It happens pretty regularly. There’s a big buzz in online business circles about a too-good-to-be-true bundle of online courses, featuring a round up of (for example) 75 of them from various course creators across the globe. They’re packaged up and sold for the hugely discounted price of $100 (or something like that), to offer immense value for budding online business owners.
Or do they?
I’m arguing they’re bad for customers, because the tactics used were ethically dubious (in my humble opinion) and can lead to some form of post-purchase dissonance (that is, the feeling of disappointment or regret after making the purchase) for many who buy them.
And they’re bad for brands because they devalue content, and employ these arguably questionable marketing tactics which can impact negatively on brand perception.
This is based on my professional opinion, my own observation and research into the matter. My intention is to highlight some of the potential issues with the way we market, not to name or shame. And the issues I’ll highlight are rife throughout the online business world.
Let’s look at why they’re bad for customers first
(as we should always be putting customers first):
Firstly, the language and psychological tactics employed to sell one of the bundles I researched were highly dubious. Here are some to wrap your head sponge around.
A sense of urgency
Promoting the bundle over an arbitrarily short space of time (7 days) before it was no longer available, was designed to stimulate the fear of missing out. This is purely so customers don’t overthink it, and respond in order to avoid the FOMO, as they’re made to believe “it won’t be around again”. It’s a common manipulative tactic that taps into fear. On its own, it can be a legitimate tactic when you consider it a limited time offer (because the course creators effectively are offering their course for less than $1, for example). However, when used in conjunction with some of the other tactics I discovered, it doesn’t feel as nice.
An overwhelming amount of content
The bundle I researched featured content in the form of 75 online courses / offers like short term access to memberships.
Firstly, all 75 offers would never be relevant to everyone who buys it (for example, the people interested in “The 6-figure VA” course would be highly unlikely to also be interested in the “How To Become A Coach” course. While this in itself mightn’t be a big deal, it does mean that at the outset, the purported ‘total value’ of the bundle is irrelevant, because those savings would never be realised by an individual in the first place.
Secondly, even if only half the courses were relevant to the customer, they’d have to do a course every fortnight to complete them in a year. It’s impractical, also rendering the supposed ‘value’ irrelevant. Especially as those same purchasers would most likely be targeted to buy the next bundle.
Thirdly, purchasing the course only gives customers a coupon for the courses in the bundle. Purchasers then have to separately go into each course or membership and use the coupon with each individual course creator. This multiple step process seems unnecessarily overwhelming. Of course, it gives each individual creator the purchaser’s details… so imagine the overwhelm of then suddenly receiving 75 new course creators emailing you!
An almost incomprehensible discount
The bundle was priced with a discount of 99.4%, ‘saving’ you somewhere between $18,000 and $19,000 USD (these numbers seemed to vary across the many promoters, so it’s difficult to say what the actual purported ‘savings’ were).
While a purchaser might actually have bought a handful of the courses independently directly from the creators, they would never realistically buy all of them (again, because not all would have been relevant).
Let’s also remember that each creator has priced their courses themselves, so the estimated ‘value’ figures are defined by the creator, not the person buying it. This makes the total savings arbitrary as well.
Mostly vague and icky language
For me, the really dubious bit was around some of the language used by some of those promoting the bundle, which was clearly part of the copy pack provided to them (because it was all the same). In many cases it was concerningly vague, potentially misleading or frankly, offensive. Here are some examples:
“I’ve bought the bundle too and it’s amazing”
Yes, but I’m guessing it wasn’t for their own personal use, rather, to know what they’re promoting, right? This makes it, in my view, misleading, because the alleged purchase is not for their own development / learning, like it would be for their audience.
“This has been the best investment for my business”
No doubt – but again let’s be honest and transparent here (something which was *not* immediately evident among those who were promoting the offer, whether they were part of the bundle or not): this is a great investment for their business not because of the courses in the bundle, but because of the affiliate income they stood to make from it. Ick ick ick.
“It’s a no brainer”
This is by far the worst one. “No brainer” straight up implies that you don’t have a brain if you don’t buy the bundle. It’s not-so-subtly creating self doubt among prospective customers, again tapping into fear. What an awful thing for brands to do to customers. Make them feel bad about themselves in order to coerce them to buy. This isn’t a new tactic, it’s been around as long as brands, but to still see it used so blatantly and with no regard for their audience – yuck.
So what likely happens to customers after they buy?
Well, I spoke to a handful of purchasers and considerers/viewers and this is a summary of the feedback I got:
> Some purchasers felt like they got an incredible deal (which is fantastic and of course, the ideal scenario). They’ll do however many of the courses they wanted to or have the time for and start to either see the results they were hoping for, or feel good for having completed them. For them, it will be a worthwhile investment.
> Some purchasers felt completely overwhelmed and don’t know where to start. They may or may not have signed up for and started a few of them, but with no plan for how to approach it. They identified sheepishly they mightn’t actually use any of them. And already they were telling themselves it was their fault, feeling guilty for being impulsive.
