Kirsty Kianifard recently released a Wellness Entrepreneur podcast episode stating she “doesn’t agree with ethical marketing.”
I respect Kirsty hugely, have teamed up with her before (back in the days of Clubhouse, remember that?!) and enjoyed and agreed with a vast majority of what she said in the episode.
Even though I agreed with 80% of the podcast’s content, I do agree with ethical marketing as a way to promote health and wellness businesses. And so in this blog I wanted to take a few of the points Kirsty raised and add a different take.
In the episode Kirsty highlights four key areas that ethical marketing says are complete no-nos:
I want to take each of these in turn and see whether there is in fact an ethical way to reframe these, or if they are absolutely incompatible with ethically marketing your health-based business.
Now…. before we begin, I’m not an ethical marketing principle guru. But a brief look around the internet suggests that the consensus is that ethical marketing principles are:
I can’t find anywhere that specifically lists the four practices Kirsty summarises in one place as anti-ethical, but I think they conflict with these ethical marketing principles:
Over promising can be categorised as a lack of honesty.
Creating urgency, scarcity and poking at pain points could be viewed as a lack of fairness. Because all three could be considered ‘emotionally manipulative’ – something that consistently comes up as anti-ethical. That it is unfair to emotionally manipulate someone into buying from you.
Let’s take each of these marketing practices in turn and see how ethical or not they are.
Let’s take overpromising to begin with.
I loved a lot of what Kirsty has to say on this in her episode. Because there is a difference between overpromising and completely omitting to mention to potential customers the possible outcomes of working with you.
The latter unfortunately in my experience is what most wellness practitioners do – whether that’s through a fear of being unethical or because they haven’t been taught it’s important in their marketing to move people to buy.
Which is a killer-blow in marketing because these outcomes are what people buy. And if you don’t talk about them, then you will have less buyers. It’s that simple.
The problem as far as I can tell is that the vast majority of health and wellness training courses teach how important it is to stay within your scope of practice (important) and to not promise cures and miracle outcomes (also important), whilst teaching nothing about how to marketing yourself effectively (which is why Kirsty and I have a job).
With this fear instilled, practitioners emerge from their qualification already worried about what they can and can’t say, which is then contradicted with marketing advice (usually from generic business coaches encountered online as the practitioner tries to start making money) saying to go heavy and clear on the outcome of your work, and then counteracted with strong ethical marketing voices that may be stumbled upon (because the generic advice feels icky) saying don’t overpromise.
So you’re left totally confused and paralysed. Wanting to do marketing ‘right’, wanting clients, but fearing you’re being unethical and going against your training if you talk about the benefits of working with you.
I can see why practitioners get stuck here. But it doesn’t need to feel so sticky.
The dictionary definition of overpromising is “to promise more than is possible or realistic.”
No-one should ever promise a particular outcome from their work. Particularly in health which is so unique to each human – we never know what will work for any given individual. And because we know that outcomes are based on not just us and what we offer, but the client meeting us in the middle and ‘doing the work’ necessary for change to happen.
But there is a difference between:
– I promise if you sign up to work with me, you’ll have energy when you wake up in the mornings
– Imagine how good it would feel to wake up with energy in the mornings
I would never ask you to write the first (unethical, overpromising) statement on your website. But I would highly encourage you to write the second version.
There are many other ways of phrasing potential outcomes and results that don’t involve overpromising like:
I guess some people might claim that even these are un-ethical; that they’re misleading or suggest subliminally that everyone can achieve these outcomes, even if they don’t include the words ‘promise’ or ‘guarantee.’
But my problem with omitting these potential outcomes completely is it makes it harder for you to sell and it makes it harder for people to understand why they should work with you.
Combined, if you don’t mention potential results, the longer it takes for people to choose to invest in you and the more likely you are to become despondent and shift into a spiral of belief that this will never work, and no-one wants what you have. By trying to not ‘overpromise’ or ‘be ethical’, you have shot yourself in the foot and made it harder to sell.
People like Kirsty and I are trying to make it easier for you to sell what you do, and so learning how to ethically talk about the potential benefits of working with you is key.
Secondly let’s take the apparently ‘unethical’ practices of creating urgency and scarcity in your marketing. ‘Forcing’ people to act and invest because they believe there is a deadline or dearth of available options for them.
The problem (or maybe good thing, depending on how you look at it!) is that humans are literally wired to act when there is an incentive, when they believe they will miss out if they don’t move faster than they might otherwise have.
