The Ethics of Marketing

Great news!  We have a guest blogger today.  JC Farnham, the blogmaster extraordinaire from Supercritical – The Alchemy of Writing, has written an excellent post for us.

Being in a similar self-publishing situation as Brian, I’d like to talk further about something mentioned on the Ethics of Marketing a few days ago. As a graduate of marketing, I thought it might be particularly useful for me to add my thoughts on the subject to provide a different point of view for the followers of this blog.

First, a bit of technical background.

Marketing Ethics is a strangely tricky subject, as I discovered during the aforementioned course. Even for an official governing body to make a ruling on an incident is oddly difficult. To this end each case is often settled on the merits of that case alone. On occasion a precedent is set to which judges are compelled to act but, only when these pre-set rules come into question, can that be done. People have to make mistakes.

We are in a position today where the market is in flux, more so than in the past (though it remains to be seen, it may be settling)—particularly with the advent of new and easier self-publishing routes. Previous rulings on matters of ethics have to be transferred to fit these new cases. Now, I’m not a lawyer, but research, logic and experience from my degree modules tell me that things are always somewhat uncertain. This is probably why we find an awful lot of stories coming out about fake or dishonest reviews and such similar devious situations. Unfortunately it’s easy to cheat, tempting perhaps… thankfully our industry tends to police itself. To wit, when an incident comes to light, people tend to stop buying those products—the books go without saying of course, but people also stop buying into the brand itself, the author.

It regularly falls to the individual to discriminate between what is right and what it wrong. Don’t make it hard on yourself. If you are looking to publish, you probably aren’t looking to do it just once. You need to acquire a kind of staying power, and that doesn’t come from a good campaign for one book. Be a brand to be believed in.

I particularly find the subject of reviews interesting. It has been shown time and time again that people typically use reviews as a way to inform their decision making processes. While I don’t like to think I rely solely on the opinions of others when it comes to choosing on which books to spend my limited funds, I’m well aware that if a product has more reviews I’m more likely to take the risk of buying…

Regardless of what those reviews said.

Now like Brian showed in his post, it’s easy for a rather crafty author to get this glowing reviews. I would like to go on record saying that, any review is better than no review. People seem to worry that bad review could mean the end of their income, and though that is a warranted worry, if you have a professional quality product all exposure is good exposure. One only has to read about Lady Gaga to realise that. My point is that all reviews carry weight. One may want more glowing reviews than bad, but the fact one has either shows your product is engaging. The problem comes when you do something off and you can’t shake it. The United Colours of Beneton come to mind with their increasingly morally grey advertising campaigns (I’m not sure how showing pictures of dying men helps them sell their services, but each to their own…). It makes people wary of striking up a dialogue with them. Controversy certainly helps garner some kind of interest it seems, but it’s usually best not to be that kind of brand… That should go without saying. Common sense.

To ask people to provide you with favourable reviews therefore is rather dishonest and it doesn’t show you, the brand, in a good light to do so. Strive for honest reviews.

If you “trade reviews” with fellow authors, you have to expect an “unfavourable” review or two, but that never stopped anyone. Meyer and her Twilight fans care little who tries to trash them. Paolini didn’t (and doesn’t) worry about what people thought of his writing in the early days. He published his novels, caught the hearts of his readers and fought to improve with each succeeding book. Their success isn’t based on ensuring the only reviews they have are favourable. Their success is based on firstly having a product that speaks to their target audience, and secondly on being a brand to be believed in.

Let’s summarise. Don’t worry too much about your reviews or your critics. You shouldn’t need to pick and choose. You’re bound to get some harsh ones, some weightless, uninformed but ultimately good ones, some almost-too-perfect ones… but all that matters is getting those reviews (that’s another subject altogether of course). Unless you’ve found the winning formula of pleasing everyone (and let’s face it, there probably isn’t such a formula) there will always be someone who didn’t engage well with your story. It happens. Everyone is different and entitled to their opinion.

Things being uncertain in self-publishing is not an excuse to bend or break the rules. There are precedents, albeit ones previously related to traditional publishing, but, if you get found out, it will come back to haunt you. Even if you don’t let to progress to court level, bad stigma is exceedingly tough to shake.

It’s difficult to name names on those who did this badly, but here’s an example that should relate well to the subject of stigma effecting opinion. It remains to be seen whether J.K. Rowling enjoys success with her adult fiction (for the price set financial security should damn well be certain however many units she shifts…). She is known for being a children’s author, a good one at that, but one never the less. She has a stigma, good or bad, attached to her. “Can she really transfer the same skills over to adult fiction?”, “Will it be worth it?”, etc. Only time will tell. The great thing is she’s trying none the less.

