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13 Rules for Ethical Social Media Marketing

Have you considered the ethical issues with social media marketing in your business? If recent events have taught us anything, we know that what we write on social media is being watched, interpreted, and judged in many different ways.

What you post on social media represents and reflects back on your business. If you want to be viewed as an ethical, honest, and inclusive business, make sure your posts reflect this in an authentic way to you and your brand.

While social media is a more casual medium, it still has rules, especially for business accounts. It’s not optional for businesses to ignore privacy, diversity, equity, inclusion, and bias in their content.

Today, we’re going to share 13 rules of social media marketing ethics that you should consider adding to your social media marketing strategy:

What are the ethical issues in social media marketing?

The stakes are high in social media because your content will be shown to hundreds of people or more within seconds. Getting your content right the first time is essential to establishing your ethical values as a business.

Here are 13 basic principles of ethical social media marketing:

1. Be truthful and honest:

People often bend the truth slightly to make themselves look better or emphasize their point of view when posting from personal social media profiles. When it comes to your business, it’s unethical to lie or stretch the truth too much. Your followers are unlikely to trust you if you post outrageously inaccurate information.

2. Cite your sources:

It’s ethical to give credit where credit is due. If you are reposting content from a third-party source, always provide the original owner of the content credit with their name or a link back to their profile. This often happens with memes or online photos where the original owner of the content is not given credit. Do your best to cite where you’ve obtained third-party content, facts, and images within your post.

When posting images on social media (or anywhere for that matter), you need to ensure that you have permission to use the photo on social media. Image copyright for online content is a big issue right now. Ensure that your chosen image:

  • is paid for through a stock photo website,
  • is classified as Creative Commons 0 (CC0) to use without attribution,
  • includes a photographer or artist credit if providing image credit is required,
  • is an image you commissioned or took yourself.

3. Use ethical AI tools:

When selecting AI-powered tools for social media marketing, choose reputable providers with a commitment to ethical practices. Be transparent with your audience and when applicable, let them know that AI is being used in your marketing strategy. Research the data privacy policies and practices of any AI tools you use, and ensure they align with your values and legal requirements. Lastly, don’t assume that AI is always right. Make sure you fact-check information before you share it.

4. Be transparent:

Before social media, celebrities’ private lives were a mystery. We imagine they lived in luxury and didn’t have a care in the world. With social media, we’re getting a glimpse behind the curtain to see that many of our favourite celebrities struggle to get their kids ready for school, lounging around the house in sweatpants, and enjoying the local coffee shops and shops.

Similarly for your business, your followers expect a transparent view into your world or that of your business. You’re not expected to share your trade secrets. Your followers just expect you to be honest and human.

5. Don’t Exploit Emotions:

In marketing, the best way to sell to someone is to appeal to their emotions. This is an accepted practice in business, but don’t take it too far. For example, if your business appeals to an at-risk or sensitive audience, don’t write anything to make them feel their safety or health is at risk if they don’t buy from you. Similarly, don’t use someone’s grief to strongarm them into buying.

6. Don’t compromise privacy or data:

In recent years, personal data privacy has become a global concern. People know big internet players like Google and Facebook track massive amounts of data on us, but they expect that this information is handled ethically.

They also expect that you won’t trick them into giving up information that could pose a safety or security risk. For example, there are many popular memes where people generate their “Elf Name” or “Ninja Name” by picking their birth year and the first letter of their mother’s maiden name.

These posts, while popular and seem harmless, can put their security at risk. Your followers post this information, which can be picked up by hackers or unethical opportunists. Now they know their date of birth and mother’s maiden name (which are usually security questions for your bank and other accounts). Be careful when you make or share memes where people are asked to provide information that isn’t publicly available on their profile.

