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Great marketing is honest. Not fair.

Lisa Barone’s post today about a tax on business bloggers, and the squawking and flapping that ensued thereafter, got me thinking about ‘fair’ versus ‘honest’. Especially in the world of marketing.

In marketing, ‘fair’ doesn’t exist

I find that when folks start talking about ‘fair’, what they mean is ‘fair for me and mine.’ Or maybe ‘easy’.
‘Fair’ is relative: I’m a cyclist. I drive a Toyota Prius. So raising gas prices to $5/gallon and doubling the size of bicycle lanes seems perfectly fair to me. You, on the other hand, are getting ready to let loose a tirade of car-loving American outrage in the comments section.
I’ve had potential clients tell me I was ‘unfair’ because my prices were too high for them. While I sympathize (I’d love to buy a Fisker Karma, but it’s out of my price range), it has nothing to do with ‘fair’. It’s about the value I deliver, and whether it’s worth it to you.

God, I’m starting to sound like a Republican. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. Some of my best friends are Republicans…

Anyway, in marketing, don’t look for fair. Marketing is not about fair. It’s about crushing every other competitor in the room in horrifying, brutal fashion, while you all smile at each other.

In marketing, ‘honest’ is the only way to go


Then there’s ‘honest’. Honest is a whole other lump of beeswax.
Good marketing is always honest.
By definition, good marketing helps people choose the best products/services for them through clear, compelling communications. It’s not about fooling people into buying crap. It’s not even about fooling people into buying great stuff they don’t really want.
I know what you’re going to say: ‘Honest’ is subjective. It’s relative. There’s no one ‘honest’.
I beg to differ. When someone lies, however artfully, you know i. Remember “I did not have sex with that woman!”? How about “No new taxes”? Or that SEO ‘professional’ who says they guarantee a #1 ranking in 2 weeks?
They’re lying. You know it.
Great marketing doesn’t lie. That’s why it’s so hard to market lousy products. “Our product doesn’t suck as much as you think” isn’t terribly compelling.

I’m guilty

I’m not preaching this as some great principled person, by the way. I’ve shut down my honesty detector often enough, trying to help clients market utterly worthless products because I either liked the client personally or was flattered they even knew I existed.
But it still wasn’t about some relative definition of ‘honest’. And, more often than not, I used the word ‘fair’ to justify my work. “It’s only fair that they get a shot at the market,” I’d tell myself. Oops.

The internet is not an excuse

By the way, selling online doesn’t give you a pass to be a dishonest piece of crap, either. People who steal content, lie about products and services or deceive consumers into providing their personal information don’t get a pass just because they’re on the web.
Internet marketing needs to be honest, too.
So, repeat “Great marketing is honest. Not fair.” 10 times every morning. It’ll help you as a consumer and a marketer.

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CEO & Founder

Ian Lurie is CEO and founder of Portent and the EVP of Marketing Services at Clearlink. He's been a digital marketer since the days of AOL and Compuserve (25 years, if you're counting). He's recorded training for Lynda.com, writes regularly for the Portent Blog and has been published on AllThingsD, Smashing Magazine, and TechCrunch. Ian speaks at conferences around the world, including SearchLove, MozCon, Seattle Interactive Conference and ad:Tech. He has published several books about business and marketing: One Trick Ponies Get Shot, available on Kindle, The Web Marketing All-In-One Desk Reference for Dummies, and Conversation Marketing. Follow him on Twitter at portentint, and on LinkedIn at LinkedIn.com/in/ianlurie.

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  1. I think you bring up some excellent points about honesty and “good marketing,” but at the same time I think these points inherently call themselves into question. For example, we need to define “honesty” in order to apply it to marketing. You seem to imply that honesty is anything that is not a lie. Arguing against the subjective notion of honesty by giving examples of when people are lying is slightly misleading in that something that is not a lie is not necessarily honest. I think there might be some grey area in between.
    So how does the grey area apply to marketing? Perhaps much of marketing activity operates within this area, and I don’t think that is necessarily a bad thing. After all, marketing is concerned with shaping opinions. I am not at all suggesting that marketers should be deceptive; rather, marketers should be aware of where they stand in the spectrum from honest to “dishonest piece of crap” (love that).
    At the same time, “good marketing” needs further explanation. What defines good? If a campaign reaches its goal, is it good marketing? What if the means of reaching that goal were dishonest?
    Your main point of removing fairness from discourse on marketing is dead on. Fairness is certainly a subjective feeling, and at the same time it is essentially a question of morality. I’m not completely convinced that morality in the traditional sense has a place in marketing. But perhaps that is a question for a later date…

  2. I understand –and agree– to the spirit of your argument, but not to the letter.
    ‘Fair’ and ‘honest’ are not in exclusive opposition (in fact, Webster mention the former as synonym of the later) . You can be fair and honest. Strictly speaking, ‘fair’ is not so subjective and in business context it refers to equity and reciprocity of treatment and transparency (as in ‘fair-trade’).
    Even if you consider marketing as “…crushing every other competitor…” –wich I don’t– you can, and in my view, you should, be fair with the customers.
    So why not be honest and fair ?

  3. @Benoit Oh, I totally agree. I’d never suggest being fair is BAD. However, it’s a tough yardstick to use.
    I don’t necessarily agree with you on marketing and what it’s about. While it’s not a zero-sum game, it’s close.
    But regardless, fairness is important, too.
    By the way ‘fair trade’ doesn’t always mean transparency. It’s been used, and abused, by lots of people with political agendas. Hence my feelings about ‘fair’ and ‘honest’.

  4. You know what I love about this post? Your first sentence: “Lisa Barone’s post today … got me thinking about ‘fair’ versus ‘honest’.” I love it because it reflects what I think is best about the world of blogging — you read someone else’s ideas, they inspire you to think in a new direction, and new original insights result, which you then share again. It enriches the dialog for the whole industry, which ultimately improves….well, the human race.
    OK, maybe that’s a bit extreme, but it is good stuff. Thanks for thinking and sharing.

  5. Good article and I agree with what you say, but there’s little question that Lisa Barone’s post was about bloggers period, not just business bloggers, and that’s an important distinction.
    She talks about bloggers ‘getting serious’ and ‘monetizing’. I think it’s pompous garbage, and as you suggest it’s coming from someone who would have an unusual viewpoint on what ‘fair’ is.
    She’s kind of like the motor racing champion who doesn’t protest about a new rule that would make it much harder for new drivers to get into the sport.

  6. @mjc I understand what you’re saying but you’re misinterpreting what Lisa said. She’s not saying the tax in itself is OK. What she’s saying is: If you don’t want to pay $300 for the lifetime right to start writing on the web and declaring your opinions to anyone who’ll listen, maybe you shouldn’t be doing it.
    And I have to say, I agree. I’ve invested a lot more than $300 in this blog. I’m OK with that.

  7. Ian I also understand what you’re saying, but I don’t agree.
    300 dollars might be nothing to you or me or Lisa but it would put blogging out of the reach of many people.
    How can those living on minimum wage from paycheque to paycheque afford a lump sum expense like this?
    What about those under 18 or out of a job? 300 dollars is not much but it’s still enough to make blogging economically inaccessible for some.
    Yeah, lets have a blogosphere of purely middle class 20-30 something urbanites backslapping eachother. Oh wait.

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