Our Comprehensive Guide to Ethical Issues in Digital Marketing

Social issues and ethics in digital marketing – or traditional advertising, for that matter – represent an incredibly complicated part of your marketing campaign. Depending on what industry your campaign functions for, there you face many social, ethical, and cultural considerations to ensure your strategy appeals to your target audience without excluding or offending others.

With the world more connected than ever, people of different backgrounds, ethnicities, beliefs, and lifestyles become increasingly exposed to different forms of digital marketing. While this connectivity is great, innovative and leading agencies, like BigPxl, need to stay ahead of the game to avoid potential problems. Today’s blog by our digital marketing experts discusses the ethical implications of digital marketing and how your decisions can have a significant impact on your brand.

The Importance of Market Research

Even the most enlightened, modern, and switched-on individual can have a hard time not making assumptions about others based on all kinds of factors, whether it’s age, race, gender, social background, financial status, culture, or a variety of other differences.

Anyone can find it difficult to shake off learned associations, especially if we grew up with them and find them reinforced day-to-day. This can cause problems in many situations, and digital marketing is no different. People in the marketing profession must recognize their own biases and stereotypes before learning to change or eschew them.

Thorough, in-depth, and well-thought-out market research before you start a campaign showcases the best way to avoid making these mistakes, but there are some things you should think about before you start this deep dive.

Words respect, ethics, honesty, and integrity lit inside light bulbs


Check Your Assumptions

One of the keys to avoiding social or cultural assumptions in market research is awareness of yourself before you even talk to your audience.

You and your company need to display honesty about some of your own preconceived ideas before you begin. When you engage in market research, fact-check yourself, especially if you’re targeting a specific demographic you’re not familiar with. You must not rely on your own assumptions about people, whether in digital marketing or more traditional media.

Mature discussions of these assumptions and associations as part of a creative team are insightful. Your conversations help to identify and dispel assumptions before you start putting your research plan or copy together.

Steering Clear of Stereotyping

Every digital marketing campaign walks a very thin line between targeting a demographic and targeting a stereotype. The difference in stepping over that line comes down to how much research you do. Too little or too shallow research inevitably leads to relying on more stereotypical assumptions based and what you already know—or think you know—about a target group. Communication with potential customers, clients, or audiences, as well as extensive research on the way similar products or services have been pitched in the past, are priceless.

Avoid stereotypes—whether they’re about race, gender, age, or any other factor—as much as possible.

Consumers will instantly recognize shallow, stereotypical advertising, and they won’t be afraid to call you on it. There are so many avenues that consumers have to do this: social media, Google Reviews, YouTube, or even writing their own blogs. This can do some severe damage to your image. Modern audiences know patronizing attitudes when they see them, and you desperately need to avoid these messages.

The solution? Listen.

Really listen.

Listen to your own stereotypes, listen to your staff, and listen to your target audience when you conduct active market research.

When investigating your own preconceived ideas about a demographic, it’s easy to forget about the purpose of your campaign—your audience. When it comes time to perform active research, such as sending out surveys or talking to people, really pay attention to their responses.

  • Ask clear questions.
  • Mix open-ended and yes/no questions.
  • Be honest.
  • Gather as many details as you can.

Examine ways in which larger, established, or older brands and companies have handled negative stereotyping controversies.

Communicate Your Mistakes

There are plenty of examples of brands misstepping in their digital marketing and traditional advertising. Perhaps they lumped people from a particular demographic together without considering social or cultural differences without an appropriate level of awareness or sensitivity. The way they handled the backlash highlights their key to success.

Did you know that a majority of medical malpractice lawsuits come from poor patient-doctor relationships and NOT because the doctor performed a bad procedure?

We can apply this same paradigm to digital marketing.

Rather than hiding from your mistakes and taking a reticent attitude, own them. Tell your customers or audience, “Look, we screwed up with this message. Here’s how we can make it right.”

Try this tactic: Ask your audience for help.

Yes, you risk trolls coming in and dominating your social media space. But somewhere in those messages will be helpful advice.

Remember, your potential customers are highly intelligent.

Actively engaging with negative responses to digital marketing or any traditional media or feedback generally shows that a company, brand, or organization is willing to admit mistakes, willing to apologize, and, perhaps most essentially, willing to learn from mistakes.

