What does it mean to be a moral marketer?

As content marketers we have a powerful platform for sharing ideas. And that comes with a great deal of responsibility. We have a moral obligation to ensure that the ideas we help create, share and promote are not just good but used for good.

Katie Martell’s recent article on “pride marketing” points out the dangers of “rainbow-pandering” — exploiting LGBTQ rights in a company’s marketing without meaningful action or social change efforts. Rainbow-pandering, newsjacking, woke-washing, digital blackface and virtue-signaling are all examples of companies — and marketers — abdicating their moral responsibility to use ideas for good, not just for gain. It might be well-done content marketing (slick, original, effective), but without moral grounding, it creates content that’s morally bankrupt and that harms society.

The Meaning of ‘Good’

We talk a lot about creating good content. But what does that mean? Good has two meanings. One meaning is “high quality.” But the other kind of good is “morally right.” Virtuous. Righteous. In content marketing that would be ideas that are morally good and beneficial to society. Ideas that adhere to values and beliefs that help make the world better, more human-centered, more inclusive and fair.

As an industry, it feels like we spend a lot of time talking about that first good and not a lot of time talking about the second kind.

If you Google “good content marketing” you’ll get thousands of results focused on the first kind of good — articles about tips for SEO or “Content Marketing Done Right: 8 Examples You Can Learn From.” None of these articles, though, seem to be talking about that second kind of good.

The Power of Content

We all know the power of content marketing to put ideas out into the world, ideas that have huge impacts on people across our society. We trumpet the power of ideas to change the world through content marketing.

The question is “Are we using the power of content marketing to change the world for good?”

There are some content marketing shops that are in fact doing this work of vetting clients and ideas and deciding which ones they’re willing to help spread — and which ones they’re not.

And I absolutely turn away clients, sources, ideas that I think aren’t good. For example, if I’m sourcing an article on how to reduce weight bias in the hiring process — which I believe is a morally good idea — I won’t interview a source who pitches me by saying how he’ll talk about how weight bias is good because it encourages people to lose weight and makes it clear to overweight people that they won’t be successful in society. (Yes, that happened.)

What I don’t think content marketers are doing enough is talking about the morality of marketing. That’s why when you Google “moral content marketing” you get a lot fewer hits.

We might be having these conversations about our ethical and moral responsibilities to wield ideas for good, but when we do talk about it, these conversations are largely behind-the-scenes, one-on-one in our in-house content shops or between sessions at conferences.

They aren’t the focus of our conversations around creating content because we’re so busy just trying to churn out high-quality content. We’re trying to solve the technical questions that drive our industry — how to get eyeballs on the page, how to measure the ROI of content (or convince your boss not to), how to write emails that people will actually read.

These questions are important, but they’re not the whole story. It’s easy to lose sight of the big picture, the why behind our work, in the face of an evolving digital landscape that feels like it changes the rules on us on a near-daily basis.

Leading the Way to a More Moral Marketing

The morality of marketing underpins everything we do and affects our decisions about how we create and distribute content in a thousand tiny ways. And most likely everyone on your team — from the managing editor to the writer to the copy editor — plays a role.

We engage in moral marketing when we decide what big ideas to spread. For example, a fellow content marketer tells the story of once working with a tech company that wanted to present an aggressive sales methodology for customers. The tagline was about destroying people’s homes. They thought it was smart, attention-grabbing, a good fit for their aggressive branding. She had to talk them out of the idea by pointing out that the campaign would be insensitive at best.

Most people don’t want their homes to be crushed, and in fact many people lose their homes to terrible tragedies. Her pushback worked. The methodology and the accompanying content never got off the ground because she approached creating good content not just in terms of whether the ideas were good — edgy, innovative, bold — but in terms of whether they were good. She used her real power for good.

But decisions about language use or the choice of an image to accompany a post or an even an emoji can all have a huge effect on whether the content is inclusive, ethical, moral.

Marketing gets a bad rap as soulless work that’s only about helping companies make a buck. But when we coach senior leaders to present a more generous, human-focused vision of the future of work or turn down a project that highlights anti-worker sentiments, we’re making a decision to use the power of our platform for good. It would be easy to do that work. There’s a lot of it out there.

But we have the power not to give voice to those ideas that don’t contribute meaningfully to making the world a better place. We have the power to get the right ideas, the good ideas, out there.

Being in content marketing doesn’t mean you have to sell your soul. You can be a successful agency or a successful content marketer and be committed to content marketing for good. Thought leadership means being a leader. It’s your choice what kind of leader you want to be and what bold ideas you put out into the world.