It’s easy to find complaints about online marketing scams, tips on how to avoid being duped, and lots of talk about being ethical and the value of “transparency”.
What about internet marketing that doesn’t hit the criminal level of an out-and-out scam?
What about the common practice of using pen names? Is it an acceptable business practice or more misleading marketing?
The use of a pen name, also known as nom de plume, by professional writers is common and, in general, accepted. As you probably know, one of the most famous examples is American author and humorist Samuel Clemens who used the pen name Mark Twain.
Let’s look at some of the common reasons why authors use pen names and then explore how they apply to online marketers.
Common Reasons Why Authors Use Pen Names
- privacy and/or protection – the latter may be important if the content of the work is controversial or an exposé
- catchier/more evocative name for a particular genre
- disguise gender or race or anything that might limit acceptance by publishers and the public - as you may know, it was more common in the past for female authors to assume male names to ensure that their work was accepted by publishers and readers. Today female writers may adopt a male name and male writer may adopt female names to suit whatever genre they are contributing to. Or they may take a gender neutral approach by using initials such as The Outsiders author S.E. Hinton (Susan Eloise Hinton)
- credibility - this one is ironic, but it’s a feature of human psychology (unfortunately in my view): by using different pen names authors can publish works in different genres or multiple works in the same genre and readers will find this to be more believable than if they used the same name. Yes, this is where seeming like a one trick pony can be advantageous.
- branding to allow flexibility if for any reason a writer does not continue to write a series, column, etc. A notable example is the famous advice column Ask Ann Landers. Ann Landers is a pen name that was created by Ruth Crowley, the first of many writers to assume the role.
- collective names - similar to the above, some series fiction is published under one name even though two or more authors write the series. The first book in the series might by written by one author, subsequent books by ghost writers. This allows a series to continue if the first book is popular but the author cannot write more books for any reason.
- creative expression or whim - Edward Gorey’s use of multiple pen names apparently were for his own amusement and were simply anagrams of his real name
Pen Names in Online Marketing:
What is Acceptable and What Crosses the Line?
The reasons above, and more, apply to online marketers who use pen names. Replace ‘author’ with marketer, ‘genre’ with niche and ‘works’ or ‘books’ can be product or service. In reference to branding, marketers will either have a pen name or business name so it’s possible to sell their business without selling the rights to their real name with it.
Top marketers might use their real name in certain niches (the make money online/internet marketing niche for example) and pen names in the rest. When you learn about internet marketing, you will probably be advised to do the same thing, and to be secretive about the names you use of course.
But where do YOU draw the line?
In online business, marketers can be their own publishers and editors. This may eliminate certain obstacles, but they still have to appeal to their readers and customers. Some of the reasons authors use pen names might not, on the surface, seem unethical in internet marketing. It depends on how far things go.
Here are a few specific ways that top reputable marketers use pen names that may or may not strike you as unethical:
- hire ghost writers to write their blog content, copy, etc.
- use multiple fake identities online to author content for their sites, products, article marketing, social media accounts, blog and forum posts, etc. (the names might just be catchy user names, not human names, but often they are human names for greater credibility)
- create characters with backgrounds, personality differences, age and gender differences, etc. if it suits the niche they are in. They sometimes use fake photos to represent these characters.
- hire people to promote their business with an assumed name or even their real name
- create “competitors” to banter back and forth with them on their blogs, etc. – they might do this themselves or hire someone to do it
- start online forums and invent characters who post a few times so new, real members will be encouraged to participate in the forum
This is only a smattering of what marketers might do with pen names, of course. They might not do this in all of the niches and sites they own, but more than you might think. Again, I am not talking about the fly by nights that all of us should avoid. I’m talking about some of the marketers who want to provide value to customers.
Profit is a motivating factor, but marketers may also justify the more blatent use of pen names (when they create a persona perhaps complete with a picture) by saying that they are doing more “good” this way – the persona appeals to the target market so potential customers will feel more trust and buy the great products(s) and benefit from them. So, it’s for the greater good, they say.
My ideal is more transparency than is the norm
I don’t have an issue with using a pen name for privacy. I also realise that some marketers have a public persona that customers enjoy. Marketing can be show business. However, I want them to be honest about who they really are and, if they invent characters, to be clear about that.
The dilemna is that people respond well to this kind of deception. If it goes too far, no, but usually they never find out and never question it. I don’t want to participate in this – Lillea is my REAL name. I use it in other niches. Woodlyns is my pen surname (I just happen to like it!) – but I know that the use of pen names in a myriad of ways helps many online marketers succeed.
What do you think? What is acceptable and what isn’t with pen names? How far are you willing to go?
Tags: Ethics, the ethics of internet marketing