What is Ethical Strategy (And Does It Really Work)?

Marketers are faced with ethical quandaries every day.

Sometimes these are big issues – What is the lawful (and tasteful) line when marketing to children? Could I work for Big Tobacco?

Most times though these decisions are small – decisions that determine which tactics are fair game and which are off the table.

This subject got me thinking about ethical strategy. Does it hurt or help a marketer to live and work by a strict ethical code? How can we be as persuasive as possible without sacrificing our souls?

A Path With Roadblocks?

A strategy is a plan to reach a goal – a path leading to the achievement of business objectives, in our case. As I first thought about it, an ethical strategy seemed limiting. It seemed as though ethics would limit the tactics marketers could use to reach their goals.

An ethical strategy, for instance, might limit the number and types of magazines we advertise in. It might limit the extent we can distribute content across the web. It could alter the way we talk to customers. These limits would act as roadblocks on our strategic path and slow or stop us from reaching our goals.

The Golden Rule

But, maybe I’m wrong.

If we can agree that the most widely accepted rule of ethics is the Golden Rule – Do unto others as you would have them do unto you – then ethics must have some connection to emotions.

Emotions and the Golden Rule require us to:

  • Understand others (or at least try)
  • Develop empathy and sympathy
  • Grow our Emotional Quotient – the ability to access and manage one’s own emotions as well as those of others or a group
  • Accept our social role – humans as social creatures within a structure of mutually agreed-upon rules

Employing these traits could help us to craft new, more focused strategies by listening and caring about our customers.

If we accept that emotion and these traits are required for an ethical strategy, could this actually be a benefit rather than a roadblock?

Ethical Strategy, Better Tactics

What if, with emotional understanding and an eye to the Golden Rule, we could create better strategy and better tactics than if we went down an unethical route?

After all, what have we learned with the advent of social media than that our networks and our ability to connect and relate have great power?

Maybe unethical shortcuts are really no shortcuts at all. I now think we’re in a world where an ethical strategy would actually be more effective. Developing a strategy that involves your customers or fans, requires honesty and transparency, and generally celebrates collaboration – aren’t these common elements in some of the most amazing success stories of the last 10 years?

And those who hid or lied or cheated – doesn’t that always come to light? The Enrons of the world are many, but nowadays they are far, far more likely to be found out and publically shamed.

What About You?

I changed my mind when it came to ethical strategy. In addition to thinking it’s the correct way to market, I now believe it’s the most effective as well.

What do you think? I’d love to hear your opinions on ethical strategy. Is it the best option for online marketers? When have you felt like you crossed an ethical line? What did you do about it?

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(Image courtesy of Samuel Mann via Flickr)