Is the Internet marketing industry imploding? I think it is. But if not, it sure seems like it. In fact, it seems to be a sign of the times.
For example, we see it with the FTC cracking down on misleading advertisers, Visa and MasterCard closing down merchant accounts for forced continuity billings, and Google permanently banning advertisers for reasons still unclear but somehow related to the latest crackdown.
Harsh? Perhaps. But we can't say we didn't see it coming.
Remember, it was about three years ago — wow, has it been three years already? — when my wife, Sylvie Fortin, put out her scathing report, called “Internet Marketing Sins.”
It was highly controversial at the time because people didn't expect it. However, since then many marketers, bloggers, journalists, disgruntled clients, unpaid affiliates, even social media experts have joined in the chorus. Some, quietly. Others, not so quietly.
For instance, copywriter Ryan Healy ruffled a few feathers recently by posting a scathing report, entitled “Internet Marketing on Life Support,” in which he singled out a few marketers for their questionable, unethical, or allegedly illegal practices.
One commenter praised Ryan for his willingness to name names, and by the same token criticized my wife for not doing so in her Sins report. In fact, since it was published, we received a lot of flak for not naming names. I certainly understand their cynicism.
So I'm taking this opportunity to elaborate on why we chose not to name names.
The aim of this blog post is not to persecute those who do. Just because we didn't name names doesn't mean we're against those who do. Not at all. But I do want to clarify in the hope that you, dear reader, understand why we didn't expose actual marketers.
First of all, we wanted to focus on the sin, not the sinner.
I agree that naming names works well. It can be potentially productive in stopping that one person — and maybe a few others who fear the same humiliating fate — from continuing their harmful practices. But it doesn't work all the time. It might even backfire.
Why? Because the cult-like status these snake-oil pitchmen enjoy, which in some cases are so deeply entrenched, might even boost their position among their loyal fan base.
(I'll come back to this later, as understanding this is of significant importance.)
Plus, I also agree that shaming people publicly has always been a productive technique to quench people's thirst for blood. As the news industry saying goes, “If it bleeds, it reads.” But in my opinion, doing so doesn't help the actual underlying problem.
We applaud those who are willing to take the risk. But if and when they do name names, they must do so with eyes wide open, ready to bear the burden of responsibility that comes along with pointing fingers — and the negative blowback such a risk entails.
For us, we didn't want to throw stones for a variety of reasons. The most important of which is the idea that we didn't want people to perceive our report as exhaustive. We simply can't return to the report to rewrite, edit, add more names, and so on.
Eventually, it would make us feel compelled to revisit the report, which is something we were not prepared to do. After all, we are too busy running our own businesses.
Simply, it wasn't our goal. Furthermore, naming names is risky because it can also be misleading. Others perpetrating the same or similar “sins,” if omitted from the report, may be seen as exonerated or exempted by their own set of followers.
They might say, “Hey, Sylvie talked about Guru ‘A' doing such and such. Since I follow Guru ‘B', then I'm fine (or he is fine, or the practice is fine and it's OK to do it, too).”
Second, we didn't want to become known as the “Jerry Springer of Internet marketing.” We wanted our report to be food for thought. We wanted people to start questioning. To start thinking critically. And not just to sit idly by, watching as the drama unfolds.
Years ago, I closed down my once very popular copywriting forum for this very reason.
(And believe me, I received a lot of flak for doing that, too.)
As the owner, I was the main moderator. But I never realized until the board became more and more popular just how much work I needed to put into moderating and managing it, thus taking my focus away from building my other, more profitable businesses.
Before you think that I should have outsourced the moderation, remember that I did have close to 10 moderators at one point. But the problem was exacerbated when I was even forced into moderating the moderators. (Yes, many a fight broke out among them, too.)
So I decided to shut it down. It was a hard decision to make.
Nevertheless, pointing fingers wasn't our goal. We weren't looking for fans. Instead, we were looking to help. We didn't want to be judges but advocates. Our goal was to focus on the consumer and would-be marketers contemplating such practices.
We wanted to alert the marketplace on what's going on, and educate people on how to discern, pinpoint, and avoid potential pitfalls — some of which are so sneaky and inconspicuous, they prey on unsuspecting victims who don't know any better.
Moreover, we wanted to avoid the “any publicity is good publicity” some of these cult leaders enjoy but most certainly don't deserve. So we preferred highlighting what to look out for and even go so far as to suggest actionable solutions, than who to look out for.
Now, here's what I mean when I said naming names can be counterproductive.
First, I'm not a psychologist by any stretch. But as a copywriter, I have studied human psychology and researched it deeply — both in college and in my career. It's part of my job. I don't know enough to be an expert, but I do know enough to know the difference.
That said, because of the cult-like following some of these marketers enjoy (it's no wonder we call them “gurus”), naming them can lead to some unintended consequences.
When you are attacking a cult leader, you are also, by the same token, attacking all of their sheeple in one fell swoop. Some will be dismissive and shrug your attempts. Others will react hostilely, perhaps even violently, to your accusations.
Naming names strengthens the position of these cult leaders as their followers will likely feel threatened, too. In fact, the more you challenge someone's opinion, the more convinced they become that their opinion is correct, and the greater their resolve will be.
