How ethical is your marketing practice? Imagine describing your job to your best non-marketing friend. What’s your response if they think your work is ethically gray or morally suspect?
Today’s guest is Robin Cangie from The Empowered Freelancer. Robin talks about how to do work that’s radically effective and ethical, where marketers avoid ethical shortcuts by focusing on work that is genuinely helpful for leads, prospects, and customers.
Ben: On this week’s show, we have Robin Cangie from The Empowered Freelancer with us to talk about this concept and what she calls Radically Ethical Marketing. What we discuss is how marketers can avoid taking ethical shortcuts and instead focus on doing work that is genuinely helpful for leads, for prospects, and for customers. It’s an interesting take on a topic that I think is under-discussed in our space, and it might make you a little bit uncomfortable but hopefully in a way that’s probably healthy. Now, here’s Robin.
Hey, Robin. How’s it going this afternoon?
Robin: Hey, Ben. I’m doing great. How are you?
Ben: I can’t complain. I feel like this has been kind of a recurring theme with guests lately to talk about the weather, but—
Robin: It’s true.
Ben: I think it’s just that time of year where we’re entering spring and maybe we’re all feeling a little bit of a renewed sense of optimism, how a lot of things have gone.
Robin: I definitely am.
Ben: Yeah, but I understand that based in the Pacific Northwest and actually enjoying some sunshine it sounds like.
Robin: Yes, finally. I am just outside of the Portland, Oregon metro area, and we’ve had some beautiful sunshine for multiple days in a row. That’s telling me that spring has finally stopped teasing us and it’s actually showing up now.
Ben: Good deal. Before we get too far off-track, would you mind taking a moment just to introduce yourself to our audience and explain what you do with The Empowered Freelancer?
Robin: Absolutely. I have a long marketing background. It’s been something like 14 years now that I worked in the marketing industry. I went self-employed about 4 years ago and I remember feeling like there was pretty much every bit of information that I can find out there except what I really needed, which was very honest, raw, real talk about what it’s like to be self-employed, be a freelancer, and run your own business.
There were so many people promising like, be a 7-figure freelancer if you buy my 12-step program, and here is the one secret to business success. I got tired of it. I did eventually found a good marketing consultancy and became a successful freelancer, but there still really wasn’t anything out there that I would have wanted when I first started.
About a year ago, I decided if it’s not out there I’m going to make it. And now we have The Empowered Freelancer. It’s still in its early stages. I’ve been live for just a few months now, but I’m really, really encouraged by the response, especially from people who really struggle to market themselves, feel like marketing is something sleazy, they hate doing it. That’s why I’m so excited for our conversation today, too, to show that marketing doesn’t have to be this horrible, like used car salesmen thing.
Ben: Absolutely. To loop our listeners in here into what we’re going to be talking about on this episode, you’ve coined this term. Well, I don’t know if you coined it. I’m just giving you credit for it, so I’m not immediately starting off as a liar here. What we’re going to be talking about is something you call Radically Ethical Marketing, which I think is really interesting. I think that most marketers, how we like to think that what they do is ethical. It’s interesting to me to think how can it be radically so, and why would you want for your practice to be not just ethical but really making that a point of emphasis. Before we get too far along, how would you define that term ‘Radically Ethical Marketing’ first off?
Robin: The way I define it is pretty simple. Radically Ethical Marketing is simply marketing that puts honesty, transparency, and genuine helpfulness at its center. That sounds very straightforward when I say it like that, but when we think about a lot of the marketing that we encounter, it doesn’t really fit that definition very well. In some ways, I think it’s almost easier to get a sense of what it means to be radically ethical by thinking about what isn’t radically ethical.
Things I would put into that bucket include retargeting ads where you don’t get permission from your customers, and then you just either spam them repeatedly or give them ads that follow them all over every single channel, even though they only gave you their email address. It’s copy that is designed to deceive rather than inform, so if you go to a website and you see a bunch of big promises being made and not a lot of substance behind it, that is not radically ethical. I would say really anything where your goal is more about getting users to convert than it is about genuinely helping them see the value of your product.
