11 Marketing Rules To Keep Your Business Out Of Legal Trouble

Want to know what the FTC and other government entities say about marketing? Well, what’s written in black and white can usually be summed up as “don’t lie.”

Unfortunately, all too often lies are passed off as “marketing.”¬†While some marketing statements aren’t so much lies as purely subjective – e.g. “We’re the best ever!” – other aren’t truthful. “Lose 10 pounds in two weeks and eat whatever you want!”, for example, seems intentionally misleading. Intentionally misleading statements can lead to lawsuits, hefty fines, and even jail…so they are to be avoided.

Here are 11 simple marketing best practices that will help every business steer clear of the legal troubles that marketing can sometimes cause.

1. Don’t advertise results that aren’t typical, at least not without disclosure. If you sell an oil additive, don’t make an extraordinary testimonial the focus of your marketing without a proper disclosure.

2. Disclose any paid testimonials. Better yet, don’t pay people to leave a testimonial! Obtain testimonials with email follow-up, inviting Facebook fans to review you, etc. But if you have to pay for a testimonial – or if you give someone something of value in exchange for a testimonial – disclose that fact.

3. Keep your customer’s private data secure. Any data that’s not public knowledge (such as your customer’s mailing address, purchase history, phone number, email, etc.) must be protected.

4. Have a clear and easy to read privacy policy. A good privacy policy will help you avoid trouble. The BBB has a great little sample privacy policy here that’s a decent starting point.

5. If you have a written warranty, there are some rules you want to follow. See the FTC’s website for details.

6. Be smart with email. There are a lot of laws that regulate email marketing. The simple rule of thumb: You’re not allowed to send marketing emails without permission. Get your customers to opt-in to receive marketing emails before you send them. Additionally:

  • There’s an exception to the permission requirement if you’re sending an announcement or update notification. The permission requirement also doesn’t apply if you’re sending an email related to an ongoing business purpose. Marketing info can be in any of these emails, but it can’t be the focus of the email.
  • Every email you send must have a business name and physical address.
  • Every email you send should have a clear and obvious “unsubscribe” link, with a 1-click unsubscribe system.

As a practical matter, the key is to send good, useful emails. If your emails are chock full of sale announcements and blasted out every other week, someone is likely to complain. If the emails are interesting and professional, the odds of a complaint are much lower.

7. No tricks. Don’t bait customers with a cheap product, then switch them on to a more expensive item after explaining that the cheap version is “on backorder.” Don’t abuse “auto-renewal” terms, offering people a free trial and then hitting them with a hefty automatic renewal fee. Don’t misrepresent the parts you’re selling and/or what they can do.

8. Be mindful of sharing user behavior data. It’s entirely proper for a business to track how visitors interact with their website. However, sharing that behavior data can be dangerous if it’s not handled properly. Be sure you disclose how you’ll be sharing data and, when in doubt, don’t share.

9. Make it easy for your customers to complain, and listen to them when they do. By making it easy to complain, you can diffuse complaints before they get too big. By listening, you reduce the likelihood of future complaints. Ignore complaints, however, and you run the risk of regulators looking into your business, lawsuits, etc.

10. Use the old “What Would My Mom Say? / How Would I Explain This To My Kids?” rule. It’s surprisingly effective in terms of helping marketers avoid problems with the general public.

11. There are no shortcuts to success. If a marketing tactic delivers unbelievable results, beware.