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Marketing compliance: What it is and how it affects your role

19 min read
Mike Puterbaugh


hat is marketing compliance, exactly? It goes beyond just following rules and regulations (GDPR and CCPA as examples). As a part of a team that produces creative content, your marketing compliance strategy should protect your brand's integrity and consumer trust through traceable oversight of actions, decisions, and changes during the entire content production process.

Unfortunately, many marketers see compliance as a nuisance, and some even ignore it altogether.

But don't make the mistake of thinking that marketing compliance is only relevant to highly regulated industries like healthcare (FDA 21 CFR Part 11) or financial services. Neglecting compliance can be disastrous to any business. Fortunately, with the development of marketing compliance software, managing compliance obligations has become easier than ever. In this article, we'll delve into the importance of marketing compliance and how implementing a compliance management system can streamline your processes, reduce risk, and improve overall team performance.

What we'll cover


And here’s the thing:

If your business ignores marketing compliance regulations, the repercussions could be devastating. Not only could you be hit with a hefty fine, but you could lose customers and the trust of the wider market.

Everyone on your marketing department should at least a basic understanding of compliance standards. However, in a fast-paced industry, your team really should get to grips with everything.

In this article, we’ll give you the advice and actionable tips you need to sidestep disaster, look at how each role is impacted by compliance,  and explore the merits of marketing compliance software.

What is marketing compliance (and why is it important)?

Marketing compliance refers to the regulatory laws that protect consumers from being misled or lied to by businesses. Regulatory bodies also safeguard consumer privacy rights, monitoring how companies collect, store, and use consumer data.

Today, brand integrity is more important than ever before, with 91% of consumers claiming they want brands to be authentic on social media. And that’s another thing:

This is the era of social proof, so if a brand makes a mistake, you can be sure the entire world is going to hear all about it. Even if you are eventually cleared of any wrongdoing, the furor of the social media age could do irreparable damage to your company’s public image.


Despite the growing pressure for brands to get in line, many companies still have a carefree approach to marketing compliance. Recent studies indicate that less than 3 in 10 companies have formalized processes for compliance. Similarly, a mere 29% of businesses claim to evaluate their employees for compliance proficiencies on a regular basis.

With this lax attitude prevailing, it’s little surprise to hear that many organizations are getting penalized.

Here are a few examples of major brands that got nailed because of marketing compliance violations in recent years:

Advocate Health Care - $5.5M

Advocate Condell Medical Center in LibertyvilleAdvocate Condell Medical Center in Libertyville. (Rick Kambic / Pioneer Press)

In 2013, one of the largest health systems in the U.S. was stung with the largest ever settlement for a violation of HIPAA regulations. It all happened because an employee left an unencrypted laptop in a car overnight, forgetting to lock the door. The data for over 4 million patients went missing, and AHC paid the price.

Goldman Sachs - $550M

Goldman sachs man speaking in a room[Source: Telegraph]

In 2010, Goldman Sachs was penalized for misleading investors with a subprime mortgage product. This subterfuge played out just as the U.S. housing market was beginning to crash. In the end, Goldman Sachs fell harder than anyone else.

Google - $2.7B

In 2017, the search giant received the largest marketing compliance fine in EU history. After a seven-year-long investigation, Google was found guilty of manipulating search results. This astonishing charge came with a stark warning to change its practices within 90 days or else face further monetary penalties.

Marketing compliance - How does your role contribute?

As you can see, without a hierarchy of compliance responsibilities and standards activated throughout your organization, it’s easy to miss key governance holes in your content production, communications, and approval processes.

While each team in your organization can be connected to a strong foundation of strategic and legal standards, creative marketers have their own compliance challenges.

Where do you fall into this hierarchy? Let's take a look at the various roles that can help implement marketing compliance on a daily basis.

Content Creator: tactical control

As content creators, the work of designers, copywriters, social media managers, videographers, and other similar roles play a pivotal role when it comes to marketing compliance.

If this is your role, you’re on the ground with the creative content itself, from creation to real-time modifications, and your work is constantly facing change requests, versioning and stakeholder approvals.

Man sitting in front of desktop computer

You might not be setting the compliance strategy, but your work touches many marketing compliance responsibilities, such as:

  • Circulating current versions to the right stakeholders, in the right sequence, for review and approval
  • Checking that you’ve received feedback from all stakeholders before creating new versions and new drafts for review
  • Maintaining a digital trail (and often a paper trail) of how you’ve acted on requested changes
  • Saving and storing source files and final versions in an acceptable format and location.
  • Ensuring that all content meets brand standards (colors, logos, copy, etc.), as well as any regulatory requirements (disclaimers, sizing requirements, etc)

Given the volume of requests that creative teams see today, ensuring that everything you’re doing falls in line with compliance standards can be a daunting task without proper processes in place.

