Content Marketing Ethics: The Do's and Don'ts

Ellie Diamond
Published: Nov 05, 2020
Last Updated:
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The demand for quality content is increasing. In fact, a recent forecast predicts that the content marketing industry is growing annually at a 14.3% rate and will hit $107.5 billion in revenue by 2026. More than 90% of marketers across the world now invest in content, and they struggle to keep up with the demand for material that’s fresh, relevant, and valuable.

It’s safe to say that content remains king… But who holds the king accountable?

Content creation looks like journalism but functions like marketing. It’s not objective reporting—there’s always going to be a bias—but it’s not a free-for-all where anybody can say anything. Truth in advertising, for example, definitely applies. Readers expect not to be misled, and a brand can suffer serious damage if its content turns out to be untrue.

While there's no explicit code of content marketing ethics like the one that guides journalists, there are commonly accepted guiding principles that can help you stay on the straight and narrow. Read on to learn more about what to do and what not to do to produce ethical, effective marketing content in today's competitive landscape.

DO: Follow the principles of responsible journalism.

Content isn’t journalism. A journalist is an objective reporter of information, bound not to “spin” the story or add their own commentary. Content marketing is all about commentary and communicating the brand’s target message.

Still, the two approaches to writing have a few things in common. The most important is the need for reader trust. According to the Edelman Trust Barometer Special Report for 2020, 64% of consumers expect brands to be reliable sources of information.

Content creators can meet that expectation by following basic reporting ethics, such as:

  • Identifying your sources clearly
  • Linking to source material
  • Taking responsibility for your work's accuracy

Focus on communicating the truth, and you'll be less likely to find yourself in an ethical quandary.

DO: Fact-check what you print.

Every piece of content you post either reinforces or undermines a reader’s trust in your brand. Audiences encounter your content with the assumption that you’re going to tell them the truth. If they find out that you’ve spun information, quoted fake statistics, or misled them in any other way, they’ll start to doubt everything that you produce.

To be clear, you're not obligated to create content that undermines your brand’s interests. If you sell hamburgers, you don’t have to report on a recent study about the dangers of red meat.

You do, however, need to avoid printing untrue information. It’s okay to write a piece on the importance of dietary iron for people with anemia. It’s not okay to quote a falsified study saying that people who eat hamburgers every day live longer.

DO: Be transparent about your intention.

Content marketers drive revenue by earning consumers’ loyalty and giving them what they want—information, not promotion. While this has become a guiding principle in content creation, some content creators attempt to hide the fact that they’re producing marketing material. This isn't just unethical, but unnecessary as well.

Consumers know that as much as a brand cares about providing value and helpful information to its customers, the ultimate goal is to drive revenue. They don’t expect brands to produce objective journalism. They do expect, however, not to be deceived.

If you’re promoting a product or service, be clear that’s what you’re doing. One common example is product comparison pieces that include the sponsoring company’s product. There’s nothing unethical about that kind of content, as long as you’re clear about authorship and acknowledge bias. Even an offhand “We may be biased, but…” is enough.

DO: Distinguish fact from opinion.

Marketing content can never be truly objective or unbiased. It isn’t unethical for a brand to offer opinions and make recommendations through its content, as long as it doesn’t represent its viewpoints as facts.

This is one of many reasons why it’s important to have a good writer. Experienced content writers know what can and can’t be expressed as an opinion, and they can phrase things so there’s no misunderstanding.

For example, if you’re creating content for a digital marketing firm and you’re writing about SEO, you can recommend that every company have a blog. It’s understood that’s what your company believes.

You can’t say unequivocally that blogs are the best type of content for getting customers’ attention. That's an objective statement, and it requires backup. You could, however, say that blogs are the most popular type of content or that businesses that blog get 55% more website visitors—as long as you cite your sources, which in this case are SEMRush and HubSpot.

Back up your facts and make sure it’s clear that your opinions are opinions, and you won’t be at risk of misleading people.

DO: Focus on quality.

According to a survey by Adobe and Advanis, poor writing is the top source of frustration that people have with branded content.

(Image credit: Marketing Charts)

Well-written content is more valuable to readers, and it’s a more respectful use of their time. It shows that you care about presenting accurate, helpful information in a way that people can easily process.

Good writing is important for SEO as well. Google explicitly prioritizes quality content, which it defines as content that is “unique, valuable, and engaging” and “doesn’t deceive readers.” By producing the kind of truthful, well-crafted content that Google’s algorithms like to see, your content will be more likely to get seen and more able to build trust with readers.

DON’T: Violate copyright.

This one can be tricky, mostly because the legal language surrounding it is somewhat vague. It’s against the law to produce work that’s “substantially similar” to someone else’s, but there’s no fixed percentage that counts as substantial.

Ideas aren’t copyrighted but composition is. It’s completely ethical to see a competitor’s article about the importance of SEO and write an article on the same topic. It’s unethical to use the exact same structure, headings, and style.

You can't rewrite something and make it yours. Which brings us to the next point...

DON’T: Take credit for other people’s content.

It’s fair to assume that most writers know that it’s wrong to reprint someone else’s article, but in the world of content marketing, the defining line between plagiarism and originality can get a little bit blurred. What’s copying, and what’s the common practice known as “content curation”?

An estimated 38% of content marketers use curation or syndication to publish third-party content. Both strategies use other people’s content, but the approach is slightly different:

  • Syndication posts the same article across multiple platforms.
  • Curation collects multiple pieces about a single topic and adds original commentary or value.

With both strategies, it’s easy to cross the line into plagiarism. To avoid this trap, follow the Content Marketing Institute’s classic principles of ethical content creation. In particular, remember to:

  • Credit authors
  • Provide working links to sources
  • Focus on your own viewpoint and angle
  • Add more information

If you refer to someone else's work in-depth, use it as a segue into your own commentary. Keep the majority of the piece original.

DON’T: Malign other businesses.

You want to come out on top, but not at the expense of your ethics. It’s fair game to make true statements about your competitors—“We offer X service, but they don’t,” for example—but stay away from anything that might not be completely accurate. It’s not just playing dirty; it might be illegal.

If you publish something that’s untrue and potentially damaging, it could be considered libel and you could be sued. Under the Defamation Act, you could owe damages if the competitor can prove that your content could cause them serious financial loss.

Even if you don’t go that far, it’s still poor business practice and an ethical problem to post untrue statements about other companies. To be completely safe, don’t post anything that you can’t prove with a link back to the company’s website.

DON’T: Distort or exaggerate.

Content creation is a part of marketing, which exists to promote a business and its products or services. With that aim behind their work, content marketers can easily feel tempted to inflate claims or downplay information that doesn’t align with their intended message.

Thorough fact-checking is a good start but watch your interpretations as well. Don’t let them get distorted. If the statistics say that 77% of internet users read blogs, avoid saying something like, “Almost everyone reads blogs.”

The Takeaway

As a content marketer, you have the responsibility to publish material that’s truthful, clear, and accurate to the best of your knowledge. Citing authoritative sources can go a long way toward building your credibility, and so can acknowledging when you’re actively persuading an audience or promoting your own work.

Be clear about where your material comes from, and credit others when you use their ideas or statistics. Take ideas as you get them and don’t inflate claims to suit your purposes. Going that route may convince some gullible readers, but it’s more likely to hurt your credibility in the end.

First and foremost, focus on producing quality work. A good writer can be invaluable because they can express ideas clearly, attributing where necessary and phrasing opinions so they’re not mistaken as facts. This kind of content will help you gain respect from audiences and improve your SEO, much more than any quick tricks ever could.

This article was written by writer Ellie Diamond.


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