Online marketing has a bad reputation. And rightly so. There are very little rules and there are a lot of people profiting from shady business practices. But online marketing is not by nature bad and it is possible to run a successful and ethical online business. You need to decide for yourself what that means and it may force you to leave some ‘easy money’ on the table.

I’ve always known this, but always just plodded along assuming that acting ethically and nice will work out for the best. That belief was shaken last weekend. I did a Q&A session at a matched betting conference, and the next person on gave a talk titled something like: “How to make millions from online marketing”.

It was very motivating. He claimed to have made millions from online business and the presentation was full of pictures of his houses and cars. How he’d come from nothing and through the magical power of the internet has now achieved all his wildest dreams in just a few years. But it lacked a lot of the meat: “you make money by getting to the first page of Google, but we don’t have time now to go into how exactly you get to the first page of Google”.

You could tell that the talk was building up to some sort of a sales pitch. And sure enough, the final 30 minutes was just a hard sell. He was trying to get the audience to sign up to a three-day course to learn all the secrets to becoming an internet millionaire for the bargain price of £1,500.

It was full of psychological tricks. There was scarcity, a timer showing a countdown of how long they had till the deal expired. It had peer pressure, slowly encouraging everyone to put their had up and calling out those who didn’t. It had bad maths, “do you not agree that a course that will make you £1,000,000 is worth £1,500?”. It had loads of ‘valuable’ bonuses, “and I will throw in this ebook worth £1,000 for free!”.

And it worked. By the end of the pitch, people were queuing up at the back of the room to sign up to the course, forking over £1,500 each then and there. Even though the course had absolutely nothing to do with matched betting, the reason we were all there in the first place. I made £0 from my talk. He made £15k+.

It left a bad taste in my mouth (and not just from jealousy). His course might have been great (it actually sounded pretty good and I think it wasn’t bad value), but it was the way he sold it that I hated.

But who am I to say he acted unethically? There are plenty of people who do much worse out there. It was just the stark contrast of how his approach was awarded vs mine that got to me.

And that’s the thing about online business. There are no rules. There is no advertising standards agency, no governing body, no laws covering what you can and can’t say. The only rules are those that you set yourself and it is entirely up to you to define your own ethics.

“That’s Just How Online Business Is Done”

The speaker left immediately afterwards, but I stuck around and went to the pub to chat with the attendees. I asked what they thought of the talk and sales pitch, and the most common response was that is what all talks are like at these events. The day before they had a similar talk with an even harder sell.

“If you start going to a few of these events you’ll see them both again”.

They were stuck in this trap. I asked them what they thought about it compared to ethical online business and I always got the same response:

“That’s just how online business is done”.

The sad thing is, they have a point. Hard selling works. Just like how clickbait, spamming, fake news and black hat SEO works.

And these guys have got the hard sell down to a science. And not just in person but also online. My most popular blog post is on how to start an Amazon FBA business. It’s free and has all the information you need. And my post isn’t unique: there is tons of great free information on the internet with all the stuff you will ever need to know on the subject. But that doesn’t stop people selling Amazon FBA online video courses costing between $1,000 and $5,000. Here’s a post on Reddit comparing some of them. You’re talking $100+ an hour to watch a pre-recorded YouTube video!

And people are buying them because when you’re making that much money you can afford to spend a lot of advertising. Whereas you’ll never see my post on a Facebook sponsored post because I would lose money paying for the traffic.

When you can get in front of an unlimited number of people with no consequences from unhappy customers it is possible to make a lot of money.

So that brings me back to the beginning. Who am I to say they are acting unethically? They are packaging together good information and selling it for a premium. And getting it in front of people who wouldn’t have found it otherwise. What’s wrong with that? That’s how capitalism works. They’re not straight up scamming people and they’re not robbing people. They are probably really nice honest people who love their grandma and give money to the homeless.

I get it. This blog earns me a decent income (£5k-£6k), but only a fraction of what it ‘should do’ given my internet traffic. You can get a rough value for your internet traffic by seeing what people are willing to pay Google for it. In September my traffic value was $87,500. Wow! The possibility of earning $85k a month is really really tempting.

But despite seeing this speaker first hand pick up £15k+ from one hard sell, and from having all that potential money dangled in front of my face. I still believe that running an ethical online business is the right decision.