Often, what content creators need isn’t more oversight, but a way to automate oversight during these daily processes that won’t slow down creativity and task completion.

Lifting the compliance burden for content creators starts with audit trails, controlled content reviews, and formal, recorded sign-offs mean they don’t have to track those items on top of creating content.

Project Manager: The strategic scribe

When it comes to marketing compliance, marketing project managers are the keeper of the books.

You’re overseeing the efficiency of the content creation processes, distributing creative assets for review and driving the collection of feedback, and fielding stakeholder input, all while meeting corporate goals.

That’s a lot to tackle, from both a tactical and strategic lens.

Blackboard with sticky yellow notes

Within this mix, you’re also mindful of:

  • Determining which stakeholders need content access for each project and providing justifications for why (or why not)
  • Tracking when specific stakeholders are looped into content and campaign review and the actions they take
  • Ensuring that controls are in place to record and distribute new comments, modifications, and decisions around marketing content
  • Maintaining a record of approval sign-off from all stakeholders from start to finish
  • Setting up review processes for different clients or stakeholders
  • Controlling project versioning in an organized manner

Often, due to the nature of different project needs, you’re probably also stuck working within email reply chains and file storage systems to communicate changes to content creators and stakeholders. The variability in these channels make it difficult to make sure work is completed in a proper manner and maintain complete project records.

Centralizing collaborator interactions (inside and outside of your organization), review tasks, and versioning in one system can go a long way to automating and improving the production of project records.

VP Of Marketing / Chief Marketing Officer: The brand connector

As a CMO, you’re likely thinking about brand compliance as a holistic strategy. Marketing messages can adversely affect a company's brand if they weren’t properly vetted before release.  

With so much on the line, one single compliance breach or governance issue can undermine all the hard work you’re putting in to launch creative, innovative marketing campaigns.

As a marketing leader, you’re not only concerned with internal corporate communications and process, but you’re also ensuring that brand partnerships and client communication meet the right standards. You need an easy way to:

  • Set guidelines for how external stakeholders, partners, clients should interact with your brand - and ensure they’re being met consistently  
  • Stay on top of regulatory requirements when brainstorming new or innovative campaigns
  • Create a strategy for the consistent review of corporate communications
  • Control brand cohesion across all of your marketing content channels, from digital to print to social media
  • Ensure that partner co-branding and content use across all partner campaigns align with legal requirements

Strong governance policies can end up being a major competitive advantage when pitching your services and earning the trust of new customers and clients.

Having automated processes in place that show measured control over content creation and creative production is key, but the real challenge for CMOs is to maintain compliance standards that are flexible enough to meet the needs of many different brands, clients, or project types.


Want to learn more? Grab a free copy for our ebook: "From Chaos to Compliance: What Marketing Teams are Struggling with Today"

From Chaos to Compliance-1eBook: From Chaos to Compliance--What Marketing Teams are Struggling with Today

Read what 500 marketers said are their most pressing challenges in getting creative projects completed--and how they solved them. Download ebook


Technology Manager: The data docent

Compliance risks typically boil down to how data is gathered, stored, accessed, and archives. Often what’s missing in the data that causes issues - lack of proof, lack of audit trails.

As a MarTech specialist, you’re the go-to guide in the murky waters of how data can affect (and effect) marketing compliance.

It’s up to you to show that, in a tour of all the marketing systems, data is handled properly at all times. This means everything from recording actions taken around digital content to maintaining audit trails of who is accessing and reviewing that content.

You’re usually on the hook for:

  • Gathering the right types of data throughout our content production (the who, what, when, etc.)
  • Securing data that’s collected around customer interactions and campaign analytics, and ensuring privacy laws aren’t being violated
  • Extracting or auto-generating real-time compliance reporting to stakeholders or regulators
  • Fully capturing content details and marketing data and archiving it according to applicable retention schedules
  • Discovering gaps in data governance practices.
  • Determine and configured content access needs across desktops and mobile devices for different roles.
People in a classroom full of computers

As the number of MarTech systems required to run and track campaigns grows, it’s getting harder to ensure that backend and consumer-facing technologies align with privacy laws.  GDPR has shown us that.

The growth of AI and sophisticated targeting to deliver marketing content means that MarTech managers need to be even more diligent over the validity of how potential customers see, interact, and are influenced by brand content in digital channels.

General Counsel: The legal eyes

The General Counsel role is arguably the most direct line to compliance sign-off in an organization.

As the leader of the legal team, you’re both first in line for setting compliance requirements and potentially the final stop (if not you, then a member of your team) to making sure all marketing communications are above board.