“Scarcity tactics are an essential tool for marketers. Cues that signal the current or potential unavailability of a product generally enhance its value and desirability and in turn increase purchase intentions.”ScienceDirect
We might not like it, but the fact is urgency and scarcity work. The question is, how can we use them ethically in our marketing. Or is it impossible?
Kirsty’s podcast brings a great reframe to this which we can all embrace and is how I look at urgency and scarcity too. And that is if you are being truthful (NB this is an ethical principle of honesty) about the urgency and scarcity surrounding your offer, then there is nothing wrong with highlighting:
In her podcast Kirsty uses her own example of ‘only offering 5 VIP spots on my course, of which only 2 remain right now.’
By mentioning this she’s not being unethical, she’s being honest. She has calculated what time these clients will take her and is limiting down those that will get VIP access to her.
Kirsty would be unethical if she said there were only 5 places, but she actually allowed 15 in. But if she’s being honest (which I fully trust she is!), this is a totally ethical way to promote what she does.
I personally have found urgency in particular incredibly effective in my own business this year too. Instead of having the doors open all the time for the Just Start Now community, I now have a ‘doors open’ and ‘doors closed’ period. Since shifting to this I might have seen e.g. 15 people sign up for the programme over an 18 month period when there was no urgency. But saw 15 people sign up in a 5-day period when there was a clearly marketed ‘doors closing’ date.
This is why I use the terms ‘ethical urgency’ and ‘ethical scarcity’ when I talk about using these approaches to move people to buy.
Taking this approach does mean doing a bit of maths (how many clients can you actually take on this month?) or creating your own deadline to close to sign-ups (what do you consider is ‘fully booked’? When do you want to stop selling and start running your course? How many times each year will it run?).
But there is nothing unethical about doing that. In fact, asking yourself those sorts of questions is incredibly healthy to do as a business owner – because they help you get clear on your capacity and shape how you want your income to be generated across the year.
But maybe this all still doesn’t sit right with you.
Maybe you’re still worried making any mention of deadlines or limited availability will make people invest when they’re not ready and will regret it. Perhaps you still feel strongly that these methods are ‘emotionally manipulative’ which makes them unethical (which personally I think can be mitigated elsewhere in your marketing, but that’s another story).
If that’s the case, yes a wellness business can operate never creating any urgency or scarcity at all. You can simply have your offers sat out there all times of the year and never create any buzz or drive towards them with deadlines or limited numbers and use other marketing methods instead to get people to consider investing.
But you know what? It takes a lot, lot longer to get people to buy without that scarcity or urgency. It’s simply human nature to see something you want and say “oh yeah, I’ll sign up for that… one day.”
Again, people like Kirsty and I are trying to make it easier for you to sell what you do, and so learning how to use scarcity and urgency ethically and not be afraid of it, we believe will help you get faster and easier results.
You don’t have to use it, we’re just putting it on the table as a handy tool that gets people buying faster than they might otherwise, and potentially helps avoid long weeks and months where nothing seems to shift for you – leaving you demoralised and ready to give up. Which is what we want to avoid.
When it comes to asking ‘should we poke the pain point’ and asking “is it ethical or not?” I differentiate more from Kirsty’s stance in her podcast episode.
I’ve put together this graphic to try to visually explain marketing to pain points vs. marketing to aspirations and change.
Generally perceived marketing and business wisdom is that people buy more readily when you solve a problem.
Again, this is how we’re wired. We want things to be easier for us, to experience less pain and discomfort and if something is bothering us and there is a service on the market that can fix it, we’re likely to consider it to invest in.
Now I believe there’s an unethical version of doing this, which might look like:
All of those are horrible ways to move people to buy – they scaremonger, play on the worry or pain point the customer is experiencing, or maybe even highlight or make worse possible outcomes of their current health condition. It’s emotionally manipulative and not ethical.
Not mentioning any pain points or problems doesn’t really make sense.
For example, if your services were tailored for people who are going through the menopause, it makes absolutely no sense, just because you think it’s ‘more ethical’, to not mention things like hot flushes, brain fog, losing your sense of self, stubborn weight-gain, mood changes or vaginal dryness.
You need to mention these things so your ideal customer knows you understand them. They want an expert, they want to work with someone who feels like they’re talking to them when you describe the clients you love to help. They want to know if they book in with you, that you understand their night sweats or how frustrating that brain fog is. It helps them trust you quicker and feel ready to buy from you quicker.
