As co-author of a book on disaster medical preparedness and with a website that puts out a lot of free content, I recently designed a line of medical kits and other products that might be helpful in times of trouble, but am sheepish about promoting my business. From an ethical standpoint, how does someone who is best known for altruistic pursuits develop a business without appearing too commercial?"

Joe Alton, M.D.


Having a reputation for providing valuable information may position your reputation as being somewhat "altruistic," but that doesn't preclude you from endorsing or developing a business that leverages your expertise to keep the lights on.

The keys to proceeding successfully and ethically rest in transparency and equally clear distinctions between your business and the delivery of free content.

Transparency in this case means making it clear to both longtime users of your site and new guests that you are also in the business of providing related products. In your case, it is different from a television physician endorsing a product, because you will stand to make a profit. Frankly, people understand that, and appreciate that you make this clear up front.

Studies have indicated that many people still highly value the opinions of online bloggers who review products, even when the writers inform readers that they have received the product or even money to conduct the review.

It might be prudent to go the extra mile and establish a clean distinction between your content site and your commerce site. This will help keep the difference between informational and promotional messaging distinct.

Your opinion is valuable to the audience that knows you, and there is nothing to be sheepish about in promoting products based on that expertise. However, if you stray to hyping products that diverge from your quality and value standards, customers will likely quickly turn sour. In that case, you lose both the customer and the reader.

About the author

Michael Porter is director of the master's in health care communication program at the University of St. Thomas Opus College of Business.