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Do you pass the web marketing ethics test?

In recent years, companies have become hyper-aware of the increased scrutiny on corporate ethics. Enron and other poster children for bad behavior have dominated headlines and attracted unwanted government attention. But, as famous marketer Al Jolson once put it, “You ain’t seen nothin’ yet.” Web 2.0 is bringing the public’s watchful eye on everything companies do, and marketing is no exception.

You know by now not to send unsolicited e-mail to anyone, which is illegal in many countries. You similarly should not compromise your customers’ privacy, by selling e-mail addresses or revealing other personal information. Post your privacy policy and stick to it. And, on the off-chance that you do send something that someone doesn’t want, make it incredibly easy to opt out.

But that advice is so 20th century. Sure, you should obey the law, but your customers are demanding far more from you these days. You must go beyond what’s required by the letter of the law to gain the trust of increasingly savvy and suspicious customers. Take this quiz to see how you stack up.

1. Do you ever misrepresent who you are?

A famous New Yorker cartoon was once captioned, “On the Internet, no one knows you’re a dog.” True enough, but your customers expect you to be open about who you are, if you want to gain their trust.

If you misrepresent your identity, expect that it will eventually be found out. When it is, you’ll become the new unethical behavior story to sweep the blogosphere. (It might also violate the law in some countries, including the U.S.)

Whole Foods CEO John Mackey was caught posting on Yahoo! message boards under a pseudonym, praising his company and trashing the performance of Wild Oats, a company eventually acquired by Whole Foods. In addition to the bad publicity generated when this was revealed, it provoked an investigation by the U.S. Federal Trade Commission that delayed the eventual acquisition. Mackey was unrepentant, claiming he was just having some fun.

You might consider engaging in hobbies less detrimental to your business. Put your company’s name in the “from” line of your e-mails. Make sure your message includes both your address and phone number, so recipients can verify it’s really you. Just be yourself, and your customers will love you for who you really are.

2. Do you ever misrepresent who you represent?

A few of our ethically-challenged marketing brethren are fomenting conversation by planting stories and comments without revealing their true sources. “Astroturfing” is so named because it is a “fake grass roots” uprising. The situation resembles a public outcry when it is actually carefully staged by an interested party.

If you have a relationship that customers should know about, reveal it. If you’re being paid to provide a link to another company, or you’re providing an affiliate link, it’s best to say so. And make sure your partners follow the same code of ethics when they recommend you. Everyone’s reputation is at stake.

3. Do you secretly pay others to praise you?

Advertising has always used paid spokespersons to boost products, so why can’t you pay people to write nice things about you on the Web? You can, so long as the monetary relationship is part of the story. But if your public relations firm suggests starting a blog to criticize your main competitor or to boost your own products, without revealing your involvement, it’s up to you to have the morals to say no.

Famous brands, such as Wal-Mart and Sony, have been caught creating “flogs” for their products. In Wal-Mart’s case, a highly complimentary blog penned by a couple of of travelers identified themselves only as “Jim and Laura” on their blog, but they were eventually identified as professional writers sponsored by Working Families for Wal-Mart, an organization run by Wal-Mart’s public relations firm.

In the same vein, Payperpost.com features a service where companies pay bloggers to shill their products. When you pay people to post good reviews (sometimes called “feeviews”), or when your sales team brags about giving your competitors’ products bad reviews online, you need to put a stop to it. Microsoft ended up embarrassed when they gave top bloggers laptop computers with their new Windows Vista operating system–it looked like they were trying to buy favorable reviews.

You can imagine that the publicity these gambits produced were worse than no attention at all.

So, did your company pass the test? If three questions are too many for you, here’s the simple one-question test: Are you about to do is something you don’t want everyone to know about? If so, it’s probably a dumb idea. The Web is the greatest investigative journalism force in history, and you don’t want to be its next target. And Web 2.0 techniques, such as social media, ensure that your transgression will be widely circulated. So, if you’re almost certain to get caught and publicly vilified, why take the risk?

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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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