A Crash Course in Empty Promises

You’ve seen them on your Instagram feed and playing before your YouTube videos. They are loud, start in media res with a testimonial or an aggressive statement. The headline is out of context, but undeniably powerful, and you cannot resist but to click on it. “I did this for ten days and lost 10 pounds.” “Your life is mediocre if you make less than $80,000 a year.” “I could not believe what I was hearing.”

I’ve spoken before about manipulative marketing. Even though that sounds like an oxymoron, because one could argue that all marketing, by its very nature, is manipulative, I will refer here to particular techniques used to support a specific business model: the online coaching industry.

While there have been home-videos and books about how to accomplish any number of goals in life at least as far back as the 1980s, the last ten years have seen a veritable explosion in this market. Social media has become flooded with experts who claim to have done all the work and the research so that you don’t have to. They will sum up their ten or fifteen years of experience, hard work and hard knocks in this four-hour course that will catapult you to wherever you want to go.

It can be anything, because anything can be spun into a story about failure and success — the linchpin of this marketing style. Once they grab you with a hook to the jaw (“You know, this young man just texted me right now, he took action with my program, which most people don’t. He just made his first $1,000,” Wesley Virgin proclaims in the five seconds before the video I clicked on begins to play), they will lead you to their website.

The link leads to a landing page with a scrollable arrangement you can take up in one glance. The beauty of this design is that, even after your impatient fingers have scrolled all the way to the bottom, the information is arranged in such a way that you go back to the top, determined to hear what this person has to say.

There’s usually a video at the top highlighting the problem in detail. In the worst offenders of this model, the video will play without the ability to pause or skip ahead. The font and colors may be garish and suggest poor taste, but if done really well with a care for good design, it can attract the clientele that is usually put off by spelling mistakes and boxy red letters.

The video is followed and sometimes replaced by the personal story. “I was just like you. I was miserable because I weighed 400 pounds/was in massive debt/could not cook a meal/kept having terrible dates. Then I started doing this.” The problem can be related to any number of things. While the vast majority of these courses target people who want to make money or lose weight, they exist for dating advice (how to talk to women), social media growth or fitness practices.

Most recently, I found a young American man peddling an English-learning course to Spanish speakers for $500. In his videos, he speaks in accented but otherwise pretty reasonable Spanish in order to sell his potential clientele on the fact that he has unlocked the trick to mastering a foreign language. “If I can, so can you,” is one of the most common premises of these stories, which often emphasize how little the person originally had or knew about their chosen field before becoming a master at it “with this simple trick”.

Testimonials may follow, paragraph-long quotes of smiling people talking about what the product has done for them. The emphasis is always on how solving this one thing changed their whole lives. Whatever problems they were dealing with before, increasing their monthly income, losing X number of pounds, switching careers or buying their first home completely turned around their lives.

This website, for example, claims to turn around your romantic relationship with the magic of bachata. The web funnel consists of paragraph after paragraph describing the problem and the solution: you are both bored, sitting in front of the TV, and the sparkles have all gone out of your marriage. Why not spice things up with this Bachata Chemistry course that will put the spark back into your marriage?

Then comes the actual product being sold. “You can overcome your hurdle with my course or membership service. You do not need to go through this alone, I am here. Let’s work together.” The course or service offering is summarized, followed by the value and the price. The products are always valued at three or four times more than what the seller is charging you. The value is crossed out, and the actual price is shown in big bold letters. “VALUED AT $3,456. YOUR PRICE: $497.” While the price sometimes ends in a 9, in about 98% of cases it ends in a 7.

Welcome to the online coaching sales funnel.

After falling for this trap a few times, I have become quite skeptical about these types of products for various reasons.

  1. They create a high-pressure artificial sense of scarcity by establishing a supposed time limit for the sale. Many of these sales funnels function on the premise that they are giving away something that is very valuable for very little money. This is accomplished by overinflating the supposed “real” value. For example, I just saw someone selling a master toolkit to give you everything you need to start selling your artwork online originally valued at $297, but today on sale at just $27. They often add a timer near the purchase button so that you feel like there’s a time limit.
  2. They obscure the actual content of the course. The landing page for the product needs to appear to contain a lot of information in order to make you think that all the information is there if you take the time to read through it. But that’s just the thing: you’re not really meant to sit through it. You’re not necessarily meant to watch the entirety of the promotional video or read each testimonial word by word. The information about the actual product is purposefully vague and general and the website is mostly filled with fluff that’s supposed to make you excited and pressure you into buying.
  3. They sell aspirations, not actual knowledge or methods. The reality is that starting a business, losing weight or learning a language in a manageable, effective and sustainable way requires a lot more than what you can learn in a 3-hour course. To take the toolkit for artists as an example, you can have a great product or idea, but how are you going to put it in front of buyers who want to purchase it? How are you going to market it and where? How are you going to stand out from the thousands of other people doing the same thing as you? These courses often hook people who are desperate by preying on their immediate emotional response. They create a problem for which only they have the solution.
  4. Since the amount of money you pay is often low (that 7 at the end does wonders to convince any skeptical human brain) the risk seems low. It becomes more about satisfying one’s curiosity (“what is the trick that could really turn my life around”) than anything else. Once you are exposed to the content, the secret is never actually revealed. They purport to provide a method that is infused in the aesthetics of something practical, but actually lacks substance. And when a few weeks or months down the line you complain it has not worked for you, only you are to blame because you didn’t work hard enough or didn’t believe hard enough. The method is the method, you just have to follow it. If it doesn’t yield results, it’s because you didn’t really follow the method.

They are right about one thing, though: anything you want to learn or build does take effort and hard work. This is why these methods and courses are so deceitful: they sell you the promise of a secret trick, only to turn around and tell you that what it actually takes is hard work and patience. But we already knew that.

Translator, writer, dancer. I resist becoming a brand.

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