Nathalie Nahai: How to know if your marketing is ethical

In her final Marketing Week column, the web psychologist sets out the three big questions brands must ask to reveal whether their attempts at persuasive marketing are flouting ethical principles.

When I started writing this column, it was with the goal of  exploring how we could apply psychological principles to better understand who we are targeting, learn how to communicate more persuasively, and, ultimately, sell to our customers with greater integrity and long-term success.

Over the past few years we have seen a dramatic shift in people’s awareness of, and distrust in, the methods employed by many of the large companies to orchestrate and design our online experiences to their benefit.

Whether we are looking at the widespread migration from instant messaging platforms to encrypted services, or the commonplace adoption of ad-blocker software and virtual private networks, the writing is on the wall. As a population, we are moving towards  a fragmented web that is being created because of a deepening chasm of distrust between customers and businesses, which demand their data, encroach upon their privacy and manipulate their decisions in ways that serve only the bottom line.

The issue, at its root, is deceptively simple. Whatever kind of relationship you’re in (whether platonic, romantic, business or otherwise), if it is to thrive it must first be based on mutual trust. But as we have explored in previous posts, trust takes time, it has to be earned, and it has to be reciprocal.

With our ‘fail fast and forward’ approach to business, the emphasis is necessarily on speed and we have become accustomed to taking shortcuts, but they may not serve us well in the long term. In our desire to overcome the competition we have settled all too comfortably on the idea that customers are mere data points whose actions can be quantified and their data plundered without consent.

We have forgotten the uncomfortable truth that whether we are developers, marketers or contractors, the division between us and our customers is an illusion. The reality is that at some point we are all someone else’s ‘user’. The tactics and strategies we carefully research and deploy to shape the decisions of others inevitably do, once absorbed into best practice, go on to affect us.

It is for this reason (if not for integrity’s sake) that we need to ask ourselves how and when to use principles of persuasion in our marketing, and more crucially, why.

Given all we have learned about decision-making – that we have limited conscious capacity, that emotional triggers are at the root of our actions, and that we rarely decide ‘rationally’ – it is with great care that we must choose in which context and to what end we are willing to guide the thoughts and behaviours of others.

Considering that we rely on heuristics (cognitive rules of thumb) to enable us to make decisions more easily, it makes sense that we would also want to use these in our marketing to promote certain outcomes. But how do we decide when this is the ethical approach to take? After all, if your boss is breathing down your  neck and wants immediate returns, it is going to be difficult to  argue for long-term gains over short-term profits. And yet that’s exactly what we need to do if we are serious about ensuring business success and attracting the custom of upcoming generations whose loyalty depends in large part on a brand’s values and ethos.

Whatever your business, the key point is that if you want to succeed over the long term, you have to understand how to enable and facilitate your customers’ goals in a way that is both emotionally rewarding and aligned with their values.

So, before we part ways with this final column, here are a  few checkpoints I use with my clients to help them approach  persuasion in an ethical way. The next time you’re thinking of deploying a particular heuristic or psychological trigger in your marketing, ask yourself these three questions:

  1. Does this action facilitate the customer, or coerce them?
  2. Is the outcome mutually beneficial?
  3. If I were the user, how would I feel about being on the receiving end?

Thank you for reading, and I wish you all the best with your marketing.