Ben: That makes sense. Some of the answers to this question might be a little bit self-evident, but I’m going to ask anyway. Why should marketers approach their craft in a way that is not only ethical but radically so? Why should marketers want to either choose tactics or structure their strategy in such a way where they maybe don’t feel the need to do some of these things that might be considered a little more ethically gray even if they are common practice?
Robin: That’s a good question. The easy answer is that it’s the right thing to do, and I’ll come back to that in a second. There are (I believe) some valid business reasons for taking the radically ethical approach, especially if you take the long view. A lot of that short-term stuff that’s more ethically gray does work—that’s why people do it—but when you think about the long-term, it’s generally a bad thing if you’re eroding trust with your customers and prospective clients.
Whether or not they know it, in general, people are becoming more wise to ways that marketers try to manipulate their perceptions, use their data to get them to buy as much stuff as possible. They’re getting tired of it. If you want to really come out front and center and say, ‘hey, we’re not going to do that as a brand. We’re making a different choice. We know that we might not get as many sales right out of the gate, but we’re making the choice to be radically ethical,’ I think that is going to do a lot to build long-term trust with your clients.
If you think about some of the short-term stuff that people do, it does work. But then, people figure it out, they get tired of it, they finally unsubscribe from the five bazillion emails that you’re getting every single day saying, Robin, here’s my secret. Robin, did you see this? Robin, last chance to get in on this exclusive… Eventually, you’re just going to be like, it’s spamming. Unsubscribe because you’re sick of getting it. Then, you’ll have to fill your funnel back up all over again. Being radically ethical is a more sustainable long-term choice.
Even beyond that, I think there are very good legal reasons for embracing Radically Ethical Marketing now. I believe that whether or not the industry wants to go in this direction, governments are increasingly going to force it to go in this direction. Not just with GDPR but with the California Consumer Privacy Act. I would be shocked if other states don’t follow suit eventually.
Especially with the global nature of so much business these days—I’m even finding this for myself with my email sign-up form—I can’t control whether someone signs up from Europe or from the United States, unless I want to just block all EU IP addresses. And even then, someone could still slip through. So do I make the choice to be compliant now and get ahead of it or do I want to be reactive and wait until someone files a complaint or a request for how their data is being used, and then have to scramble and potentially pay a bunch of lawyers to make sure that I get compliant?
I think out of the reasons that I listed, for most businesses, probably that legal one is going to be the most compelling. But for me, truth be told, it was a matter of needing to look in the mirror every morning and feel good about the work that I was doing. That is something that’s very important to me. I reached a point in my corporate career where I just couldn’t bring myself to do some of those things anymore. In one case, actually it was part of the decision to leave a job because I was being asked to really make some decisions that I just didn’t feel good about.
Ben: That’s certainly understandable. If you find yourself in such a situation where push comes to shove that way, then I wonder if there’s a value from an employer’s perspective to take that in consideration, too. If you have good people in the building and you push them to conduct themselves in a certain way, you could be eroding trust with your own staff.
Robin: You absolutely could.
Ben: I would imagine that for a lot of marketers out there, a lot of people do a lot of things. A lot of marketing practices that are considered common within the industry are things that, in a lot of ways like in a digital context, have just become a part of all of our experiences using the Internet. We kind of accept certain things as being normal, retargeting ads being one.
I have seen an incredible number of ads for shoes that I wasn’t going to buy anyway. Sometimes with things like that, I feel like the ad spend to show me that pair of shoes is probably, over a longer period of time I wonder if it gets to be higher than what I’m actually going to spend.
Robin: I wonder about that, too. I wonder how much of their retargeting results that those tools are capturing are from buyers who already were going to buy the thing and just waited a few days. I don’t have the answer but I wonder.
