Marketing, to many people, automatically means manipulation, lying, and corporate greed.
“Ethical marketing” might as well be a joke.
And marketing “gurus,” in particular, are suspected of habitually using marketing lies to manipulate potential customers. But it’s not just the marketing gurus under suspicion; it’s anyone who tries to sell something.
To be clear, not all marketers lie. Some marketers just prefer to try and make a quick buck rather than stick to rigorous ethical standards.
And because of those—often very well known—individuals, people sometimes tell me point blank that they don’t believe what I say.
They might send me an email that goes something like this: “I need help with my marketing strategy. And what you said on your sales page about marketing coaching sounds exactly like what I need. But how do I know I can trust you? I’ve paid other marketing professionals before who promised me the moon and delivered nothing of any real value.”
The comments are frustrating; someone takes the time to tell me that he or she doesn’t believe what I say (or write) because “marketing professionals lie and mislead.”
Lying is always a choice. Doing it in the context of marketing doesn’t change what it is.
1. Great results
If you’ve ever read a sales page, you’ve heard of the great results a product or service can provide.
But many marketers imply that you’re definitely going to get the best possible results no matter how unlikely it actually is.
How much you benefit from a product or service depends almost entirely on you—the time and effort you put into making the most of it and how well it fits your individual situation.
If the product isn’t actually any good, that’s a different story. The reality in this case might be that only 1% of customers get good results. Yet the unethical marketer will imply that at least 99% of customers get incredible results.
It’s a bit tricky to spot this lie since you have no way to really know the percentages. And you shouldn’t blindly trust negative reviews you find online since some people would rather blame a product for the lack of results instead of themselves for being too lazy to really use it.
Instead, keep an eye on how marketers describe the product and the results. What claims do they make? Do they say, “this product will create” as opposed to “this product helps you create” when describing the results?
If they refer to you as the ultimate source of results, at least they’re providing a realistic picture of what a product can do.
2. Misleading implications
A couple of years ago I wrote a post called “Danny Iny is a Liar—Just Like Me” in which I explored this issue.
For example, I routinely tell people, “You would get better marketing results if you had a strong value proposition and communicated it clearly through your marketing.”
That’s not a lie. But it’s not the whole truth either because I’m omitting something: if you create a product hardly anyone can benefit from, you’ll struggle no matter how good your marketing is.
Let’s take another example. Someone selling a raw food cookbook says, “The food you learn to prepare will help you lose weight.” That’s a lie. Sure, a 100% raw diet will make almost anyone lose weight. But if you also eat unhealthy, high calorie foods, you can still gain weight.
So, claiming that raw food will help you lose weight isn’t the whole truth. But the implied meaning (“substituting unhealthy foods with the food in this cookbook helps you lose weight”) is true.
Can you—realistically—explain everything exhaustively? Definitely not. Maybe if you hire a private army of over-eager lawyers, you might get 99% of the way there. But there’s always something you’re not explaining.
My view is that unless you specifically try to keep people from noticing the caveats, you’re ethical. To that end, use the most accurate yet reasonably simple way to describe your product or service.
To spot marketers who intentionally lie with misleading implied meanings, consider the degree to which their promise can mean something rather worthless. If they use words that have very specific meanings, they’re probably not lying.
3. Tricky terms and conditions
If people need to read your “terms and conditions” to avoid misunderstanding your claims, then your claims are misleading.
For example, if you offer a “100% satisfaction guarantee,” you can’t limit it to just certain reasons for not being satisfied.
The challenge, however, is that the line between ethical statements and dishonesty revolves around “what’s reasonable to expect,” so it’s difficult to draw that line accurately.
As another example, I offer a “200% guarantee” for my conversion optimization report service. The guarantee specifically states “if implementing the recommendations in the report doesn’t create a higher conversion rate than your current site, I’ll give you your money back—double.”
Obviously you can’t just say, “I don’t like the report. Give me thousands of dollars.” It’s reasonable to expect that you have to actually use the recommendations in the report before you can get twice your money back.
Guarantees, however, aren’t the only thing you can make too complicated.
What if you offer “support” as part of a product? Does that mean direct phone access to you, email help from someone on your team, or an unmoderated community forum?
If you feel the need to have a long “terms and conditions” page for a simple product, you’re probably making it more complicated than it needs to be.
And if you notice a marketer (regardless of what they sell) using vague terms and taking extra care to avoid telling you exactly what you’ll get, be careful. They might be trying to hide something you could never anticipate.
4. Broken promises
You’ve most likely come across quite a few broken promises in the world of online marketing.
For example, “we’ll never sell this for a lower price” is one of the most common marketing lies.
Fortunately, only the most ethically challenged (or inexperienced) marketers ever break a promise outright when there’s money involved (e.g., prices and guarantees).
But surprisingly, many marketers are happy to bend the meaning of what they said if they deem it inconsequential.
Think about it. How many times have you heard marketers say, “There won’t be a recording of this webinar, so you’d better be there live?” And then, a few days later, they announce, “So many people couldn’t make it live, so I decided to share the recording after all.”
