It’s no secret that it’s a tough old game trying to earn a living online, and there are certainly plenty of people out there who will go to almost any extreme to separate people from their hard earned cash. Compromising your values is surely no way to go about earning a living – but are you simply trying to compete with one hand tied behind your back if you try to adopt an ethical approach to marketing? The problem is, just as your background, upbringing and influences are sure to be different to mine, your values are equally likely to differ. So is it possible to survive and thrive as an “ethical” online marketer, and does that phrase actually mean anything anyway?
It is certainly something I’ve given a good deal of thought to in my early stages of starting an online business, and in this post I’d like to discuss a few different angles on this question and hopefully drag out a few of your thoughts on the matter.
Do Your Ethics Improve as Your Marketing Skills Improve?
This is an interesting one to me. As someone who has only been experimenting in affiliate marketing to earn an online income for around the last eight months or so, the skills I have learned over that time are many and varied. At the outset, you have to get to grips with all manner of nuts and bolts issues – HTML, WordPress, hosting, finding affiliate programs – the list is almost endless. So in your early projects you are highly likely to be ever so pleased with yourself just for getting a web site launched, with some content and carrying some affiliate links. I know that was certainly me for my first affiliate site!
Back in my quarter one Affiliate Progress report I noted how I was far from happy with how I had put this first affiliate site together. The SEO was bad, but also the writing was not up to scratch. The content carries no authority, and does precious little to pre-sell the affiliate products. In short there is not much evidence of ethical marketing, it is merely a mini-site that carries a few adverts.
So to go back to my original question, now that my skills are greater, how would I go about re-building that first site with a more ethical marketing perspective?
I think that really comes down to spending more time on researching both the subject matter and the affiliate products that I will recommend. Re-writing the content so that I am genuinely providing my visitors with useful information, and products that genuinely solve their problem or help them in some way.
Now that I am less caught up in the nuts and bolts of setting that first site up, I can concentrate on getting the content right. So have my skills made me a more ethical marketer? Obviously not, but they may result in me re-launching a more ethical site.
How Well Do You Need to Know the Products you Promote?
Some affiliate marketers recommend only promoting products that you actually use yourself, and that is the approach I now adopt myself for Affiliate Progress – (I have carried ads for services I don’t personally use in the past but over time have removed these).
But my online earning strategy is largely built around small affiliate sites, and adopting the same policy for these would be extremely limiting, so how should I maintain an ethical stance here?
Well I believe that by only promoting products that I truly believe in on my affiliate sites, that I can not only pre-sell with the necessary authority, but I am actually in a more ethical position than very many conventional sales channels (the assistant at your local department store does not use or have knowledge of every line they stock!).
Do I feel I need to own all the products I promote? – No
Do I believe I have to know the products and give honest recommendations? – Yes
Can Ethical Marketing Actually Win You Commissions?
At this experimental stage in my affiliate marketing career I am limiting the number of projects I set up in order to keep the workload manageable, but from my early results I would argue the case that adopting an ethical approach to affiliate marketing can actually improve your results.
My second affiliate site has not been live for very long, it is not yet getting traffic via Google, but is getting a small trickle of traffic via the articles I have written for link building purposes.
The main difference with this second site is that it is in a niche with which I am far more familiar personally. It is a review site, and although I don’t own all of the products reviewed I have researched thoroughly, I know the subject well and I am comfortable writing about it. I believe in the recommendations I make and give honest praise, where due, to other products in the reviews. I do think this honesty and enthusiasm for the subject does come over in the writing, and even with just that minute amount of traffic this site has already made its first affiliate sale. I hope it lives up to this early promise once traffic starts to build!
Going back to my first site, even though it has been online for several months, it has not made a single affiliate sale as yet. I will be highly surprised if it does before I rectify its problems, and I believe it is all down to its lack of authority – people can see it for what it is.
What Conclusions Should We Draw?
Firstly, I think I mentioned “background” in the opening paragraph, and that is quite important here. For example, what might seem like a heavy handed or over-selling kind of approach to me having spent my life up to now in the UK, might be very run of the mill to you wherever you are from. So the “how to market ethically” question has to be one you answer personally and honestly from your own perspective. What doesn’t sit right with me might be perfectly acceptable to you, and whilst I am entitled to disapprove or disagree, it’s only you who can decide whether your marketing tactics compromise your values.
Secondly, I think things like the recent discussions around the new FTC guidelines have made many affiliate marketers take a good close look at how they operate. I think most people who try to approach affiliate marketing in an ethical fashion broadly welcome the guidelines, and believe that they not only help to level the playing field, they also offer opportunities to be more transparent and honest. I believe this can only help to further increase your authority as a niche marketer.
Lastly, I often stress the need for a patient approach to building your online business, and nowhere is this more relevant than with respect to what I have discussed above. If you are starting out in affiliate marketing, it is highly likely that the the work you are doing in six months or a year’s time, will be different and of much higher quality than you initially produce. I am so glad that at this stage I don’t have twenty or thirty sites that I am unhappy with on either an ethical or quality basis. If you want to build a long term business for your future that you are happy and comfortable with, my advice is to build slowly and steadily. Keep looking at what you produced earlier and learn from your own mistakes.
Well, my sincere apologies that this turned into a somewhat long-winded post, but I hope you agree that it is an interesting area and one well worth discussing.
So what approach do you yourself take? Does my brand of ethics stand a chance on the Internet or will the competition eat me for breakfast? – Let me know your thoughts. Your input to the discussion is always welcome at Affiliate Progress.