The Little Guide To Ethics In Digital Marketing Part 1

The Little Guide To Ethics In Digital Marketing Part 1
The Little Guide To Ethics In Digital Marketing Part 1

By Maria Fonseca and Paula Newton

As realisation of the importance of doing business ethically is growing, this too is spreading to the marketing domain, and to digital marketers. Digital marketing has brought many new and innovative ways to market to potential and existing customers. Evidencing this, almost 4,000 (3,800) marketing technology tools are now available to marketers. These are increasingly capable and can gather a good deal of information from customers. This, among other drivers has led to a growing need for ethics in digital marketing. In Part 1 of our little guide to ethics in digital marketing we will consider how ethics now has a role, and ethical questions that have arisen in recent years, relating to digital marketing.

Defining your mission and the ethics you abide by

“Business as usual”, and “profit at all costs” used to be the way how things were done in business (and in a certain way, it still is). But new winds are bringing change to the world. A new generation of business people and entrepreneurs have become more conscious of how their businesses should be aligned with moral values and purpose. Plus, changes now, happen quickly. Just look at Uber: its former CEO Travis Kalanick was forced to resign, after controversy over the company’s supposedly unethical culture. More conscious customers, on the other hand, also demand more from companies, in terms of its Corporate Social Responsibility, transparency and integrity.

Ethics stems from the old Greek word “êthos”, meaning “character, moral nature”.
Ethics is thus a fundamental skill for new businesses and their digital marketing strategy. But ethics should not be empty words… they should be put into practice. The first step to implement it is to think through what is the purpose of your business and align it with your core values. This will also serve as a guide for day-to-day operations and as the foundation for future decision-making.

Protecting Customer’s Privacy

The opportunities that digital marketing brings for understanding and learning about customers are tremendous, but these bring with it responsibilities. In particular, there is a need to avoid becoming too intrusive with marketing, and to find a line between helping the business to grow while not behaving unethically towards customers. Privacy is the key here. While most people working in positions of responsibility in marketing will understand regulations around privacy and will adhere to them, there are also ethical decisions to be made, especially if the company wants to retain the consumer’s trust.


One challenge with some of the new marketing tools available to digital marketers is that it is all too easy to erode consumer trust, even without meaning to do so. If the company fails to deliver, then the trust of the consumer will be negatively impacted. In the past, ethical dilemmas were perhaps more straightforward. Companies were found to have been unethical when they said their product was something it wasn’t. However, going too far is much easier with marketing technology tools available today. To provide an example, apps can track where people go each day and collect data on that – even when the app does not really have a clear reason for doing so – such as in the example of a simple games app. If consumers were aware of this type of activity, they would find it unpleasant and trust would be reduced. They would likely consider the activity unethical.

Companies claim that they collect this type of data so they are able to improve their products. They may say that the right to do so is in their terms and conditions. In many cases such information is unwieldy or very hard to find for a consumer. Thus, consumers may be giving rights unwittingly, and companies using customer data in this way can be seen as unethical, as this oversteps what might be considered “reasonable” .

There are plenty of examples of unethical digital marketing that have already been brought to light as a result of these sorts of questionable activities. One shining example of this has been the use of Facebook by unethical companies to spread what has become known as “fake news”. Reports have stated that this has had an impact on election outcomes in both the USA and the UK. Meanwhile, Facebook claims to be all about helping people share information with each other and interact, but in reality, it is a big old marketing tool, with its users’ data sold to its paying advertisers. Twitter isn’t much better either. It does not provide transparency over how it sells user data to advertisers.

Big Data and AI

The challenges of digital marketing ethics are only becoming more accentuated as technology advances apace. Big data is bringing even more customer data to marketers. That aside, there are tools that are coming soon that will be able to see customer’s facial responses to advertisements, which takes gathering customer data to a whole new level of intrusion. Companies must request permission to the webcam for this to occur, but it is easy to see how this could happen without the customer realising what they have agreed to.

While some might argue that it is “obvious” what is ethical and what is not in digital marketing, there is no clear guidelines that enables people to understand this. In part 2 of our little guide to ethics in digital marketing we will provide some points to consider that help address this gap, examining areas such as social media marketing and email marketing, among others.

The Little Guide To Ethics In Digital Marketing Part 2