Ben: I might have to find someone who does because I would be really curious to know just selfishly for myself. Maybe that’s another point, too. Maybe some of these things are actually economically inefficient, but that’s beside the point that I want to drive at for the sake of this question.
A lot of these things have become so commonplace that marketers might find themselves in a position where maybe in the back of your mind you’re thinking this is kind of weird. But you don’t really think about it because everybody’s doing it. In situations like that, I feel like these things can become victimless crimes, where there are things that people tolerate.
But there’s that weird, uncomfortable gray area that some of these things fall into. You’re not stealing, you’re not doing things that are maybe very flagrantly breaking the law, but they might be things that, if you told a friend outside of the industry what you did all day, you might not feel so great about telling that story.
Robin: Been there.
Ben: Yeah, so say I’m a marketer and I’m in a position where, maybe some of those things, there are tactics I’m doing that fall into that bucket that are making money, and are therefore hard to quit. Why should I consider quitting those things, anyway?
Robin: That’s a tough question. I think what makes it tough is your ability to even affect change depends so much on what level you’re in within the new organization, what kind of culture your company has, how much trust you have with your boss, I would say even whether the CMO of your company is well-respected within the executive team or seen as a secondary player.
I definitely don’t want to advise someone who is in a difficult economic position and really needs a job, to just quit based on their ethics. I just feel like that’s not a realistic way to solve this problem. If you do feel comfortable speaking to your boss about this, then I definitely encourage more people to speak up. The more people speak up, the more that companies are going to be forced to listen.
We actually saw this recently for much more serious issues with Delta, Coca-Cola, and the voter suppression bill that was passed in Georgia. Employees spoke out and got the CEOs to come out and make public statements against these bills. You may feel very powerless as part of a cog in a giant machine, but you really do have some power here especially if you band together with other people who feel similarly. You may have more power than you realize to effect change.
The arguments that I made earlier for why Radically Ethical Marketing can be a good business decision also still stands if your boss is amenable to potential legal challenges and potential trust issues with building a long-term customer base. That might be another way to approach it. Ultimately, as an individual within a company with a marketing career, you have to decide what are my thresholds for ethical gray areas. Everyone looks a little bit different. What is it going to take for me to look at myself in the mirror and feel good about the work that I’m doing?
For example, I still work with a few corporate marketing clients. I would say they embrace Radically Ethical Marketing to varying degrees. A lot of people come to me because they like that already, so they have a way of self-filtering out. I work with clients to do retargeting. I’m not going to automatically say no to somebody who embraces retargeting as part of their strategy. I’m not going to encourage it. I might give them reasons why I disagree with it.
But I’m a business owner. I have my own bills to pay. I probably couldn’t afford to turn away every single person who doesn’t meet my exact checklist for what Radically Ethical Marketing looks like. I’ve made decisions in my own business about how I’m going to conduct my own marketing, and it’s up to—for now, anyway—other businesses to decide what their threshold is. I think eventually, the legal side is going to come into play and force some of those decisions. Really, it’s about figuring out where your threshold is, what values you have, and really doing what you can within the position that you have.
But again, I would never judge an entry-level marketing manager for feeling uncomfortable and not feeling they have a level of trust with their boss to bring this up. I really think the onus here is on the marketing leaders to lead that change, the ones who can really talk to the executive teams, who own the budgets, who can decide which agencies to work with, and decide which ads to run. They’re really the ones who have the most responsibility here. If they lead, then their teams will follow. Who wants to work in an industry where everyone outside of it thinks you’re kind of a jerk anyway?
Ben: That’s a really good question and I have an unflattering answer.
If there’s something you’re doing right now that’s working but that you know is annoying for people, or it’s maybe creating a poor user experience, or maybe it’s actually pushing the boundaries of reasonable moral standards in a more severe fashion, then it might be tough to convince stakeholders to change direction. Ultimately, your job is to make money for your company. If what you’re doing is doing that and it’s not breaking the law, sometimes that can be a tough conversation. It can be challenging in a lot of ways to convince whoever you report to or whoever you’re working for that you should try something else instead.