Your work takes the threads of creative innovation, client delivery, and corporate standards into one standard for business conduct. On any given day, you’re in the thick of:

  • Conducting a legal review of proposed content that falls under the umbrella of a compliance program
  • Making sure that proper disclaimers appear in advertisements or packaging in the case of physical product distribution
  • Enforcing contractor agreements to include full policies around proper content access, usage, intellectual property needs, and other concerns when working with outside contractors to create or distribute marketing content
  • Determining brand licensing agreements to ensure brand standards is being accurately met
  • Ensuring that social media policies - both internal employee and partner use and within content distribution - are up-to-date with current requirements and enforced across the organization

When you’re responsible for a huge burden of proof, your internal systems and processes should do as much of the heavy lifting as possible for you. Yet, privacy, security, intellectual property and brand regulations look much different today than even five years ago.

Editor’s Note: When it comes to governance, a wide range of team members, not just in marketing, face varying areas and levels of diligence required to effectively contribute to meeting marketing compliance requirements.

At the core of all of this is the content itself. How that content is being deployed - whether it’s being created, routed, reviewed or approved - plays a central role in the marketing compliance “supply chain”.

Similar to how compliance requirements have created the need for specialized solutions within departments (finance, systems management, even benefits), marketing compliance dictates that creative content be treated similarly, with specific, purpose-built solutions that demonstrate the controls in place.

5 Compliance guidelines every marketer needs to know

Here are five guidelines that everyone in modern marketing should get familiar with to stay on the straight and narrow.

1. Be fully transparent about influencer relationships

The rise of user-generated content has given influencers an instrumental role in modern marketing. They are here to stay, but growing alongside influencer marketing is the pressing need for greater transparency.

If influencers aren’t open about the working relationship, consumers may soon become skeptical and may lose trust in your brand.

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) keeps a close watch on this space so brands need to disclose such relationships to avoid troubles like the lawsuit filed against 20 social media influencers early in 2019.

2. Provide full disclosure about product details and costs

Trust is an integral aspect of building successful relationships, especially between brands and consumers. Therefore, half-truths are best avoided, as they will come back to haunt you.

For the perfect example, we can consider the ironic case of The Honest Co., which had to shell out $1.55M after it had deceived customers.

You must be upfront about all costs and clauses in any contract, and hide no details about your products and services. Hidden charges or unwelcome inclusions are not something customers will simply grin and bear, so always remember to include full details in a disclaimer.

3. Don’t hide risks associated with your products

In April 2019, the U.S Food & Drug Administration (FDA) issued a warning to homeopathic firms that were deemed to putting consumers’ health at risk.

King Bio Inc. was the main target, judged to have infringed multiple marketing compliance standards that made their products especially risky for children and pregnant women. Remarkably, the rap sheet included a breach of the ‘do not use snake venom in your “water” products’ rule.

The company was forced to recall hundreds of products, and will surely be dealing with the fall-out from the investigation for years to come.

It’s crucial to disclose any potential risks your products may pose to consumers, especially if you operate in healthcare.

4. Cite fairly when using borrowed content

As more people share all sorts of content across a range of platforms, it’s not always clear how copyright laws work.

To stay out of the woods, consider the following tips when you use borrowed content:

  • Ask for permission – A simple ask may get you the green light directly from the copyright or patent owner. They may want a fee or they could be happy with a public shout-out.
  • Stock photos – Sites like Unsplash offer royalty-free images that you can use legally. Just read the fine print to double-check for any stipulations.
  • Twitter embeds – By using the Twitter embed tool, you can legally re-publish images from other people.

5. Own your role

Marketers spend a lot of time thinking like consumers, targeting their needs to sell products and services to them.

Your marketing team must be mindful of the brand messaging that goes out. Is it truly accurate? Is it honest? Are you being open and upfront about everything?

By monitoring all areas of compliance, and driving a culture that puts consumer interests first, you can ensure that everything is being taken care of at your company. That way, it will remain protected and ready to deal with any potential complaints that may arise.

Gartner compliance activities into business operations[Source: Gartner]

4 Ways to ensure creative marketing compliance

With an understanding of the basic marketing compliance rules, and how each role is impacted by them, let’s look at some actionable ways you can ensure your business is coloring within the lines.

1. Document the approval process

If you don’t have a procedure for handling marketing compliance, you’ll struggle to show you are on top of it. Keep in mind that it’s not just marketers that need to straighten up. From product development to PR, everyone should be up-to-speed.

Together, your team can agree on internal standards that ensure compliance across the board. For example, you can determine what must be documented, and cases where legal or marketing leaders need to give written approval.

2. Collaborate and review

The beauty of the digital age means we no longer need to keep a massive paper trail.

Instead, once you’ve formalized a process, it's important to keep everything related to your marketing compliance process in a centralized location – like a shared drive. This way, everyone can access it and add updates regularly, from adding materials and documents, to making amendments and reviewing.

