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Doing well by doing good

If you’re old like me, you remember the 1980s as a decade where people said that “greed is good.” The U.S. president talked about how wealth would “trickle down” from rich to poor. Making money by any means necessary almost seemed patriotic—you were doing good by doing well. Today, I think we are seeing the exact opposite—you’re doing well by doing good.

What I mean is that in the old days, many people were quick to check their ethics at the door. They’d do whatever was necessary to make a buck all week and then go to church on Sunday, for example. They’d justify their actions by explaining how they were creating wealth for everyone, but their main motivation was creating wealth for themselves. They would justify the act of getting rich as good, so whatever it took to get rich was good.

Sure, not everyone acted this way in the 1980s, but many did and many continue to do so today. Marketing was sometimes about fooling people with the fine print. Or crafting an offer that seemed too good to be true. Or secretly employing children at subsistence wages in a third world country to keep those prices so low. It’s hard to see how any of these acts are terribly ethical, but they were often justified by their perpetrators as serving the larger societal good of creating wealth—you were doing good by doing well.

As buyers become better and better educated, however, the time of fooling them has passed. And as the Internet makes more and more information available, the time of ugly secrets is passing, too.

Customers are increasingly distrustful of all marketing messages. And they don’t trust corporations to be good public citizens. Years of watching corporate bad behavior have made the public cynical about what companies say and what they do.

Time was that large companies had to worry about what the public thought, because their brand images could be tarnished when reporters exposed their misdeeds. But small companies often went scot-free. (I am not sure who Scott is exactly, but he seems to be free on a regular basis.) Small companies believe that no one would pay attention to their bad behavior because they are not big enough to be interesting. “What reporter would ever write about little old us?” they ask.

The Internet is beginning to answer that question. Blogs, product reviews, message boards and other information affect many businesses that the New York Times would never stoop to cover. Even if people are not talking about your company in particular, they may be talking about industry practices you follow. (I recently spoke to an independent funeral home operator who lamented about how mistrusted he has become, all because of the actions of others in his industry, and the attention it is starting to get. He’s changed some of his policies to avoid guilt by association.)

Where in the past it was the role of government and media to reign in capitalistic excesses. now the Internet is adding to that force, especially with small companies that successfully flew under the radar before. Yes, that blogger might have only a few hundred readers, but if many of them are your most informed and influential customers, it’s not good for them to see your dirty laundry.

So how does a company break through the clutter and rise above the mediocrity of the average ethically-challenged company? I believe that it is through good behavior that modern companies will attract a following. Yes, there will always be ethical bottom dwellers that skirt the rules. But the Internet is making cutting corners a far more dangerous practice, because the benefit of fine print disappears when exposed to the light. Violating brand trust is a story that spreads like wildfire, damaging the company far more than any edge that the unethical practice provided.

Now, I am no Pollyanna. (Then again, no one ever seems to admit to being one.) I don’t expect people to suddenly start doing the right thing merely because it is the right thing. If people are motivated by greed, they probably aren’t going change overnight. But the weird thing is that those for whom greed rules the day might understand that they’ll do well by doing good (even if it’s for what do-gooders would consider the wrong reasons).

Companies must examine their fundamental relationships:

  • With customers. Fooling your customers has a shorter shelf life than it used to. When your customers realize they’ve been snookered, they’ll tell everyone they know, which the Internet makes easier than ever before. It’s better to treat your customers well in the first place. This extends even to the point of avoiding the hype-laden, breathless marketing copy of old in favor of a message that is actually helpful to your customers. Perhaps not every business can successfully market this way, but many more can do it than have tried it so far.
  • With employees. Service businesses have long known that treating their employees better can provide the edge in getting customers treated better. When you give employees a piece of the action, or you pay them more, or do other things that cause them to hang around and to develop loyalty to your company, they are far more motivated to serve your customers better. The Internet is turning many more employees into customer-facing employees, through blogs, message boards, and e-mail. If you treat your employees right, they’ll want to treat your customers right, too.
  • With the public. No longer can companies consign their public face to public relations professionals. Everything your company does has a public context, whether it is treatment of employees, customer policies, or simply being a good corporate neighbor to the public around your location. The more successful you become, the bigger a target you’ll be.

I spent my formative years in Catholic school, so even thinking about doing something unethical causes mental images of the nuns hitting me, but I haven’t always been able to convince those not as tightly constrained. Now you can give even the most craven business owner an argument in favor of good works. For those that need one, the Internet is becoming a new external force that corrals bad behavior. So if your philosophy is to take every advantage you can get, the message is clear: You’ll make more money in the long run by doing the right thing. You’ll do well by doing good.

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Mike Moran

Mike Moran is an expert in digital marketing, search technology, social media, text analytics, web personalization, and web metrics, who, as a Certified Speaking Professional, regularly makes speaking appearances. Mike’s previous appearances include keynote speaking appearances worldwide. Mike serves as a senior strategist for Converseon, an AI powered consumer intelligence technology and consulting firm. He is also a senior strategist for SoloSegment, a marketing automation software solutions and services firm. Mike also serves as a member of the Board of Directors of SEMPO. Mike spent 30 years at IBM, rising to Distinguished Engineer, an executive-level technical position. Mike held various roles in his IBM career, including eight years at IBM’s customer-facing website, ibm.com, most recently as the Manager of ibm.com Web Experience, where he led 65 information architects, web designers, webmasters, programmers, and technical architects around the world. Mike's newest book is Outside-In Marketing with world-renowned author James Mathewson. He is co-author of the best-selling Search Engine Marketing, Inc. (with fellow search marketing expert Bill Hunt), now in its Third Edition. Mike is also the author of the acclaimed internet marketing book, Do It Wrong Quickly: How the Web Changes the Old Marketing Rules, named one of best business books of 2007 by the Miami Herald. Mike founded and writes for Biznology® and writes regularly for other blogs. In addition to Mike’s broad technical background, he holds an Advanced Certificate in Market Management Practice from the Royal UK Charter Institute of Marketing and is a Visiting Lecturer at the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business. He also teaches at Rutgers Business School. He is a Senior Fellow at the Society for New Communications Research. Mike worked at ibm.com from 1998 through 2006, pioneering IBM’s successful search marketing program. IBM’s website of over two million pages was a classic “big company” website that has traditionally been difficult to optimize for search marketing. Mike, working with Bill Hunt, developed a strategy for search engine marketing that works for any business, large or small. Moran and Hunt spearheaded IBM’s content improvement that has resulted in dramatic gains in traffic from Google and other internet portals.

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