Streamline Your Growth With Ethical Marketing

Aeri Shan
4 min readFeb 18, 2021
Photo by Artem Beliaikin from Pexels

Let’s face it, marketers get a bad rap. It’s almost universal and even more pronounced in the non-profit & advocacy space where the very word is assiduously avoided.
It’s understandable and I think we all know where this comes from. Marketers who lie. Marketers who don’t care about what the product is or whether it comes even remotely to meeting your needs. On impulse buys in the B2C space this style of marketing is rampant: the campaigns can be deceptive and manipulative and they leave us feeling cheated and used even if we end up buying the product.

I can’t fix consumerism but for marketers there is a better way: Ethical marketing. As in, you know, telling the truth. Ah, but you say, how can I do that when Product Management has handed me a giant turd that I need to polish? That is fixable — you need to work with Product to create something you can market honestly. You need an integrated approach to product and marketing. I wrote about the usefulness of product-centric teams earlier:

So assuming you have a product that is worth marketing, what is ethical marketing? It really boils down to honesty:

Market products that have real value

I’ve seen companies get incredibly lazy when it comes to product value. Years ago I worked for a hardware maker who’s value proposition included ease of use and whose target market included educators. Turns out, it was all basically guesswork — nobody had ever asked the customers what they thought. Incredible as that may seem, it’s all to common.
For your products to have value you need to do the leg-work of talking to your customers, finding out what functionality they want and developing a deep understanding of their pain points. There’s no substitute for this!

Market those products honestly

I may be a bit biased by my experiences marketing to developers and other groups of skeptical and smart people, but I’ve always believed that if you are dishonest in your marketing it will come back to haunt you eventually. I don’t mean to suggest it always ends in failure, but it can create drag that greatly impedes your growth.
Not lying should be obvious and easy. But I’ve seen some critical points of failure that can make it difficult to be honest even if you want to.
1. Positioning: Understand and develop your positioning but also understand that positioning is a living thing — it very likely will last less than a product lifecycle as you refine your market and change your product. This is foundational stuff — if you don’t understand how your product fits in the market and how you can articulate that fit you can’t be honest with your market.
2. Product Roadmap Alignment: You don’t need surprises. Make sure you are either contributing to that or keep up to date on product direction and all the stuff your engineers want to sneak in. Misalignment obviously can create huge disconnects that may result in very short-lived campaigns and frustrated users who thought they had one thing but now have another. Or you are missing promotion of features that exist — this happens a lot and leaves users feeling ripped off. They weren’t told about something useful and sometimes that’s worse than not having it at all.
3. Messaging Alignment: Develop an internal messaging framework to ensure every one in the company is on the same page. I find it helpful to soak up ideas from people internally but also to gather ideas from the customer’s perspective. This framework helps us all align around what the product is and what it stands for and is critical in ensuring everybody communicates to customers honestly.

Market with permission

Ok, I’ll use Seth Godin’s phrase “Permission Marketing” because it would seem odd if I didn’t. But let it be known that Seth by no means invented the concept — historically it was the norm if only because of the tools available. If you market to someone against their will you are a) not targeting appropriately; b) creating distrust and bad will.
How we market with permission is a big topic but let me touch on just one approach that I’ve relied on from the beginning, which is essentially the freemium model: offer something of value in exchange for consideration. That can be as little as making someone laugh to as much as offering a free service or product. When I was very young I ran bike stores and used to give talks on how to do basic maintenance. People said this was crazy because it would reduce our repairs business. No! It increased our sales of supplies and parts for which the margins were far higher. And gained us a loyalty that no advertising could buy. To me this approach, which of course is incredibly common the tech industry, is a great example of permission marketing. Even beyond freemium offerings it’s incredibly common to see companies offer educational blog posts or similar things which is great because they are extremely useful as a foundation for SEM/SEO & PPC campaigns as well.

It’s always tempting to take short-cuts that we think my yield quick gains. We’re often under time pressure and working with limited resources. Maybe it’s my inner-engineer speaking, but why cut corners and have to do more work later? By marketing honestly you have a more efficient path to engagement. You are putting some more work up-front, it’s true. But you are building a sustainable, long-term customer relationship which not only builds greater lifetime value, but also creates promoters. When people are happy and don’t feel cheated, they become force-multipliers in your marketing efforts, reducing costs and speeding growth.

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Aeri Shan

Story-teller. Data-wrangler. Product visionary. Empath. Non-binary human.