track towards what is good about the industry.
2. Provide appropriate disclosures.
Is your site accepting paid guest posting opportunities? If so, make it clear once the post goes live. Are you collaborating with a brand on promoting its new product to your readers? Be sure to disclose that information. Avoid hiding it or cloaking it. Not only will you be abiding by FTC regulations, you’ll gain your followers’ continued trust and support.
3. Lookup disclaimer policies as per jurisdiction.
Agencies that promote niche industries must pay close attention to disclaimers depending on their area. Marketing a legal practice through advertisements for example, is perfectly acceptable. However, content that is meant to solicit professional employment from a potential client is prohibited, according to the American Bar Association. This is where the right disclaimers should come in. Failing to give proper disclaimers depending on the client’s jurisdiction may result in issues like allegations or malpractice claims.
To be safe, please carefully discuss proper online marketing practices if you have clients who are lawyers, doctors, etc.
4. Understand your limits.
If you’re a reputable writer, it won’t be surprising if you receive dozens of offers for content marketing. Take them at your own discretion. Just understand what you are willing to accept and what you can afford to deny. Snapchat artist Shaun McBride for example, only works with brands whose values align with his. If he doesn’t feel comfortable, he’ll turn down an offer.
But you won’t know which projects to pursue or to reject unless you’re clear about your own ethical stand (see tip #1).
Be a Better Content Marketer
A successful content marketing campaign cannot be done with stories alone.
It’s a huge part of it, but more is required in order for it to truly make an impact. Digital marketers and writers – whether journalists or bloggers – have a responsibility to their clients, as well as to the audience they will be serving. To be ethical doesn’t mean to become self-righteous. Rather, it’s to continually uphold values that are the core of every business and individual.
“To be without beliefs is like sailing through uncharted waters without a compass.”
Content marketing itself is complex enough: make the journey worth it by using common principles as a guide through the rough waters of the Web. At the end of the day, no one would want to work with a digital marketing agency that doesn’t have values.
January 10, 2018