Ethical Ad Strategy

How to Build an Ethical Ad Strategy for a Value-Driven Business

Published on February 24, 2021 by Will Bravin

Business leaders know that ethics matter. But the ethical concerns of a business – values like sustainability, ecology, social justice, and so forth – are so often left at the door when compared against yearly revenue projections and operating budgets. This is all too common in digital marketing, where profit usually takes precedence over ethics – as though, as a business leader, you need to choose between one or the other. In reality, you can (and should) be optimising for both. The key is to be able to make ethical principles as important a motivating factor as profit. But it’s easier said than done. 

Let’s take digital display advertising as an example. From the outside, it can seem like a nether world of opaque partners, click-farm websites and digital marketing charlatans posing as experts. With such an impression in mind, finding ad partners that share your core principles can seem tricky. Why not just accept the norms of the internet for what they are and take the profit at the expense of potential reputational risk? Well, the reputational risk is real, and should not be overlooked. One is left staring out the window, wondering: As an ethical business, how can you ensure your online ads are always displayed on sites which share your values?

Well, there are a few core things you can do to ensure your online ads are always displayed on sites that you see eye-to-eye with on higher level principles. Here, we share three pillars of a value-driven ad display placement strategy.

1. Use a refined list of display ad placements

The most important thing you can do is keep a close eye on your ad placements list. What does this mean exactly? Simply that you should always have complete control over the websites where your display ads will be placed. This helps to ensure your ads are not shown alongside content that may go against your ethics. This is not always possible on social media and certain aggregator platforms that specialise in user-generated content, as you cannot predict what content will be featured on the page your ad is on, but it’s a vital concern in general. The benefits are two-fold: you retain consistent brand messaging across the display network, and it means your ads won’t be generating revenue for businesses whose raison d’etre you may not agree with. Thinking more generally, you are also taking part in a community of like-minded businesses who want to shape norms on the internet in the same, positive direction.

2. Review your list constantly and exclude irrelevant or untrustworthy URLS

In situations where you don’t use a defined placement list, the onus is on you (or your agency partner) to review the placements you already landed. This is like an audit of your performance to ensure your ad is not being shown in an undesirable location. If it is, then throw it in the bin. You don’t want any affiliation with irrelevant or untrustworthy URLs. Chances are these URLs are run by companies that your organisation is clearly not ethically aligned with.

Ethical Ad Strategy

3. Go where your customers are, and speak their language

Audience targeting and keyword research are important tools in building a holistic and effective ad placement campaign. Here are some suggestions from the Climbing Trees toolkit for targeting audiences and selecting keywords from an ethics perspective: 

  • Select for values instead of lifestyle choices. Most marketers will tell you that the best way to do audience targeting is to search by lifestyle choice (or “Behaviour”, to use the marketing term). This is not always the case. If your organisation puts ethics first, it likely follows that your target audience will share similar sentiments and would be interested in supporting you over a competitor on that basis alone. The difference is between Audience Behaviour (or lifestyle choice) and Audience Interests (their beliefs). This is a subtle distinction, but it’s an all-important one. By putting your business in front of ethically-minded consumers, you are capitalising on your organisation’s ethics in a holistic way. You are also building your brand for the long-term. 
  • Be exact with keywords. Keyword precision is key. Once again, common marketing practices dictate that you should use “Broad Match” in your keyword research. This is usually done to cast your net wide enough to show impressive reach. But this misses the point. The point of keyword research is to be precise. That’s why we like to work on a granular basis. We often use “exact match”, especially when we are learning about a new audience. This way we optimise for relevancy, brand alignment, and conversion rate, and take care when using keywords with vague  intent or multiple interpretations.

The Climbing Trees Approach

At Climbing Trees, we practice value-driven marketing practices with our clients. Our goal is to create a business culture of trust through transparency, and we know that our ethical approach to marketing can work hand-in-hand with other organisational initiatives to achieve your business objectives. We are working our way towards a B Corp Certification, which underscores our commitment to business practices guided by ethical principles of sustainability, good-will, social justice, and transparency. By aligning our ethics with your organisation, we can work together to create a more sustainable and equitable future.