Marketing – Should You Compromise Your Values?

Affiliate IntegrityIt’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.

14 thoughts on “Marketing – Should You Compromise Your Values?

  1. This is something that I think about often. About your points, I am exactly the same in as much as I have recently decided to make more useful content as many of my first sites weren’t so good. But I still struggle when it comes to certain marketing techniques. And I definitely think it’s a good idea to promote products you know about (not necessarily own).

    What I dislike the absolute most is gurus who make money teaching and mentoring others – when it’s clear that’s the only way they make money. Fair enough if they’re just teaching “how to build a niche site”, but if they’re saying “how to build money-making niche sites” then I just don’t think it’s right. I know this strays a little from your main point, but it seems like a lot of impatient internet marketers seem to take this route instead of making their own sites work.

    On a side note, there’s also something that makes me sceptical when people label themselves as “ethical marketers” – I just don’t understand why anyone would need to call themselves that lol! Hopefully it would just be obvious. But that’s just a silly thing I have I guess.

    Anyway, I was glad when those new FTC guidelines came in. I really didn’t understand why people were so upset – surely it just helps to make certain portions of the internet slightly less scammy?
    .-= Ruth – Web Career Girl´s last blog ..Working Like A Madwoman =-.

  2. Hi Ruth,
    yes sorry about the “ethical marketer” tag, but it kind of suited my purpose to highlight the topic. As you say, it shouldn’t be necessary to use a tag such as this, but I suppose because there are so many dubious marketing practices online, people want a way to differentiate themselves.

    The guru thing is also a pet hate. Some of them charge a fortune for little more than web hosting and a site builder and templates. Same as you get from any good web host anyway!

    Oh, and thanks for such a comprehensive comment!

  3. Ruth – I unsubscribed from a LOT of folks that complained about the new FTC regs.
    .-= Dennis Edell | Direct Sales Marketing´s last blog ..Warning: 8 Posts Coming Back to Back =-.

  4. Ya know Des, it’s funny; not funny haha but funny all the same.

    From day 3 I decided I was going to be nothing but that honest, ethical, above-board marketer I could be.

    It took me all of 2 days online to realize what a rarity this was. LOL

    Seriously though, I’m sure it’s responsible, at least partially, for taking so long to start to get anywhere…it’s OK, I had time.

    As for products, I have a 3 set criteria for what i will promote; thev short version…

    1. Owning the product myself – of course not always feasible.
    2. Knowing/Trusting the creator already – just as good in my eyes.
    3. Neither 1or2 was feasible, so I research the hell out of it until I am more then comfortable.
    .-= Dennis Edell | Direct Sales Marketing´s last blog ..Warning: 8 Posts Coming Back to Back =-.

  5. Seriously – Twitter button – Install one. 😉

    I tweeted this using a toolbar thing I have installed, but it doesn’t look nearly as personable as it should.

    http://twitter.com/DennisEdell/status/13928056782
    .-= Dennis Edell | Direct Sales Marketing´s last blog ..Warning: 8 Posts Coming Back to Back =-.

  6. I am fairly new to affiliate marketing and still have to learn a lot. But I have already adopted “promote what you use” principle and it works fine for me. Writing about something that I have used is much easier and such articles come out looking far more genuine than other promotion articles.
    And yes, I am also one of folks who are happy with FTC guidelines! At least some spammers will have to retire! 😉
    .-= Ishan´s last blog ..20 Must Have Chrome Extensions For Bloggers =-.

  7. Hi Dennis,
    I think it takes time to get anywhere in this game anyway (especially if you are primarily trying to build SERPS traffic). In the long run your honest approach will hopefully produce better and longer lasting results. The snake oil salesmen will eventually be seen for what they are.

    On the Twitter thing, I saw a great plug-in the other day that added a box after a post that let your visitor add a Tweet from there. I will get around to using it eventually I promise!

  8. Hi Ishan,
    I’ve certainly found the same thing with article writing. My articles are so much better when I know the subject well.

    Some would advise outsourcing articles that you feel uncomfortable writing yourself, but I’m not ready to go down that route yet myself.

  9. I agree with you on outsourcing! While it’s fine to outsource design and other administrative tasks, content is something I will never outsource at any cost!
    .-= Ishan´s last blog ..Why Did You Become A Blogger? Tell Me Your Story(And listen to mine!) =-.

  10. Des–Excellent post. I love how you address what I think are the nagging little questions that hold us back. I have addressed how selling online doesn’t have to feel dirty (on planting dollars), but you bring up a few more angles here that I’m pleased with.

    Do you have to test the product yourself personally before you create a site and start selling it?

    I’m still battling with this one!
    .-= Moon Hussain´s last blog ..Why You Need to Validate Your Life Decisions =-.

    • Hi Moon,
      I think it’s so encouraging to hear that there are many of us who do actually battle with these questions. Although we may lose out in short term gains, I’m sure in the long run we will end up with businesses that we can be more proud of. I remember one of your own posts saying it’s not always easy to admit to being an internet marketer. Hopefully it won’t always have to be that way!

  11. Hi Des,

    Thought provoking post – very good.

    I don’t fully agree about what is ethical in one part of the globe may not be in another. Deep down, the basic fundamentals of humanity are the same – a paler shade of lying, is lying still.

    But I know where you are coming from. There are liberal interpretations or different understandings of not the fundamentals, but the wheels upon which those fundamentals run, and therein lies the whole ethical issue, and I don’t really know how to solve that.

    I think you’re doing a damn good job – and congratulations on that sale.
    .-= Valentina´s last blog ..Keyword Stuffing Confuses Search Engines =-.

    • Hi Valentina,
      I may not have put that point across too well. I suppose what I meant to say was for example, in some places, brash, in-your-face marketing tactics are totally accepted and are part of the culture, whilst in another country they might come across as unethical. To my mind, that makes the ethical question slightly more tricky, and the answers I come up with might not be the same as you. But hopefully as you say, our answers will both stem from the same fundamental principles.

      In the end I suppose we have to go with what we personally feel to be “doing the right thing”.

      Thanks also for the congrats Valentina – The sale just happened to be the lowest priced item reviewed on the site! But I’m still pleased with it, as it shows the site has potential when I drive some traffic to it. :-)

  12. You don’t need something that big; up to you though. lol

    I just meant the TweetMeme or Topsy plugins, simple enough for all. 😉
    .-= Dennis Edell | Direct Sales Marketing´s last blog ..Web Income Experiments DotCom Wins Hands-Down! =-.

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