Cultural and social changes are a constant. And your brand or business’s ability to evolve and adapt represents the difference between stagnation and success. With the prevalence of social media and social media marketing, this kind of back-and-forth between advertisers and audience is more immediate than ever, and you need to be sure to keep on top of it.

Man holding mobile device with translucent market research icon in front


Market Research and Finding Your Audience

If you’re in the early stages of a digital marketing or advertising campaign, how do you intend to appeal to your audience? Do you already have an idea of who they are? And if you do, where did you get that information from? You might be able to gauge who a particular product or service will appeal to, but already you risk making assumptions about people before you even begin.

Market research is an important aspect of any outstanding campaign. But you may find it difficult to prevent your own assumptions and biases from entering into that research, inadvertently skewing your end result.

Getting results from market research requires dividing people into different categories based on different factors – interests, hobbies, education, income, and more – as well as the broader audience. Unfortunately, you run the risk of emerging assumptions and stereotyping. Without a strong ethical foundation and an acute awareness of social culture around your audience, you risk excluding or deciding on who you’re appealing to for the wrong reasons.

Additionally, if you’re appealing to a younger audience or one emerging from a different cultural base, you need to consider whether they’re aware of standard marketing practices. Manipulating an audience’s naivete to marketing tactics, rather than effectively targeting what appeals to them, illustrates a major ethical problem for digital marketing.

After You Complete Market Research

Market research is the beginning of your digital marketing efforts. After you start, you must continue to monitor, listen, and alter your campaign based on the metrics, data, and feedback you receive.

Privacy, Transparency, and Awareness

Once your digital marketing campaign is in full swing, the privacy of your users is a major factor in your efforts. With the proliferation of digital communication in almost every aspect of our lives, privacy is one of the foremost issues in the public eye.

Privacy has become a hot-button issue in our digital age, and digital marketing is possibly one of the most controversial areas when it comes to protecting sensitive information that can’t identify individuals. Striking a balance between maintaining the privacy of your target audience and gathering enough information to use digital advertising effectively seems daunting, but all digital marketing firms should strive to reach this goal.

When you collect information, your sample audience is aware of your practices, what information you’re collecting, and how they can go about contacting you with questions or concerns. Ironically, this is easier than it sounds. All you need to do is spell it out somewhere on your website or in your online material, such as in a privacy policy or information-gathering statement.

Having a small disclaimer, the internet equivalent of the fine print, is sufficient. But using a pop-up dialogue box is better since users have to actively engage with it to close it. This way, even if they don’t read it, at least you made an effort to put that information in front of your audience. The most prevalent example of this type of statement is the “Accept Cookies” pop-up you see when you first engage with a website. You usually have to click-through the “Accept” or “Deny” button in the pop-up before you gain full access to the site.

Beyond the research stages, digital marketing agencies need to maintain an element of transparency. Most modern audiences understand the basics of how digital advertising works and will know, even when it works, what kind of methods advertisers use to get their attention.

This makes effective digital advertising more of a challenge. But many marketers and advertisers find results in understanding and using this give-and-take relationship with consumers. Think about playfulness and self-referencing humor in your advertising.

Of course, this isn’t going to be appropriate for every product or service. However, acute self-awareness when you launch your campaign is crucial to success. Prepare for your consumers to recognize advertising tactics, and decide the best way for you and your company to capitalize on this awareness.

Two beagles tracking a scent in the grass


Tracking Consumer Data

Consumer data is big business. It’s also a vital part of effective marketing and advertising. Being able to target the right audience, at the right time, with the right type of advertising portrays a key component of relevant digital marketing.

Doing things the old-fashioned way – throwing out ads to as many different people as possible in the hope of catching anyone’s attention – is becoming less and less effective as everyone’s experience becomes more targeted and more personalized.

Social and consumer media like music, movies, and TV shows, can be more easily tailored to personal preference than ever before. You need to keep up with this digital personalization as streaming music and video becomes more and more prevalent in our society.

This is where consumer data and behavior come into play. Tracking user habits means collecting information, and the general public is more aware of that than ever. But what can you do about it?

