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2020 has been a year of profound changes. Due to these changes, many of us have been moved to make an in-depth evaluation of how we live our lives, which are our priorities, and which tools we use to reach them. The big question is: are we living our lives in the best possible way?

As a digital marketer, I am interested in how people in my industry handle this question. And some of their conclusions resonate strongly with me. This year’s work-from-home and isolation requirements have resulted in many people taking to social media and spending more time online than ever before. We have also seen an increase in digital interactions for business purposes, replacing in-person meetings, conferences, networking events, etc.

But has this been to our benefit? In our October post, we discussed the social media dilemma and the implications it has for anyone who works in digital marketing. In these difficult times, people flock to social media platforms to feel connected to others, but togetherness is not necessarily a priority for these businesses. These platforms are corporate-owned and built to make money out of our data.

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The Social Dilemma

The social media dilemma has an ethical side that we simply cannot ignore. As a content marketer myself, I have come to question the role I play in supporting the corporate goals of social networks, whether directly or indirectly. On the one hand, I encourage clients to develop a robust online presence, and social media is a crucial component of this. But on the other hand, I can’t help but wonder how fair is it to promote practices that may jeopardise my clients’ privacy and integrity. So is what I am doing 100% beneficial to my clients?

As things stand right now, I cannot say it is. This realisation has direct implications for my line of work, and I am sure many other marketers will be in the same boat. The main implication is that my old business model is no longer viable if I want to truly serve my clients’ best interests – and only theirs.

After giving this matter some serious thought, I have decided to transform my business one step at the time. I hope to document the process and the challenges I find along the way in an upcoming series of blog posts. The transformation starts by no longer offering social media as a marketing tool. My key focus lies on strategy and data-based content marketing respecting every aspect of GDPR privacy regulation. At the same time, I started developing different ethical marketing solutions.

The Case For Ethical Marketing

The concept of ethical marketing is not new; in fact, it was being discussed even before the famous documentary “The Social Dilemma” raised the question in mainstream circles.

Society changes, and so does technology. This change means we must be prepared to ask and answer honest questions about to which extent we should accept the interference of technology into our private or business lives. This is especially pertinent to social media marketing, as the nature of the data collected via these platforms raises serious ethical questions.

But we reach another crossroads: social media marketing (and to some degree most digital marketing nowadays) is effective precisely because of the vast amounts of personal data we now have access to. This allows for higher personalisation, which can be more satisfactory to the user and financially rewarding for businesses. So if we take this away from the equation, are we setting ourselves up for disaster? In other words, can an ethical marketing business succeed?

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Towards Ethical Content Marketing

I believe that there will always be a market for companies who genuinely care for their clients. The expectation is already there, for example, in late 2019 a research piece found that brands perceived as “ethical” get more committed, loyal, and satisfied customers, among other competitive advantages.

As marketers, we need to promote brands and services and help clients find the perfect match between their offerings and what their users need. But in the new context, the marketer’s role has to take an educational or informational perspective. People cannot demand what they don’t know about.

Content marketing is a big win here because offering valuable content for free, instead of using it to track or collect data, is the best move. Ethical content marketing informs and empowers through content, prioritises freedom and privacy by promoting individual choice, responsibility, and well-being.

I have started to outline a few guiding principles that will help me evaluate marketing strategies against an ethical benchmark. This list is work in progress, but I believe it sets me in the right path:

  • Stay clear of spammy practices.
  • The ultimate goal is to build genuine connections, not getting more clicks.
  • Content should deliver value and uphold values.
  • Content should empower clients through knowledge, so they implement ethical practices in their online interactions.

But I also accept that I have my limitations. It is impossible to change the way algorithms work or to influence the privacy and data use policies of the big players. But that does not mean my hands are tied: there are things I can do to limit the influence of unethical practices in my day-to-day life and also in my business.

One of these things is re-learning to use the Internet and other digital products by focusing on how to do so safely. Privacy issues surrounding the online world are a top priority in ethical content marketing, so I’ve been experimenting with the best way to transform my habits first, before recommending them to clients.

These thoughts marked the beginning of my personal (but also professional) transformation towards an ethical online presence. The time has come to critically evaluate what digital marketers have to offer in today’s changing landscape – I hope you will accompany me in my exploration!