Remember when your mom and dad told you to mind your manners?
Say “please” and “thank you” and “yes, sir.” Or they would tell you “Don’t pick your nose” and “Don’t chew with your mouth open.”
Wise counsel from well-meaning parents who only want the best for their children.
We’re all adults here, so allow me to counsel you as a friend who only wants the best for his readers.
Let this lesson serve as a reminder to do the right thing when writing your web content and communicating with your customers online.
In the following sections, I explain broad concepts related to social, ethical, and legal issues that online marketers should be aware of. I explain these concepts in a general way, with references for more detailed reading.
Before I proceed further, I must issue a disclaimer:
I am not a lawyer. This post is for informational purposes only and should not be taken as legal advice. If you have legal questions about any of the topics covered here, consult a qualified attorney who specializes in libel, privacy, or copyright law.
Do unto others …
The web is a social medium. Companies that want to succeed online must understand and embrace this idea.
But they must also be aware of conventions or codes of behavior expected of digital citizens. Any faux pas in etiquette could cost you customers, sales, and profits.
In the digital world, the rules (both written and unwritten) that guide how people communicate with each other are collectively referred to as netiquette. This is the Internet version of etiquette.
The scope of this lesson does not permit me to cover all the sundry rules of netiquette. But the basic idea can be summed up in the time-honored aphorism known as the Golden Rule:
“Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”
That sums up the challenge and your obligation when participating in conversations in the digital world.
For more information, I suggest you read the resources available online to learn the finer points of propriety on the Internet.
Sources for netiquette
- Shea, Virginia. Netiquette. San Francisco: Albion Books, 1994. Available online free from the Albion Books website: www.albion.com/netiquette/ (accessed May 29, 2016). You can read the entire book online, or read “The Core Rules of Netiquette,” which is an excerpt from the book that gives a concise overview of the topic.
- Chiles, David. The Principles of Netiquette, Second Edition. Self-published: Amazon.com, 2016. Available on Amazon.com as a Kindle Book. This is a textbook written for a general audience that provides comprehensive coverage of the topic.
Virtue is the golden mean …
The Internet has made great strides in connecting people from all over the world and democratizing the access of information. But the apparent anonymity on the Internet can bring out the worst in human nature.
For online companies, it pays to do the right thing when dealing with customers.
In lesson one, you learned that the customer is in control. The Internet has given customers the ability to communicate their buying experiences (both positive and negative) and their preferences in ways you cannot ignore except at your peril.
As an online marketer, you cannot afford to do something that damages your reputation. Trust, especially on the Internet, is a delicate thing. It is difficult to earn and very easy to lose. Do not take your customers for granted.
Doing the right thing can be a challenge when interacting online and participating in online discussions. And while the American Marketing Association has a code of ethics, online marketers who adopt a publishing model and work with digital media need more specific ethical guidelines.
One of the precepts of content marketing is to think like a publisher or a journalist. In that spirit, I recommend following the Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics:
- Seek truth and report it
- Minimize harm
- Act independently
- Be accountable and transparent
As a general guideline, may I suggest moderation in all things: “Virtue is the golden mean between two vices, the one of excess and the other of deficiency.” (Aristotle: Nicomachean Ethics)
Sources for ethics
- Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics
- Contently’s Code of Ethics for Journalism and Content Marketing
- Bruce Clay’s SEO Code of Ethics
Thou shalt not …
“Thou shalt not kill, commit adultery, steal, bear false witness, or covet.”
One of the oldest legal codes known to mankind is the Ten Commandments. The divine rules quoted above relate to the commands for social interactions. Rules five to nine pertain to actions; the tenth pertains to thought.
I use these divine rules to introduce the main legal issues that writers, editors, and publishers of web content should pay attention to. May G-d forgive me if I push this analogy too far and blaspheme all that is holy and righteous.
Thou shalt not kill
I’m not implying that online marketers are intent on killing their competition or murdering their customers. But you could effectively kill someone’s reputation if you’re not careful.
When you knowingly publish a false statement about someone online that damages the person’s reputation, that is called libel. Doing so can get you in legal hot water.
Thou shalt not commit adultery
Betrayal of trust will ruin your relationship with your readers no less than it will destroy a marriage. That’s why you must avoid conflicts of interest, both real and perceived.
If in doubt, don’t do it. If the conflict is unavoidable, include a disclosure statement that explains the situation openly and clearly.
Thou shalt not steal
Copyright infringement is when you use someone else’s content without permission. That is called stealing. This includes text and images.
In some special cases, fair use may apply. Under fair use, you can cite a portion of another’s published work with proper attribution. However, the best thing to do is ask for permission from the editor or publisher before using it on your website.
Thou shalt not bear false witness
In other words, don’t lie about your sources. Don’t deceive your readers.
One reason marketing, and copywriting in particular, has gotten a bad rap is because of the use of shady tactics to manipulate people into buying something they don’t need. As content marketers, we belong to a new breed of marketer who always tells the truth.
Thou shalt not covet
When you covet, you have a desire for something that is not rightfully yours. Such is the case when dealing with personal information online.
Privacy is a big issue in the digital world. Related to this is spam. When you send unsolicited email, not only are you breaking the law, you are coveting something that you have not earned: your reader’s permission.
Sources for media law
- The AP Stylebook and Briefing on Media Law
- United States Copyright Office
- CAN-SPAM Act: A Compliance Guide for Business
Minding your manners in the digital world is not only the right thing to do, it is the best thing you can do to grow your business. Wise content marketers take the long view. When in doubt, ask yourself: “What would Google do?”
Image (author’s collection): Two gentlemen from India