7. Don’t spread misinformation:

The #FakeNews hashtag has been trending for years. Most recently, with the COVID-19 pandemic, there has been a whirl of misinformation being shared and re-shared over and over again online. Before you post a claim or fact on your business profile, do your best to find an original, ethical, and reputable source for your information. If your business is caught spreading misinformation, you could lose followers and customers or potentially face legal action in the most extreme cases.

8. Be inclusive in language and imagery:

Inclusivity and diversity are another ethical consideration in social media and in your business as a whole. People expect your language and imagery to be inclusive, so look for ways to show this through your posts.

9. Don’t fearmonger:

Fear is a powerful motivator, but is it ethical to use it in your social media posts? It’s unethical to post something with the intent to instill unnecessary fear in the reader. When you sell with negative (or fear-based) emotions, those emotions become attached to the product. The more ethical choice is to associate your business and products with positive feelings rather than negative ones, so selling based on fear is not your best choice.

10. Don’t spam:

A question we often get from our social media clients is how often should they post and interact on social media without being seen as spammy? Here are a few tips to avoid being spammy on your business accounts:

  • Don’t post too often (follow best practices for posting frequency for the social accounts you’re using)
  • Get permission before you private message an individual
  • Don’t post “canned” responses to others’ posts. People can spot copy-and-paste social media responses a mile away!
  • Be sure to post value and participate honestly in conversations, not posting “buy from me because I’m awesome” posts all the time.

This is also the perfect time to ensure that you follow all privacy guidelines as required by your area. This means adhering to CASL laws in Canada, GDPR in Europe, and CAN-SPAM laws in the United States.

11. Don’t overpromise or under-deliver:

This is more of an ethical marketing practice in general, but it also applies to social media. Essentially if you promise something, always follow through or be transparent as to why not.

(At Out-Smarts, it’s our mandate to under promise and over deliver whenever possible.)

12. Read before you share others’ content:

Have you ever reshared an article after just skimming the content, then you realize you disagree with the content or it doesn’t align with your business? If you reshare another business post or article, always be sure you’re sharing content that aligns with your brand and is actually on the topic you expected.

13. Share value:

Social media is a great place to sell your products and services, but it’s also an excellent ethical practice to provide valuable content rather than just sell-sell-sell in every post. Mix in 80% value-based posts that educate, share tips, or share engaging content and 20% directed towards your own content and sales.

Do all businesses need to be conscious of ethical social media marketing?

Yes! If you want to be viewed as trustworthy and ethical, you must follow the rules. Your goal is to get people to trust you enough to buy from you or buy into your message or cause. They won’t trust you if you’re posting content that goes against their personal ethics or that is untrustworthy.

We recently worked with Great Bear Rainforest Essential Oils, which had strong ethical and environmental policies that needed to be reflected in its social media strategy. They came to Out-Smarts for help with their social media presence. We helped them plan and post ethical environmentally-focused content on their social media channels, and this content enabled them to:

  • Increase website traffic from Pinterest by over 1000%
  • Increased post reach on Facebook by 8820%
  • Grow Instagram followers by 731%

How can your business use ethical practices for social media to get results like these? You need to create a social media marketing plan with a strong code of ethics section.

What is a Social Media Code of Ethics?

A social media code of ethics is like a rule book and set of guidelines to ensure your social media posts are honest and ethical. If your business is using social media, you should include this as part of your social media marketing plan and share it with anyone who posts on behalf of the company or interacts on its social media channels in any way.

Your policy should include any (or all) of the 12 social media ethical guidelines we mentioned above, plus anything else you feel is relevant to your values and business. Here are a few examples of social media policies you can use as inspiration:

It may be beneficial to include additional ethical policies around how employees talk about the company publically on their personal social media channels.

How to create an ethical social media strategy

Ethical social media marketing is important for every business that plans to maintain a social media presence. You can incorporate it into your existing social media strategy if you don’t have one already.

We can help you ensure that your marketing plan includes guidelines for applying ethics in social media marketing. Book a 15 min chat with us today. We can help your business create and plan to post purposeful and ethical content on social media.