> Some purchasers jumped into the courses and found that actually they weren’t all they were cracked up to be. (I mean, there’s a reason super high quality content is worth paying more for, right?)
> All people I spoke to who bought it implicitly trusted the person/people they heard about it from.
> Some saw the promotion and thought it was (quote) “tacky”, “a cash grab” and “off-brand” for some of the people promoting it.
Let me be super dooper clear here – I’m not commenting on the quality of the courses, because, how would I know? I’ve not spent over $18k for them all, so how could I *possibly* comment on whether they’re good or not (see what I did there???). There’s probably some gold in there, sure.
What I do have a problem with is how this has been packaged up and promoted and the lingering effect on customers – and society at large.
Now, here’s why they’re bad for brands:
They can cheapen brand image and detract from value
Discounting as a pricing strategy is not typically used by brands seeking to position themselves as premium and high value. By discounting so heavily, it devalues the content.
Over time, such discounting sets an expectation that courses and offers like this *should* be available for less and creates a commodity out of intellectual property, which isn’t actually very good for the broader online education market as a whole.
It encourages customers to wait for these insane, cyclical or seasonal promotional offers (‘Oh, I’ll just buy it next year’ or ‘I’ll wait til Black Friday sales’). It brings the whole market for online course products down into the muck of discounting, and therefore becomes a race to the bottom.
All while as online business owners we’re telling ourselves to ‘manifest’ wealth and ‘charge what we’re worth’. The two behaviours simply aren’t in alignment.
The promotion of such bundles – which sail a little close to the wind on what’s morally and legally acceptable – tarnishes brand image
This is where it gets really suspect.
Many of the participating affiliates, while seemingly ‘just helping’ their audiences by telling them about it, have not likely bought the bundle for themselves (professional curiosity aside). By being so helpful, they made a tidy 50% per bundle.
But did all of them disclose they were affiliates?
An alarmingly small number of the ones I saw had any mention of the fact they stood to cash in on their generous sharing with their audience. An audience who trust and admire them.
Now, there is nothing inherently wrong with affiliate marketing. It can be a legitimate way to expand your offer to your audience and diversify your income.
But you gotta tell them.
This is highly troubling because it takes away an element of choice for the customer. Let’s just take a moment to consider the broader implications of that.
Not to mention the potential legal hot water you can get into by not disclosing as an affiliate. Under Australian Consumer Law, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC in USA), The Advertising Standards Authority (UK) and numerous bodies throughout the EU, not stating your affiliate status can be akin to misleading advertising, which can carry harsh penalties.
Not only does the law prohibit misleading customers about affiliate relationships… It’s also the decent thing to do to disclose them.
It shows a major disconnect with brand values, or lack thereof altogether
Straight up: you’re not a ‘conscious’ / ‘purpose-driven’ / ‘customer-first’ brand if you then use unethical marketing tactics using fear or guilt to pressure your audience into buying something so you can make some quick cash. #sorrynotsorry.
And context is critical.
This sale was going down at the height of the Black Lives Matter protests. So when loads of people were choosing to stay quiet for #blackouttuesday to help elevate black voices… others chose to continue spruiking the bundle. Gotta get that sweet affiliate income 😣
One creator I saw did state they would be donating all proceeds of their bundle sales to a BLM cause. That’s something at least.
We can choose how to market our businesses
Right now, we’re all facing the most uncertain time in our living memory. We are all wondering whether our businesses are going to survive the economic fallout of the pandemic. But we can choose how we want to do business, and choose to do it in the most ethical way because it’s the right thing to do and better for everyone that way.
The lessons for all business owners are simple:
- Put your customers first, always. Think about the impact on them, how you want them to feel.
- Remember that everything your brand is associated with is a reflection of your brand and shapes what your audience thinks about your brand. You’re still responsible for managing that perception.
- Be honest with your customers and never take them for fools.
- Disclose your effing affiliate relationships.
- Remember that ethical marketing isn’t just for eco brands. Think about the tactics you’re using in your communication and question whether you’d like to be marketed to in that way and whether it feels good to do so. If it feels icky, it’s because it bloody well is.
Why am I so riled up about this?
Because I am so beyond over these tired tactics from the days of old. They’re unnecessary and don’t elevate us in any way. They’re not doing us any favours (whether we’re a brand or customer). They make us no better than dodgy car salesmen.
And also because I was let down by participating brands I admired and looked up to. Seeing them behave in this way has shattered my perception of them. Brands I now have a tarnished opinion of. It’s disappointing, and heartbreaking to hear of the disappointment of others about this.
Again, let me be crystal clear: I am not attacking any individual here – whether they be a creator who contributed an offer for the bundle, an affiliate or a customer. I’m not saying they’re evil or intended malice.
It’s likely some didn’t give some of these issues a thought. But that’s a big part of the problem.
This is why I’m highlighting that this approach is morally questionable and want to raise awareness of this kind of marketing. Because I think we all deserve better than that. And now is the time to choose to be better, so our work can be valued and our long-lasting impact be positive.