You also need to mention these things if you have any hope of getting found. If you’re trying to get your website discovered on Google so customers find you (hello making your marketing infinitely easier when people find you!), they’re going to be Google searching “natural solutions for menopause vaginal dryness.” They are looking for their pain point solutions. And if you aren’t talking about this, then your website won’t ever be on Page 1, and so it’s harder for you to get seen and therefore booked.
I believe there’s a difference between mentioning pain points and symptoms, writing blogs, creating content and including references on your sales pages saying “I see you – I’ve designed my service for you if you’re suffering with these issues” and “these horrendous problems will get worse if you don’t buy from me.” Or even “I’m just going to talk endlessly about how awful your life is or your symptoms are until you eventually break and see that working with me will make you better.”
The other thing to mention (which I have started and need to finish a blog on) is that many health practitioners sell preventative health care solutions. That is, their ideal customers don’t identify as having a ‘problem’ per se.
When we are in the business of preventative health, the ideal people to buy your services don’t have an urgent ailment, a crippling symptom or an issue that’s so overwhelmingly life consuming that they’re searching daily for a solution.
They’re bumbling along with their life, body and health just fine. They believe they’re all good, thanks very much. They’ve accepted their lot. They aren’t late night Googling answers. Because they don’t think there’s an issue.
But you know things could be better either now or in the future for them, if they made some changes.
This means that there is little to no ‘pain point’ to poke. In this instance there are two paths you can tread if this is the market you cater for:
There is a level of education that you can do through your content and marketing to explain potential pain points that might be encountered down the line.
For example: I know you’re fine now, but if you don’t start some strength training soon you could struggle with weak bones, mobility issues and higher likelihood of falls later in life.
With this method you are highlighting potential pain points that they might not have been aware of before, but you think should be pressing for them right now. And when this is done consistently over time, this slowly bumps what you’re saying up their priority list until they understand the time is now to invest in this.
A great example of this is how Gillian Anderson spoke when she was interviewed on the How To Fail podcast saying she finally realised in her 50s that getting a PT and moving her body would help her ‘lift her grandchildren’ in future decades. She felt fine and healthy before that and currently. But she suddenly got that investing in herself now would pay off in years to come.
Getting good at teaching and educating your audience of things they might be overlooking or not aware of takes time and commitment from you to your marketing and content creation, but can create a great customer base that trust you for the solution.
Again, having read all this you might still really disagree and believe any pain point talk at all (mentioning or poking), sits completely wrong with you. And that is totally fine.
Instead then, you can embrace marketing your wellness business without mention of pain points at all. You can create all your marketing messaging around the transformation and change, benefits and outcomes of working with you instead. Think: “your life/health is great, but it could be even more amazing now and into the future with this – let me show you.”
Rather than tapping into any pain, this plays to the aspirations and desires and goals of the people you want to help. You paint a picture of how things could be even better, demonstrate and illuminate a bigger, better life, one that’s expanded and game-changing if they invest in your help (while not overpromising, of course 😉).
I do think there is a shift more generally to this sort of marketing happening anyway.
People are done with the emotional manipulation that can happen with the pain point talk, and instead (in the dark world we sometimes feel we live in) customers want to invest in services and people that lift them up, make them feel better, open up what is possible for them and feel excited for their health, life and future.
People are also sick (excuse the pun) of being told they are ‘wrong’ or there is something the matter with them and their life. There is already a culture of ‘the worried well’ and I think most ethical health practitioners don’t want to be part of a selling environment that is telling potential customers they’re somehow inflicting themselves with worse life or health outcomes because of something they’re doing or not doing right now.
Moving away totally from pain point style marketing I think will be on the rise in the coming years in my opinion, with the standard small number of unethical, pushy professionals ignoring this.
It’s just coming to terms with the slightly uncomfortable truth that the pain point mentioning and poking tends to get faster results (because of human wiring), than the desired outcome presenting. You will have to watch others do the poking and potentially make quicker sales than you. But if you’re comfortable with this being your life’s work, then focusing on the change alone is a wonderfully positive way to market your wellness business.
I wholly stand by and believe the wellness sector should stick to the ethical marketing principles of:
And on the four practices raised in Kirsty’s podcast:
I would love to know what you think on this topic!