     Be Aware of Third Parties

Many companies, especially smaller, private ones that might not be too tech-savvy, can be caught unaware by privacy concerns. Selling data en masse is commonplace, so much so that many companies aren’t even aware that third parties tag their site and sell the data they collect. Educate yourself, or consult with a professional, about how and why this happens and implement software solutions to prevent it. Your target audience will be mad at you, not the company that collected the data, if there is a breach of privacy.

     Be Aware of How Much the Rules Change

Different industries and sectors have different rules for privacy. If you want to maintain an active digital presence, you must be aware of the ones that apply specifically to you. There isn’t a catch-all privacy plan for everyone, so you’ll have to be specific. The industries with the tightest privacy regulations include health care, law, finance, and government. Even if you’re not directly involved in one of these industries, if one of your clients or customers falls into one of those categories, your privacy must be up to their standards when you do business with them.

And, of course, nothing ever stays still for long in the digital world. Not only will rules and regulations change between sectors, but they will also rapidly change as perceptions and awareness of privacy do too. This means you need to have keen eyes and open ears for new developments about privacy issues affecting your company and your digital marketing efforts.

     Direct Marketing and Fatigue

In digital marketing, direct marketing is perhaps the most utilized method to reach consumers. Unfortunately, direct marketing also comes with a minefield of problems. How much is too much? When does it become intrusive? How do you find the balance of getting your product or service in front of enough people – and the right people – without inundating them? Think of how many people browse the internet with an adblocker. You may well be reading this guide with one active on your browser right now. (It’s okay, we appreciate the irony.)

Any poorly planned, badly designed, and thoughtlessly placed digital advertising is going to be annoying. These are the ads that most ad blockers will censor.

Fortunately for those of us still looking to reach an audience, many higher-end adblock providers now offer the ability to “whitelist” certain advertisers. The best way to get on these whitelists is to tick all the boxes of good digital marketing – relevant, well-designed, and non-intrusive ads that are informative and effective. In order to get the most out of your marketing, you need extensive planning and extensive research, along with an eye for design and a knack for short, informative copy. Partnering with a digital marketing agency is one way to accomplish this.


Clarity, Trust, and Transparency

We’ve seen plenty of news headlines about something nefarious being done with our personal data without our knowledge. This has become perhaps the biggest ethical issue in modern digital marketing. Collecting certain types of data about users is essential to serving relevant advertising rather than bombarding them with anything and everything in the hope of getting something right. Not only that, but the more advanced digital products get, the more data they need to tailor certain experiences to individual consumers.

Balancing Convenience and Consumer Trust

As with anything in our always-connected society, there isn’t a panacea for data collection. Even if you’re serving digital ads to millions of people, your audience still comprises individuals rather than a single, homogenous group. Each one of those people will respond in their own way when finding out how they’re being tracked online. This is where transparency comes in.

With big tech coming under further scrutiny in Europe and the United States, consumers are keenly aware that tech giants like Google, Facebook, and Twitter face potential regulatory threats more than ever. Regardless of the outcome of any new laws passed, digital marketing efforts must adapt to the changing environment.

What Businesses Can Do

How do modern companies collect and use consumer data in an ethical way? Ultimately, it’s too complicated for a single, concise answer. But openness and transparency represent two good places to start. Making it clear that you’re collecting data on website visitors or service users — along with why and what it’s used for — can go a surprisingly long way to instill trust in your brand. While it’s not legally required in the United States, you should also give an option for opting out of data collection practices.

What Consumers Can Do

The onus isn’t entirely on companies themselves to keep up with data security. Consumers have much more information about privacy and data collection now. However, many still find themselves surprised to find out what companies know about them from their browsing habits. Consumers shouldn’t rely on companies being entirely transparent about the information they collect on individuals.

Take steps to protect your online privacy. They could make a difference in your online experience.

  • Use care and caution about the sites you visit.
  • Generate strong passwords with a password manager.
  • Change passwords regularly.
  • Use tracking protection software.
  • Keeping up with news about data breaches.


Mindful Digital Marketing From BigPxl

We hope you’ve enjoyed our comprehensive guide to the ethics of digital marketing. Contact us or call 417-796-0995 with any questions or if you want to partner with our mindful digital marketing experts.

One Response

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