You can take the hard work out of setting up this workflow by using online proofing software.

3. Build a disclosure checklist

Regardless of what type of business you have, there are certain boundaries that you must operate within.

Whether you are running competitions on social media or advertising special offers for specific geographical locations, your marketing team needs to know what disclosures are required from a legal standpoint.

For example, a company in financial services will have to consider a different set of disclosures when marketing a superannuation product compared to a low-interest loan.

Initially, you may oversee this with a simple manual checklist, but in time, this process can be automated.

4. Update regulatory guidelines

Marketing compliance is not a ‘set and forget’ task.

Just as the digital landscape continues to shift, so too do the regulations. It’s vital to stay updated with the latest developments, otherwise, you may get penalized for an unwitting faux-pas.

Case in point:

You may have thought the eye-watering $2.7B fine was enough to scare Google straight for life. However, the company recently got pinged for another $50M after they failed to bring their practices in line with the major changes in GDPR regulations.

Statista google paid more in eu fines than in taxes in 2018[Source: Statista]

Compliance in action: 6 features to help keep your creative team compliant

By now, you’re probably thinking that staying out of trouble seems like a lot of work.

Thankfully, we live in the age of automation.

Here are six ways that marketing compliance software can make your life a whole lot easier:

1. Collaborative view

Forget about wading through old email threads to find specific information.

This tool allows everyone to work together simultaneously in real-time discussions, and every comment, reply, and attachment is saved for future reference.

Commenting in ziflow app dashboard

Team members can get involved from anywhere, which offers a collaborative approach that streamlines project management and communication. This is especially useful for large teams with remote members.

2. Security

Nowadays, security is a top priority.

Massive data breaches like those encountered by Yahoo and Facebook are a nightmare for business owners. So, if you’re looking for compliance software, security is a key consideration.

Ziflow has been independently audited, so you can be confident that all your data is secure. Going a step further, it guarantees that all data is encrypted, at rest and in transit.

Editor’s Note:Ziflow has obtained SOC 2 certification by an accredited auditing organization. SOC 2 defines criteria for managing customer data based on five “trust service principles”—security, availability, processing integrity, confidentiality and privacy.


SOC 2 has given us the opportunity to build best practices into every aspect of Ziflow, throughout every team – from people operations to code deployment and disaster recovery planning.


For security-conscious businesses, SOC 2 compliance is an absolute requirement when considering a SaaS provider.

3. Version comparison

Version comparision tool in Zifow - Create new proof version

It can be a headache to have to constantly flip between different versions of the same file.

With the right software, you can quickly create new versions with a click of the mouse, and compare two versions side-by-side.

By comparing proofs right down to the pixel level, you can identify minor issues, and evaluate even the smallest changes.

4. Organization

As your business grows, you need scalable software that can grow with you.

The best marketing compliance software will have organization at the heart of its design, and it should offer your company a flexible structure and options to manage your projects in a way that suits you best.

organization in workflows in ziflow online proofing - user roles assigning in a project

With customizable proofs and filters, you can tailor your workflow process however you like, and ultimately, set up your software to take care of more admin and organizational tasks, leaving you to focus on growing your company.

5. Audit trail

The paper trail may be dying out, but if the regulatory commission comes knocking, you must be able to prove you have everything in order.

Version control tool in Ziflow online proofing software

For that reason, you should ensure any software you use for marketing compliance has the functionality to record an audit trail.

Ziflow can do the following:

  • Save comments – Who said it, when they said it, and what was attached. You’ll have everything filed and ready for an audit day.
  • Versions are collected – New versions don’t overwrite the old. Online projects go through countless iterations, and good compliance management involves saving every step along the way.

These are useful aspects to consider, and they may just be what saves your business from hot water someday.

6. Progress tracking

Monitoring is a big part of marketing.

An organized dashboard that offers progress tracking on all documents and materials related to compliance makes it easy for people to glean quick insights on how everything is going. At a glance, you can determine where action is needed.

With this holistic view, it’s easy to stay on top of everything, and you can discover potential problems before they spiral out of control.

Compliance monitoring is no longer optional

Marketing compliance is no joke. Regulatory bodies aren’t messing around, as you’ve seen from the examples above.

What’s more, people care when brands are compliant. Studies show millennials will spend more on brands that act with transparency, and they have no problem talking about brands that do the opposite.

Every member of the organization, especially those in creative roles are susceptible to compliance risks. While knowledge of these risks is important, it's also essential that organizations empower their marketing teams with the tools to ensure compliance across each step of the review and approval process.

eBook: From Chaos to Compliance--What Marketing Teams are Struggling with Today

Read what 500 marketers said are their most pressing challenges in getting creative projects completed--and how they solved them.

Download ebook

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