As Brian Tracy once noted, in his program The Psychology of Selling:
“A man convinced against his will, is of the same opinion still.”
When questioning, challenging, or opposing their deeply rooted beliefs — beliefs into which people have invested much ego, time, and of course, money — they will have a tendency to rigorously defend those beliefs by defending their cult leader.
Again, think of the brainwashing process behind cults. It's something I have personally studied for many years. And what I've learned is, when people react to a challenge, it's not about defending their chosen guru. It's about defending one's belief system.
Most do it unconsciously and quietly. Many do it publicly and vociferously. And as we all know from events throughout history, some will do it aggressively. Even violently.
If you want some science behind it, here's an interesting fact.
Even if you think you're not at all sexist, racist, or homophobic, most of us are to some degree. We can proclaim that we're not, and protest ferociously when we're called to task. But subconsciously, like it or not our brain's circuitry tells another tale.
For example, take this online Implicit Test from Harvard, made famous by Malcolm Gladwell in his book “Blink.” It might enlightened you. Perhaps even shock you.
The point is, even if you think you're not sexist, racist, or biased against any other kind of stereotype, your brain is wired in such a way that you will have a tendency to be biased, no matter what. You will tend to favor one over the other, even if only slightly.
Granted, some of it is genetic and innate. But a lot of it is the result of environmental factors, such as our upbringing, societal mores, education, and personal experience.
People have preconceived biases, which are strengthened over time. Even when they say they don't or that they are open-minded, when presented with hard evidence to the contrary only solidifies their established mindsets, beliefs, and in some cases, delusions.
I remember reading an article once, where they likened “deprogramming cult followers” to breaking in a wild horse. The first few attempts seem futile. But the more they try to break in the horse, the angrier and more aggressive the horse becomes.
(Until, that is, the horse finally gives up and calms down.)
Similarly, the risk you run by calling out some marketer can, in many cases, strengthen that person's position in the minds of their followers because you are in essence challenging belief systems. You are bashing not just the guru but their followers, too.
Thus, they will believe in their guru even more, and even vocally and publicly defend them. But in reality, what they are doing is defending their own belief systems, for fear they'd realize and must acknowledge they were wrong all along. And people hate that.
As the saying goes in the selling and marketing worlds, people fear making a bad decision. It's human nature. And it's the basis behind cognitive dissonance (i.e., buyer's remorse). That's why we're told to sell on emotion first and then back it up with logic.
When people make an emotional decision, they will search for logical reasons to justify their decisions to avoid the risk of feeling wronged, hurt, or duped, or being perceived as foolish among their peers. And among their own followers, if they have any.
A good example? Look at political debates.
Seldom will you see debates swaying any votes from either side. They only serve to strengthen the already preset opinions of each political candidate's fan base. Statistically, debates are seen as useful only to attract undecided voters to their camp.
(Many come out of such debates more confused and undecided than before, too.)
If people bought from questionable marketers in the past, if their purchase happened to turn out to be relatively good, and if they're in the process of buying more products from them, then they, too, don't want to feel like their original purchase was a bad decision.
This is particularly true if they were supportive and even raved about it publicly. Nobody likes being wrong. But more important, nobody wants to be seen as being wrong. Everyone wants to save face. So naturally, they try to avoid buyer's remorse.
So they turn a blind eye to anything that might cause them such remorse.
That's why, in many cases, they stubbornly reinforce their decisions and staunchly defend their beliefs, out of their need for self-preservation, and to assuage their innate fears and insecurities. (Abraham Maslow's pyramid of human motives comes to mind.)
Finally, a final comment on naming names.
Fingerpointing does offer relief to some, and creates cheering fans for others. But in large part, they run the great risk of degenerating into endless pissing matches that lead to nowhere, except to more hurting, more name-calling, and even more fingerpointing.
If my experience as a forum owner is any indication, it can be perceived as no more than a playground, push-and-shove fight, where onlookers cheer on their preferred playmate.
When caught, both point the finger at each other, shouting, “He started it!” Which inevitably lands the two in the principal's office, regardless of who's at fault.
Lynn Terry made a superb point on her blog when she was defending herself in the face of similar accusations that resulted from Ryan's blog post. She wrote a post in which she said, “People who put titles on me do so only to define themselves.” Wonderfully said.
While she may be talking about being labeled as a “second-rate guru,” I think it fits nicely those among the guru crowd who have the brazen audacity to label their affiliates, clients, or non-clients as “losers.” Unfortunately, many have. Even publicly.
So to conclude, I often think of the saying that says, when you point one finger at someone, four more are pointing right back at you. And for that reason, we wrote the report as a way to extend a helping hand rather than point any fingers much less wag them.
Michel Fortin is a senior marketing specialist, renowned copywriter, and digital marketing expert. For the better part of 30 years, he's produced countless successful marketing communications and profitable campaigns that generated in excess of $300 million in sales. He's broken many industry sales records, including being instrumental behind the first ever “million-dollar day” online marketing campaign in 2004. He's worked with thousands of businesses and entrepreneurs around the world in a wide variety of industries on building their businesses, improving their marketing, and increasing their profits. He's a published author and often speaks at industry events. To connect with him, visit his LinkedIn profile where he is most active.