  • For one, I wouldn’t be able to sleep at night if I felt like I was conning people.
  • And for two, I believe there is still a lot of money that can be made from an ethical online business.

You CAN Make Money From An Ethical Online Busines

Long Term Trust Is Very Valuable

My monthly traffic might be ‘worth’ $85,000, but would I have ever got so many readers if I had tried to milk every penny out of them? Probably not. Therefore I think that figure is misleading. I might be able to make that for one month but as soon as I start losing the trust of my readers, they will stop reading and Google will stop sending me traffic.

If I had started off this blog trying to make as much money as possible I don’t think I ever would have got any readers at all. And I definitely wouldn’t be making £5k+ a month.

Trust is really really valuable. Take a look at Martin Lewis’ Money Saving Expert. My go-to resource for anything money saving. Why? Because I trust it. And despite Martin Lewis leaving money on the table by not advertising the highest paying (but worst for the customer) products, he still managed to turn it into one of the largest blogs in the UK. And sold it for £87m in 2012.

Just ask Martin, yes it is possible to make money from an ethical online business.

But even if it looks like there is no other option in your business than to operate in a way you aren’t comfortable with, remember there are loads of other ways to make money – most of which require similar skills:

There Are Lots Of Ways To Make Money Online

I come back again and again to the idea of creating a paid online course. And so far I have always decided against it. I don’t think that I could create something good enough to be worth what I’d want to charge.

But just because I’ve decided against online courses, it doesn’t mean I’ve decided against all types of online business. Here is a quick list off the top of my head of different ways to make money online (links are to specific posts I’ve written about that type of business):

You might decide that it doesn’t sit well with you building a business off sponsored posts or life-coaching. But that still leaves you with a lot of other ways to earn a living that you might be more comfortable with. And guess what, they take the same skillset.

Let me give you an example. There are many ways to monetise a blog and I have decided I don’t feel comfortable doing:

  • Online courses.
  • Email marketing.
  • Sponsored posts.
  • Paid advertising.
  • Expensive Ebooks.
  • Incentivised product reviews.
  • Paywalls.

Note – I don’t have anything against most of the above, I just don’t think my attempt at doing them would be good enough.

But I have decided that I am happy with:

And despite throwing out 80% of methods, the final two have been enough to make a full-time living from an ethical online business.

Google Is Catching Up

Each year Google gets better and better at filtering out spammy sites and rewarding good quality ones. And they are constantly looking at the way online marketers make money and penalising those techniques that they don’t like or think detract from the customer experience.

For instance, Google recently stated that they will start to penalise sites that have a welcome matt. That is a pop-up that blocks your whole screen while trying to get you to leave an email address. I’ve never liked welcome mats, I don’t have one and I am very pleased to hear my competitors will soon be forced to get rid of theirs.

But Google hasn’t got it all worked out and it is true that currently some very ropey sites still make it on to the first page of Google. But it is getting better. And if you want your online business to still be going strong for many years to come then you need to maximise the customer experience and do what is best for them. And that means you need to be running an ethical online business.

So having said all that, what exactly is an ethical online business?

You Need To Define Your Own Moral Standards

I have always tried to run my businesses while being guided by my moral compass, but what exactly that means has changed and evolved in my head over time. Noone has ever told me ‘do this’, ‘do that’, and I have probably strayed over the line more than a few times.

The internet is new and is still evolving. And I am definitely not qualified to give you a bullet point list of what exactly ethical online business is. I believe it is each our own responsibility to take a good hard look at our own approaches and decide what we are comfortable with it.

But I would like to start a conversation about it and get your input.

  • Do you think clickfunnels are ethical?
  • What is a minimum acceptable level of customer service?
  • Is it ever alright to take sponsored posts?
  • Should you use your readers/customers data for advertising and retargeting?
  • Is it OK to leave out your failures and only talk about successes?
  • What do you think about exaggeration?
  • Should you disclose any business relationships you have to services/products you talk about? How obvious should the disclosure be?
  • Should you identify all affiliate links? Should you explain exactly what an affiliate link is?
  • Is leaving reviews on your own services acceptable?
  • Should your content be peer-reviewed before posting?
  • If your business fails are you responsible for outstanding debts?

The answers aren’t easy. But what do you think? Please comment and please call me out on anything I am doing you disagree with.