Let your work stand up for itself without being pushed alone with the more “glowing kind of solicited reviews”. I hope you catch my meaning there. If not here it is, spelt out:

Don’t force the good reviews. It’s not worth it and people will be suspicious of such complete praise.

That being said, word of mouth buzz is ridiculously efficient. Get people talking about you and you might well find your sales rising rapidly. China Mieville seems to have managed this on the strength of his imagination alone. He’s often tipped as being tremendously creative and a truly remarkable talent, and that reputation whether you personally think it’s earned not (I do, but who am I) allows him to sell to people who would be otherwise unsure of his subject matter. You have to pick up his fiction to find out, and therein lays the trick.

Achieving this means getting your brand out there. Whatever you decide that means for you. Reviews are a must, as are many other marketing tools, but remember to reach your target customers where they hang out, and do it honestly, and with really weight behind you. Believe me, there’s nothing worse than your words seeming hollow whether you mean it or not, or for that matter falling on deaf ears.

9 thoughts on “The Ethics of Marketing

  1. One minor point: it’s been proven that a 1 star review does more to hurt sales than a 5 star review does to help sales. Negative reviews can hurt. I think that JC’s point was that all reviews don’t have to be perfect. Having a reviewer point out a few flaws when the overall tone of the critique is positive is a net good for you.

    • Exactly. It’s also worth making note of the algorithms that Amazon and the like use to rank books. I discovered through acquaintences that it doesn’t always work how you would expect it to.

      • JC,

        Any information, no matter how vague and unformed you can offer on Amazon’s algorithms would be greatly appreciated. My understanding is that the Top 10 is based solely on sales rank but that reviews and likes effect the most popular.



  2. Well, they were changed this spring as well. I’m not incredibly read up yet but as I understand it it’s partly what you said, and yet it also takes into account the pricing of the product. Which seems to suggest that the algorithm is set up to bury the cheap ebooks and promote the more professionally priced ones. Seems odd to me, and probably deserves a little more reading.

    You would need to talk to someone more clued up than me to be certain on this, but it only really comes down to this: If you offer your product on Amazon be professional and honest and you’ll be fine. The service they offer is pretty good as it stands regardless.

    The situation with Amazon seems similar in concept to how Google buries duplicate content.

    • Okay. I was wondering to what you were referring; I saw the post on the subject at Mythic Scribes.

      This makes your pricing decision a bit different, huh? As high as possible to not discourage sales makes a lot of sense. I’ll probably go with 4.99, but I’ll think about as high as 5.99.

      Speaking of ethics in marketing, however, what do you think of the .99 ending? On one hand, you’re playing on a psychological fact that people are more willing to pay 9.99 than 10 dollars, even though there’s not appreciable percent difference. On the other hand, you’re treating your audience as stupid.

      I feel like breaking the rule and pricing it at $5 or $6 instead, but I can’t wrap my head around putting myself at an immediate disadvantage. Ugh!

      • Yeah, the .99. Well, it’s a very strange thing that missing penny. When analysed it seems quite stupid you know. Does it help or doesn’t it? As odd as it sounds the psychology of the missing penny is actually pretty sound. To most people (me included actually) it now looks strange to see a round number, just because it’s so wide spread.

        It wouldn’t necessarily be a disadvantage for you to price that way. As you said, people *should be* clever enough to realise that the penny makes no difference. It’s not so much the missing penny pulling the wool over people eyes, it’s the round numbers. For example, price supermarket produce at £1 and people will probably buy in larger volume than than they might have normally… “because it’s all so cheap!” Well… I worry about that at least.

        It is indeed an odd subject. At the end of the day however it’s not worth analysing too deeply. The trick is to price products as dictated by the market. You can choose to price above the average and hope to look like a “luxury product”, or price below and cash in the bargain buzz. It’s all supply and demand. The ethical problem comes when you are caught doing something like price fixing to drive out other competition…

  3. JC said: The ethical problem comes when you are caught doing something like price fixing to drive out other competition…

    I don’t know that I completely agree with this statement. It seems like doing something that you feel is wrong for monetary gain is the definition of an ethical problem. The question is: Is it morally or ethically wrong to prey on people’s suseptabilities by using the .99 pricing method? Marketers would say no. I’m, perhaps, one of the very few who would even bring up the subject. I’m not even sure that I think it’s an ethical problem as much as it is: I feel wrong telling my customer that I think they’re stupid.

    • I think you’re right there Brian. It certainly is an odd problem, but like I said I’m not sure you would be at a disadvantage pricing at whole numbers either 🙂 shouldn’t be anyway.

  4. JC said: I’m not sure you would be at a disadvantage pricing at whole numbers either

    There are a couple of potential problems with using whole numbers in my view:

    1. Will it make my book look less professional?
    2. Will it keep my book from certain discount lists like “best values under $5” or something?

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