Let’s say your company is using some gray hat tactics to scrape data from prospects and target them with some kind of ads or outreach that you think is a bad move, like you just don’t really feel good about doing this thing that you’re being asked to do. What would happen if you told your boss you should stop? What’s probably going to happen is they’re going to ask what you think that you should be doing instead. And if you don’t have a good answer, you might well come off like a complainer rather than someone who is really just looking out for the best interest of your company.
The key is to go into that conversation prepared, to show those stakeholders what a better future could look like after you change your approach. Show up prepared with solutions that can not only replace your old tactics but maybe even improve upon them, and everything about that conversation is going to go much easier. Instead of framing this conversation as an opportunity to shame whoever made the decision to do this thing that you’re doing—if that happens to be your boss, CMO, client, or whoever; they themselves might feel under attack in that situation—you’re now showing them an opportunity to do something that’s better for everybody. And that’s really hard for people to oppose. Now, back to Robin.
When it comes to actually confronting issues that might arise from being asked to do something that’s borderline ethics-wise, that there is some amount of self in situational awareness that has to be factored in and how much you can actually do about a situation. I think sometimes it can be easy to point to something and say that’s bad, but there might be a greater context, like maybe that company needs to do that thing to keep the lights on.
Certainly there’s a lot of complexity involved here, but let’s say a marketer finds themselves in a situation where they’re asked to do something that maybe they feel pushes a personal threshold a little bit further than what they’re comfortable with or what they think their company should be comfortable with. How would you recommend they approach that conversation and suggest they do something else?
You’ve gone to the point where you’ve decided or you’re committed to saying or doing something. What is a smart way to approach that so that that attempt to do good, so to speak, doesn’t end up backfiring on you?
Robin: I really wish I could guarantee that there was a way to speak up and do the right thing without it backfiring. The truth is there is going to be some risk involved in speaking up, and if you are in a high-trust company that risk is probably low. If you’re in a low-trust company that risk may be higher. I would say the first thing is to really acknowledge that there is some risk and commit to being comfortable with that risk. That’s part of why I say determining your own threshold is so important because your willingness to take that risk is going to depend on how big you feel a violation is.
Once you’ve accepted, ‘all right, I’m putting my neck out there; this is something that is grave enough and I’m willing to put my neck out there for this,’ then it’s probably worth putting some thought into the argument that you want to make. Your boss may or may not agree with the same reasons that you have. If you point out the ethical reasons why this makes you uncomfortable, your boss may or may not share those. If they do, then you’re lucky and it becomes a much easier conversation about what to do instead. If they don’t, then it can be helpful to have some very dispassionate business reasons for why this could harm the company.
I think that’s the way to frame this for a lot of leaders if you are in a marketing role in bringing this to you or someone in leadership. Really think about how does this harm the business? What negative perceptions does this create with our customers? If we are emailing them constantly, if we’re advertising to them on every single social media channel that we can find them on, scraping the Internet for email addresses that only work 70% of the time, what kind of message does that send about our brand to our customers? And how does that connect (or more likely disconnect) with the public image that we want our brand to show?
This one might be really effective. Take a look at your state’s laws and see if there are any bills in the legislature that are similar to the California Consumer Privacy Act. Or even if there are simply representatives or state senators who are talking about this sort of thing. If you can show like, ‘hey this is where the industry is heading and this is where the laws are heading. I think it would be a good business decision for us to get out in front of it now,’ then you could potentially look like somebody who is forward-thinking.
I think it’s very valid to raise ethical concerns and it takes a tremendous amount of courage to do so. The risk is if that’s your primary argument in a company that’s not amenable to hearing it, you can get labeled as someone who’s just over sensitive and it’s really easy to dismiss. That’s an unfortunate truth (I think) of working in a lot of corporate businesses today. I definitely don’t endorse that, but I also like to think I’m a radically ethical marketer who’s also a realist, I acknowledge the limits of the system that we operate within, and unfortunately, trying to be a radically ethical marketer in an industry that is decidedly not radically ethical most of the time means you’re going to get a lot of pushback, probably from the very same people that you work with.
