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The Ethics of Social Media Marketing
the words the politics of social media marketing

One of the most common themes in cultural narratives is: What happens when new technology is used for bad? This question has fascinated people for as long as we’ve had significant technological advances.

And as humanity continues to technologically develop, we are increasingly faced with unprecedented moral and ethical dilemmas. As social media has continued to blur the lines between technology and real life, we are seeking the answers to questions we didn’t know we had to ask.

These ethical questions are especially important to social media marketing. Social media marketing blends the personal with the professional in an unprecedented way and gives businesses incredibly intimate data about consumers. Privacy concerns surrounding Facebook, Apple, and Google have flooded the news recently, bringing to light questions about the digital age, data, and privacy. When we as social media marketers use the data collected by these sites to craft and target our marketing strategies, how can we make sure that we are acting ethically?

Intimate Data

Let’s start by looking at the nature of the data that we use to select our target market. One of the reasons that social media marketing has become so effective is that brands now have access to specific, intimate data about consumers. Based on data gathered largely on social networking sites, marketers and brands can know nearly everything there is to know about a person – they can know things like relationship status, dining habits, likes, political opinions, religious beliefs, hobbies, and shopping history.

While many people feel conflicted about the collection of this data, using specific, personal parameters for marketing isn’t inherently negative. Some might say that it’s positive overall that brands are able to find and interact with people who actually want to see their ads and engage with their brand. You can find people who are looking for your product, thus increasing customers.

Obtaining the Data

Most social media sites have parameters built in that you can select when placing an ad. Placing an ad on Facebook or Instagram, for example, asks you to select an audience based on the information they already have about their users. They’re helping guide you to your target audience based on their user information.

However, sometimes businesses may want to increase their email list to do direct inbox marketing. There are some companies that sell lists of email addresses of potential customers to brands and businesses. Purchasing email lists may seem like a good idea and a good way to get your name directly in front of more people, but it treads into some murky ethical waters. The problem with this practice is that by purchasing email lists, you’re contacting someone without consent. They didn’t agree to interact with you. While it is technically legal to directly contact someone without their consent one time, it’s generally frowned upon and most consumers find uninvited emails invasive. And while purchasing emails will inflate your email list temporarily, it’s unlikely that that growth is sustainable. It’s better to grow your email list organically from customers who want to hear from you. Not only is this more ethical, but it’s also better for your bottom line.

Addictive Behaviors

Another aspect of social media to ethically examine is how the consumer is interacting with the platform itself – and to see if psychological marketing techniques affect a person’s social media use. If it does, who is responsible – the consumer, the marketers, or the platforms themselves? Perhaps the answer is a little bit of all three.

There is much debate over addiction to technology, particularly in regard to social media. The American Marketing Association’s website has a fantastic article that examines the intersection of technology, addiction, and habit – and how social media marketing plays into that. It seems that the current consensus is that a little bit of responsibility lies in the consumer, the marketers, and the platforms themselves. While people are responsible for their own individual actions, brands and companies need to make sure they are considering the well-being of the consumer. As social media marketers, we can get into the habit of asking ourselves what impact our ad has on our customers.

As marketers using social media to promote a brand, we want to make our customers and communities happy. In general, marketing has become more interactive and personal than ever before. And, in general, consumers seem to be enjoying this trend towards the personal and connected. However, just as it’s important to respond to our audiences’ desire for more, it’s also important to critically examine our methods to ensure that our methods of communicating and interacting with our consumers are ethical.

Emotional Exploitation

It’s important to consumers that brands and companies are socially conscious. This sometimes means that you’ll have an idea for an ad that’s political and takes a stand on a particular side of an issue. This can be a great way to increase brand awareness and connect with your audience over current, relevant topics. However, make sure you’re taking a stand in a way that’s not rude or insensitive. If you’re taking a stand on a hot-button issue, make sure your ad doesn’t exploit the side you’re standing for. People who care about the issue may perceive your ad as hijacking their issue to sell a product and it may backfire.

When Pepsi used model and celebrity Kendall Jenner in an ad featuring street protesters, the ad received intense backlash on the Internet. Various young people – among them is Jenner – are shown leaving their lives to join the protests. The climax of the ad is Jenner handing a Pepsi to a police officer, who then drinks it.

The backlash on the Internet was swift. Many felt that the well-meaning ad failed to reflect the brevity of real protests that have been on the rise. In subsequent statements, Pepsi and Jenner expressed regret over the ad. The ad was pulled shortly after it aired.

While Pepsi intended to make an inspiring ad that used a current, relevant, and divisive issue, many believe that their decision to use a serious issue that has resulted in multiple deaths on both sides in order to sell their product was in poor taste. When deciding if and when to get political or choosing a stance to take, it’s important to do your research and ensure that this issue or stance is one that you want your brand to be aligned with .

You don’t want to create more enemies than you need to in controversial situations. If you want to run a marketing campaign that takes a stance, this would be a good time to put extra effort into your social listening strategy. If the issue centers around a particular group of oppressed people, make sure you’re consulting with members of the affected community to make sure your ad amplifies the cause and doesn’t exploit it. Get input on the ads before you place them from a diverse group of people. Make sure you and your team has a good grasp on the issue and know exactly what you want your ad to communicate.

Similarly, be wary of capitalizing on subjects that evoke strong feelings on a societal level – especially if the subjects or events you’re referencing involves tragedy. While marketing is designed to evoke emotions from core audiences, it’s not ethical to use tragedies to sell your product. Even if your intent is good – say, to honor victims of a natural disaster – be careful in how you portray the event and the victims. You don’t want to exploit someone’s tragedy to push your business.

Can Ethical Businesses Thrive?

As social media marketers, our job is to promote our brand to our target audience. We’re connecting people to products or services that fulfill a need or desire. Sometimes it may seem like behaving ethically can be counterintuitive to business practices. A higher price tag for products, avoiding capitalizing on people’s emotions, and refusing to engage in common – often easier – practices can seem like it’ll sink a business. But the research says otherwise.

A growing majority of Americans now expect brands to behave ethically in addition to delivering quality products. More consumers are beginning to view brands in a sociocultural context and want to hear about how brands are impacting their communities for good. As social media platforms and technology bring brands and consumers closer together than ever before, it’s our job to navigate as best we can the ethical questions that arise.

It turns out that consumers respond positively to companies that are ethical and transparent. Brands who are upfront about their efforts to conduct business ethically do well in the long run. A company like Bombas socks is a perfect example of seemingly counterintuitive business practices helping a brand succeed – by giving away a pair of socks for every pair it sells. For every pair of luxury socks it sells, Bombas donates a pair to the homeless. This is the core of their brand – and their marketing. Bombas is just one example of many that demonstrates how consumers respond incredibly well to ethical marketing.

The Future is Ethical

In recent years, even the nature of advertising has changed dramatically with the advent of social media. Advertisers are now able to be involved in people’s lives on an intimate level like never before. And so we are faced daily with increasingly complex ethical questions and decisions.

Hopefully some of these tips will help you as you face ethical decisions in marketing. Know that choosing to follow best practices in marketing will not only help grow your business – but will also be good for your entire community.

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