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Ahrefs CMO Tim Soulo cares about ethical marketing. It’s right in his Twitter bio.
But what does it mean, exactly? Marketers don’t take a Hippocratic oath before they start working.
Sure, the Federal Trade Commission regulates marketing, but it has struggled to keep up with the rapidly changing digital landscape — and with enforcement at scale.
That means how marketers treat customers is largely up to… them. This week, we talked to Soulo about the ethical principles he and the Ahrefs team rely on at work.
Ethical marketing is about “putting [your audience’s] experience above your objectives,” Soulo said.
In other words: Give more than you take. It’s the key to both marriage and marketing.
...without going rogue.
But marketers can’t give so much they tank their organizations’ budgets. Or get fired.
Ethical marketing requires buy-in at the owner level. In Ahrefs’ case, it comes from the founder and CEO, Dmitry Gerasimenko.
“He is consciously sacrificing a portion of our potential revenue and growth for the sake of… integrity,” Soulo said.
Follow the golden rule.
Gerasimenko’s code of business ethics is simple, Soulo said: “I want to be the kind of company to our customers that I want other companies to be to me.”
Don’t overpromise in your marketing copy, Soulo said, and don’t buy likes or clicks or Reddit upvotes. It muddies the line between ads and UGC.
Don’t be possessive.
It shouldn’t be hard to cancel a SaaS subscription, or any recurring expense, according to Soulo — but some businesses add Kafka-esque friction to this process, or require a phone call.
In Ahrefs’ interface, the red cancel button is easy to spot. It’s right there in the billing tab.
Respect users’ search intent.
That means not buying paid ads on a competitor’s brand keywords.
If someone searches for an Ahrefs competitor, like SEMRush, “searcher intent is clear,” Soulo said — and it’s best to respect that.
Don’t use obviously annoying tactics…
Two annoying tactics that Soulo avoids at Ahrefs: on-site pop-ups asking for an email address, and heavily retargeting users with paid ads after they visit your site all of… once.
Soulo calls the latter “creepy.”
...without a good reason.
Ahrefs does do one annoying thing: Before customers can cancel, they have to complete a write-in form explaining why.
It annoys people. Some customer write in swear words or “some jibber jabber,” Soulo said.
Some give real feedback, though, which helps Ahrefs serve all its customers — and Soulo thinks the benefits outweigh the annoyance.
Don’t look for praise.
A lot of ethically murky tactics invisibly harm users.
Take buying backlinks from reputable news sites. It’s a sketchy SEO practice, and it hurts users by distorting their Google search results.
But the average person won’t notice it — or thank you for not doing it.
The marketing team at Ahrefs avoids practices like this simply “because it’s right."