Ben: I think that’s such a good point and they can end it on there. It’s really just an accurate observation of how people tend to act and respond to things in a lot of cases. It probably doesn’t do you a whole lot of good to ignore that or to pretend it’s not the case.
Say I’m the same marketer in this hypothetical scenario. What are some things that I could do to show not only what the consequences are going to be if we continue doing this thing that we should stop? How can I also point to a potential benefit that we’re not getting right now because we’re putting all of our energy into this other thing? Are there any ways to maybe show your boss, CEO, client, or whoever your stakeholder is, a better future that could make some of those more slimy kind of things just look less appealing?
Robin: I love this question. Thinking about this in terms of opportunity costs can be really, really powerful. If there are certain things you, your company, or your client have been wanting to try or expressed enthusiasm about, and there are simply not the time or the resources to invest in those things, then letting go of some of those slimier tactics could be a great way to open up space and resources to try something new.
I was thinking about this question a little bit earlier today, and really, really just thinking about what would it mean. There are companies out there who have beloved brands. We can all think of beloved brands. The reasons that they’re beloved are very clear: the product is wonderful or the tone of the messaging is designed to resonate with a very specific type of person, or they’re socially conscious and their values align with the consumers that they are trying to reach. We can all think of these beloved brands.
The vast majority of brands, including the ones that most people work at, are not beloved. But what would it look like to become a beloved brand? What if your brand really was beloved and what if the way to do that or part of the way to do that is to treat your clients as if you were worthy of being beloved by them? Frankly, if you’re spamming them all over the Internet, sending them way too many emails and invading their privacy on a daily basis, you’re not worthy of their love. What if you were? What kind of business would you have then? What kind of long-term sustainability and resilience in the face of big economic shocks like a global pandemic would you have if you were truly beloved?
That’s very aspirational. It’s not going to resonate with everybody, of course, but it’s something that I personally find very inspiring. It certainly is something that all the marketing thought leaders seem to be talking about, so it’s got to be worth something to some marketers out there listening. I think that’s really one of the biggest opportunities I see. Even if you step outside that ‘it’s the right thing to do,’ it is the right thing to do. But even beyond that, there’s this huge opportunity to really gain the love and trust of your customers in a way that you can’t do if you’re violating it daily.
Ben: People do like to be adored.
Robin: They do.
Ben: I love that answer, giving our listeners something that they can equip themselves with to approach this conversation in a way where there’s a benefit in something that can help them keep the conversation on a positive tone rather than intentionally (or otherwise) being perceived as someone who just needs to have a thicker skin, which is actually probably not the case. That’s fantastic.
That does it for all the questions I had for you, Robin. Before I let you go, do you have any parting thoughts or anything about this topic that you’d like to share that we haven’t gotten into yet, that you would like to leave our listeners with?
Robin: Yeah. As someone who has now been actively practicing Radically Ethical Marketing covertly for many years, and now kind of really like hanging my shingle on this idea, it feels great. It really feels great. I see the marketing industry and the possibilities for marketing in a whole new way, now that I’m really centering honesty, transparency, and genuine helpfulness, and doing so very publicly. I’m getting a wonderful response from my social media following, from clients, from prospective clients who reach out to me.
People really love this idea, so I think this is an idea whose time has come. I believe this. I’m seeing it in the results of my business, just in how I feel about the work that I’m doing every day, the level of excitement that I feel to do this work, and to share these thoughts with other marketers who, maybe like me, have been toiling in silent frustration secretly for many, many years. I just want to say there is a better way to do this. The more of us who embrace this idea, the more likely we can effect real change.
Ben was the Inbound Marketing Director at CoSchedule. His specialties include content strategy, SEO, copywriting, and more. When he's not hard at work helping people do better marketing, he can be found cross-country skiing with his wife and their dog.