Whenever I see someone do that (or have any similar “change of heart”), I lose much of the trust and respect I had toward that person. I’d be shocked if other people don’t feel the same.
By the way, if you said there wouldn’t be a recording, but you want to give people another chance to see the webinar, do the webinar again live.
5. Disrespectful actions
This is one of the most typical “marketing guru” ways to boost sales. It takes three steps:
- Build an expensive product ($3,000+) and promote it aggressively telling people, “It will go off the market soon.”
- Stop selling the product when your sales die down.
- Build a cheaper product and give the original product as a free bonus to anyone who buys the new product.
Is it a marketing lie? Maybe technically not, but it’s so disrespectful that they might as well steal your credit card and use it to fund the new product’s launch party.
So what can you do if you build a product that’s only available for a limited time (for a good reason)? Can you ever use the content again?
Let’s say you charged $10,000 for a coaching program that was made up of 10 live sessions. You could offer a recording of one session as a bonus when you sell a $3,000 product, sure. But you should also offer a discount on the new product for the people who bought the original product to compensate them for the value of the “free bonus” they paid a lot for.
As far as I know, it’s not illegal to give away something that you charged a lot for previously as a free bonus. It’s not even lying per se. It’s just a way to make people realize you don’t respect them even the slightest bit.
If you ever notice someone doing that, run the other way; it’s just a matter of time before they screw you over somehow. Sorry if that sounds harsh. It’s just too predictable.
6. Unnecessary upsells
If you’ve been around the online marketing circles for any length of time, you’ve probably heard of a product or service that “teaches you everything you need to know about [blank] to achieve [blank].”
All too often, unfortunately, after buying a product like that, you end up on a page where you’re told that something you expected to be included in the product just isn’t. Instead, you have to pay more to get that vital piece of information.
Let’s say someone claims, “This product teaches you everything you need to know about social media to boost your business for only $97.” Imagine buying that product and then seeing a page that says, “If you want to learn how to convert the visitors you get from social media, so they don’t just leave your site immediately after arriving, then buy this additional product for $497.”
I think the original sales pitch clearly promised to tell you everything you need to know to see business results, wouldn’t you agree? But without the knowledge of how to actually convert that traffic, you won’t see any business results.
I’d consider the first promise a marketing lie. And I’d ask for my money back.
That’s not to say upsells are unethical by default—of course not. But whenever you offer an upsell, be clear about what’s included in the main product on the original sales page; the upsell should be something that adds value to the original offer, not something that fills the gaping holes in that product.
7. Bloated promises
Many marketers offer help with conversion optimization as part of a more general service.
What if they say, “I’ll review your website,” and you end up with five generic tips about your home page? Would you feel you got what you paid for? Or was it yet another marketing lie?
Unless they were more specific about what you’ll get, they can usually get away with delivering much less.
The “quality code” every marketer should live by is this:
Under promise, over deliver. But don’t cut back on your promises. Instead, promise so much people barely believe you can deliver it. And then give them more than they expect.
I know the typical “always over deliver” advice is rather obvious; of course making your customers happy will benefit you in the long term. I’m not suggesting it’s a new concept.
What I am saying is that it’s a good code to live by, especially if you don’t want to lie to your customers. You’ll find selling much easier when you know you’re promising more than people expect and even over-delivering on those promises.
How to spot a lying marketer
Maybe I’ve just been immersed in marketing so long that it’s easy for me to sniff out a liar pretty quickly. But it’s probably not difficult for you either.
Here are a few questions to ask when you’re considering buying something or just studying someone’s marketing material. You can modify the questions to match a variety of situations.
- Do you get a sense that they’re running a business because they genuinely want to help you succeed or because they want to buy a fancy car with your money?
- Do they assume all you want is to make as much money as possible? Or do they talk about your business as something you want to be proud of?
- Do they constantly brag about how many millions they’ve made, how many millions their customers have made, and how many millions you will make if you buy their products and services? (Note that sharing realistic results in a factual way in specific situations isn’t the same as bragging.)
Look for people who make you feel good consistently—people you might even like to know personally. Working with them and using their products and services is likely to be far more enjoyable than dealing with people who have a loose idea of truth.
Ethical approach to marketing
Marketing lies are so common because of a fundamental error in how people view marketing; if marketing is meant to make people buy your stuff, you’ll easily slide toward marketing lies. That is, if you don’t already have an exceptionally strong aversion toward lying in any situation.
Value proposition marketing—the way I look at marketing—makes marketing a way to help people see the best features of your products and how they can benefit from them. That way you attract the people who are best matched to your products, who are the most likely to buy, and who will most likely be satisfied with the results.
So, if your goal is to make money by actually helping people, maybe this approach to marketing makes sense to you.
Figure out what kind of people you can and want to help the most. Then figure out the best reasons for them to buy what you sell (that’s your value proposition). And finally, focus your marketing efforts on helping people understand those reasons.
If they buy, that’s great. They’ll get awesome value from you. If they don’t buy, they probably weren’t going to love your products anyway because the best reasons for buying weren’t sufficiently motivating.