Marketing controversial products or services—such as cannabis, cosmetic surgery, cryptocurrency, political issues, and firearms—involves more than following the rules. The legal and ethical landscape in such markets is dynamic and in flux, continually creating new hurdles and challenges for marketers.

At the same time, those obstacles can fuel creativity and opportunity. The challenge is to create touchpoints that educate consumers and unify supporters to build a brand that generates loyal customers.

Building a Reputation of Trust With Digital Marketing

When faced with legal or ethical restrictions, marketers fear that doing any promotion at all would cause a public backlash.

Typically, there are hot-button topics that are difficult to broach and may upset certain groups of people. For example, the desire to look better in selfies has put cosmetic surgery practices under the spotlight because of an increase in teens' getting plastic surgery, fueled by "Snapchat dysmorphia," a form of body dysmorphic disorder, or BDD.

Activist and interest groups that stand against controversial products or services such as plastic surgery can present a major obstacle to marketers.

Digital platforms are already saturated with divisive arguments on the legal and ethical ramifications—from all sides of the issues surrounding your product. How can you carve out a place in the digital landscape to stand out?

The challenge is to build a multipronged digital marketing strategy that allows you to inspire loyalty, engagement, credibility, and trust.

Here are five digital marketing strategies that marketers in controversial markets might explore.

1. Understand your legal and ethical limits

Clearly defined regulations, which vary by state, rigorously limit advertising for some products, including cannabis. Know those laws and follow them. For other industries, such as cosmetic surgery, there are ethical guidelines that may not be as clearly defined. In those cases, know your code of ethics, but, more important, examine whether and how your marketing tactics are creating more harm than good.

Your marketing message should be dispelling myths and providing clarity.

  • Claim your Web domain and build a mobile-ready website that includes contact information and testimonials of satisfied customers.
  • Build a multipronged digital marketing strategy that allows you to promote a reputation for expertise, credibility, and trust.
  • Stay abreast of existing and new rules to avoid associating any more unwanted negative connotations with your brand.

2. Create an SEO strategy that presents facts and dispels myths

Naysayers are armed with facts and statistics that they will use relentlessly to undermine your product. Sometimes, facts are exploited to bend the truth. Your website allows you to educate the market and provide clarity in areas where the truth has been distorted.

Even if by law you are unable to advertise, you do have the ability to use search engine optimization (SEO) strategies to increase the visibility of your website by creating content that educates and informs.

Your website's search ranking is based on complicated algorithms, including how frequently you post fresh content to your website and how well your content answers the questions of searchers. Moving up or staying on the first page of search results involves providing regular updates with accurate answers, thorough blogs, interviews with industry experts, whitepapers, fact-filled infographics, podcasts, and videos that entice visitors to stay on your site.

For example, when marketing cosmetic surgery practices, videos give visitors clarity about procedures and risks and dispel some of the unrealistic expectations that have tainted the industry.

3. Can prospects find you with a hashtag?

Though it's essential to have a beautifully designed website, it is not likely the first place members of your target audience will find you. They are probably already on social channels using hashtags to search for groups with similar interests.

The best platforms to build your social presence are the ones your current customers are already using.

A cross-sectional study about a single aesthetics practice, , reported in the journal ASPS, found that Facebook had the highest patient use and engagement, followed by YouTube and Instagram.

Survey or otherwise study your customers to find out where they are interacting online, and build a platform there to connect with them.

4. Wisely use influencers

Influencers can be a powerful marketing tool, especially for markets where advertising is prohibited, such as cannabis. Influencers can give your product exposure to thousands of people without an ad.

For some industries, such as cosmetic surgery, influencers are highly controversial. Celebrity endorsements of cosmetic procedures can lead to false expectations; that is clearly outlined in the AMA's ethics guidelines, which discourage portraying a patient who does not start with similar physical conditions, or beauty levels, of average patients. Influencers here should discuss recovery times and complications to present a realistic view of the procedure involved.

5. Use social to build engagement

Armed with information and researched-based facts that will help you share the truth about your industry, focus on building a community of followers.

Visitors to your website and social platforms will likely have questions. Give them a way to contact you via email through your website. Regularly monitor your social media accounts and be prepared to answer questions directly on your social platforms, if your audience asks questions on social.

Actively engaging with visitors on social media and openly answering questions can be a powerful way of clarifying details about a procedure.

Focus on building a community of followers who are linked by a lifestyle and core beliefs can help take the focus away from the controversy and toward the value of your company.

Building Respect and Credibility for Your Brand

When marketing to an industry surrounded by legal and ethical controversy, a digital marketing strategy allows you to provide education to your market with facts and statistics. It's important to increase understanding and present a clear outline of the risks.

Commit to dedicating your digital channels to educating the market whether you convert them to a paying customer or not.

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Marketing in Controversial Markets: How to Build Trust

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Ken Newman is CEO of DMA | Digital Marketing Agency. He began his career with the US Army and served during Desert Shield and Desert Storm.

Linkedin: Ken Newman