Slime-proof your marketing

"Marketing in general is scummy.”

“Marketers lying to take my money.”

“I f*cking hate marketing. Nothing is genuine, everything has an ulterior motive. It destroys peoples' authenticity and trustworthiness.”

“When you market to me, I have to assume that you are using me to make money.”

Worried about being perceived as scummy or feeling evil, many software developers avoid marketing and self-promotion at all costs. There’s so much bad marketing out there it’s hard to blame them. We don't want to be offensive or appear selfish and we definitely don't want to be seen as a liar. Sadly, this happens all too often in marketing.

Still, marketing is a necessity and not all of it is bad. And, the persistent belief that marketing is scummy can hold back your career. Knowing how to package your skills online and on your resume can mean the difference between getting good jobs and great jobs. If you build a great product but fail to spread the word, you’ll never build an audience. Promoting yourself can be a career differentiator — whether you have a traditional job or work for yourself.

That's not to say that all marketing is ethical. Lying or false claims, making unsubstantiated statements, or doing a bait and switch are primes examples of marketing tactics that step over the line. Most of us have been added to a newsletter list by a friend or former co-worker without our consent. This is not only unethical, it’s against the CAN-SPAM act.

Understanding the basics of marketing ethics is fairly straight forward but from there, things get murky. Some see manipulating an audience by using fear tactics as unethical while others call it effective marketing especially in cases where the stakes are high like potentially life-threatening health issues.  

While writing this article I got an email trying to get me to spend $100 so that I didn't lose the points I'd already accumulated in a company's reward program. It was an obvious play to invoke the sunk cost fallacy, getting me to spend more money on things I didn't need. Not unethical but shady in my book. In case you're wondering, I opted not to spend the money and instead unsubscribed from their newsletter.

You might wonder if the tactics you see are questionable and, more importantly, if they’re right for you. Deciding on where you set your personal boundary lines is a very individual decision.

You don't have to be scummy to sell your work

The biggest thing that holds people back from promoting themselves is not knowing where to set their personal boundaries. For example, you might have a vague sense that people step over the line sometimes but don’t have a framework for understanding where to set your own.

You don’t have to be scummy or even slimy to sell your work. I promise! By the way, you also don’t need to feel selfish or be a sellout. The first step to slime-free promotion is gaining clarity on what you stand for with marketing. If you know where your boundaries are, you won't have to worry about feeling slimy and, it will help you feel more comfortable.

For example, a software developer who came to me for marketing support was so repelled by it that every time we talked about writing an article or tweeting he called it spamming. He'd say, "Who do you want me to spam now Suzan?" Even though he knew he needed to spread the word, in his mind, all forms of marketing were spammy, scummy, intrusive and unwanted.

I helped him separate what was actually unethical from the tactics which just weren’t for him. Once he saw there were ways to share his work without feeling “spammy” about it, he developed his own marketing principles and felt much more comfortable promoting himself. By the way, he now runs a successful company which has grown because he uses marketing that doesn't make him feel spammy.

Clarify your Marketing Principles

Set aside an hour to create your own Marketing Principles. These principles are your core values for marketing yourself or your work. They define what you believe in, what you will and won’t you do in marketing yourself.

A great place to start is to the list of things you dislike in marketing. What do others do that irritates you? These answers form the foundation of your boundary lines. Here are some things you might consider:

Scarcity or time limitations

What role do you want limitations play in your marketing? Setting a time limit on something like a discount offer can help people make a decision faster.  To serve clients well, you might limit the number of clients you work with (and use this in your marketing). However, you might decide not to use artificial scarcity to drive demand.

Fear-based marketing

This is one that is often used and can be right on the line or even over the line when it comes to being unethical. This kind of marketing preys on fear, priming people to take fear-based action. Are you willing to invoke negative feelings? If so, which ones and in what cases? Or do you refuse to use anything that might look like manipulation in your marketing efforts?


How do you price products and assess the value? Are you willing to market something you think is less valuable than the price? What happens if you find your product isn’t as valuable as you’d like? Would you pull the product or make changes to increase the value so the price is fair? Do you want any sale you make to be a win/win for both parties or are you ok if it isn’t?

Belief in the product

Do you need to believe in the product? Do you have to use the product yourself?

Courting controversy

Just how controversial are you willing to be to sell something? Do you adhere to the belief that any press is good press? Where do you stand on being your authentic self vs. playing a character?

Hiring out

Is ok to have someone else blog or tweet for you? Does everything you publish have to originate from you and how do handle attribution if you allow someone else to create content for you?

Once you have your irritations, think about the opposite.

How do you want to feel when marketing to others? How do you want others to feel when they encounter your website, tweets or any kind of promotion? Identify the positive statements for what you want in your marketing.

Knowing what irritates you in marketing and how you want others to feel when encountering you are the basis of your Marketing Principles. Make sure to write them down. You might even want to post them somewhere you can see them often.

When Matt Kirk went to work for himself, he hadn't done much marketing so he wasn't clear about what was ok and what wasn't when it came to promoting his business. After doing this exercise he came up with the following Marketing Philosophy:

Matt's Marketing Philosophy:

  1. The benefits of the product or service must outweigh the costs and risks
  2. Respect of autonomy of individuals over manipulation
  3. I will never sell anything that exploits a social or economic vulnerability

"Having a marketing philosophy helps me focus in on what’s important. It's given me more specificity and clarity and gives me a way to test whether something is right or wrong for me much quicker."

One last step

Before making any sort of marketing decision always check in with your gut. An easy way to do this is to apply the mirror test. If you can’t look yourself straight on in the mirror while using a marketing tactic, it’s a sign you shouldn’t be using it. While it might be ethical, if it doesn’t fit your personally defined values, don’t do it.

Knowing what you believe in and are willing to do to get business will make you feel much more comfortable when promoting yourself.