The Real Sinister Side of Forced Continuity

Rant warning: what follows may offend some people. But I wanted to throw in my three cents on the topic of “forced continuity,” which seems to be the subject of a lot of debate these days.

Several well-known marketers have made offers of late with forced continuity. What it means is, the intended product you want to buy can only be purchased when you buy another (often, a continuous subscription) billed to your account every month or so until you cancel.

Forced continuity is nothing new. (In direct marketing, they call these “Til Forbid” offers.) It's another type of offer, pure and simple. It's marketing. And there's nothing wrong with that. What's wrong is not the way the offer is made.

The real problem is its lack of transparency.

But that's not what I want to rant about today.

What a lot of people seem to be missing here (and something my brilliant wife brought to my attention, which makes perfect sense to me), is that there is a deeper, much darker side to this whole thing.

Something all marketers need to be aware of…

First off, I was caught in the middle myself when I hastily promoted an offer last week, which I failed to investigate and inform my audience about, because I took for granted that the marketer's offer in question was clear.

(I've been told that it has since been fixed.)

Nevertheless, that was my fault.

Amid the flurry of abusive hate email, being called every name “in the book,” and the loss of many subscribers on my list (which are to a degree understandable), I apologized for it.

But my mistake aside, whether the sales copy is clear or not is not the issue I want to focus on in this article. Being clear is simply good business practice. It's also common sense.

Specifically, there's a difference between optional, forced, and hidden continuity. The first one I agree with. The second one I don't mind (depending on how it's used). But the last one is the one I despise.

It's also the one that's illegal.

Some marketers fail to properly inform the customer in their copy, and sometimes they skillfully hide the fine print until the last minute, just enough to be borderline “legal.”

My opinion?

You need to be transparent. You need to be clear in your offer. And you need great copy (yes, great copywriting can ethically persuade people to accept your continuity offer, when done right).

Above all, you need to be above board. Why? Because the gold is not in your list, as many marketers suggest. It's in your relationship with your list. Big difference.

But whether forced continuity in itself is a good or bad thing, or whether it's legal or illegal, is not the issue I want to focus on, either.

There's plenty of debate going on right now discussing those issues, many of which are beyond the scope of what I want to tell you today.

I'm not a lawyer, and I certainly know that, legality aside, there's a question of whether or not it is ethical in the first place. (I do believe it can be done ethically and transparently so that it's a win-win for both sides.)

What really bothers me is the stigma it creates.

That's the problem I have with all of this.

Matt Bacak and Joel Comm, two marketers who are at the center of the recent forced continuity controversy, are friends of ours. We promoted for them in the past, and they in turn promoted for us, which we are deeply grateful for.

Matt is not only a friend but also a client. I wrote copy for him. My wife takes care of a lot of his customer support work. We spoke at several of Matt's seminars.

As for Joel Comm, he, too, is a friend. In fact, my wife and I were the first ones to introduce Joel Comm to the Internet marketing seminar community two years ago, because we bundled his Adsense course with our offer at the time. We even paid Joel out of our own pockets for all the copies we sold that day.

As far as their approach is concerned, I do appreciate their attempts to push the envelope, which is admirable. It also opens the doors to be creative, providing new ideas for marketers to make offers online.

As copywriter Paul Hancox once said, the most important part of a salesletter to test is not the headline but the offer. And clear, transparent, and conspicuous forced continuity is simply a different type of offer.

Forced continuity aside, one can learn a lot by watching how these marketers market themselves. Their use of video is one of them, for example.

But the biggest problem I have with all of this is this…

It may be borderline ethical, but being “borderline” is just enough to cause a lot of animosity and resentment. Those feelings of ill-will and hostility are going to be a problem these marketers will have to deal with, and that's their challenge.

Believe me, Matt and Joel are far from being the bad guys. As service providers for close to 20 years, we've seen it all. And trust me, we've seen a lot worse.

For example, there are some marketers out there who not only make their continuity offers hidden, but also make it tremendously difficult for customers to cancel their subscriptions and obtain refunds.

On purpose.

Those are the worst, if you ask me.

(Making your customers jump through hoops to cancel their orders, not honoring your guarantees, or refusing to refund them, is just bad business all around, whether you used forced continuity or not.)

But what some marketers — the ones who use questionable and potentially harmful tactics — may not be cognizant about is how these feelings will affect others and our industry as a whole.

In other words, it gives Internet marketers a bad reputation. It gives all of us a bad name. It creates animosity and mistrust toward all marketers, good or bad. And now, legitimate marketers have to struggle twice as hard to sell and make an honest living in this business.

I know this from personal experience.

I fought hard to protect the integrity of good direct response copywriters out there. The direct marketing industry is not made up of just a bunch of scammy, carnival-barking, long-copy, hype-mongering fraudsters, as some purport.

Believe me, when I first opened my copywriters forum, there were some amazing, crazy, and sometimes pretty heated debates going on!

But some bad apples can indeed rot the basket. And they have. Why do you think the used-car business has such a bad reputation, for instance?

If you were to go into the used car business yourself, and you're a legitimate business owner with the intent to conduct your business in an honest, professional, and transparent manner, you have your work cut out for you.

You see, we're facing the same problem.

Marketers push the envelope. They think outside the box to come up with new and creative ways to sell. This is good. In principle. But the problem is, some of them just don't care. They will push the envelope too far.

Some even justify the backlash as publicity. “All publicity is good publicity,” they say. Negative publicity is bound to happen. You can't please everyone. And you're bound to piss a few people off if you're in business. Any business.

Plus, controversy does sell.

But it's not good when it is based on bad business practices, such as doing something illegal or unethical. That's not negative publicity. That's just publicity.

Sure, controversy creates curiosity. I'm a fan of using controversy to get people's attention. But controversy alone, or controversy created by bad or questionable business practices, is like a drug.

It's short-lived. It requires constant injections — injections of new markets, new products, or new offers — to stay “high” (high sales volume, that is). It forces marketers to keep fighting fires rather than growing their businesses. And it creates ill will, which affects future sales and…

… Kills it for the rest of us.

Here's an analogy.

A snake oil salesman comes to town. He sells his magic elixir that promises results after a period of time. After he sells his entire lot, in the dead of night he packs up and skips town before people realize he just scammed them.

Now, obviously, he can't go back to the same town to sell other stuff. He is forced to move to the next town to keep earning money.

Here's where it gets mucky.

The next time another salesman comes to town, perhaps a legitimate one selling a legitimate product, their sales will falter as a result of that town's previous bad experience. People will instantly distrust them. They will refuse to buy if not chase them right out of town.

In those days, word got around by horseback. So the snakeoil salesman had no trouble going from town to town scamming others.

Today, with the help of the Internet however, you don't need to be a victim like those townsfolk to be wary and skeptical of new salespeople. You just need an Internet connection. And common sense.

Again, Joel and Matt are good guys. They put out great products, and I like what they're trying to do in terms of promotion and marketing. It's creative. Done right, it can be both legal and ethical. And tremendously profitable, too.

But done wrong or done poorly, next time another marketer makes a similar offer people are going to think twice about making a purchasing decision.

Now, remember that the caveat emptor applies (let the buyer beware). I'm just as guilty of this. I should have conducted my own due diligence, just as much as we all should. I certainly will think twice next time I promote anything.

However, if you're a marketer thinking of offering forced continuity, think twice before you do, too. Remember the difference between “forced continuity” and “hidden continuity.” Be clear. Be transparent. And serve your customers well.

Otherwise, when it's not done properly, forced continuity can cause a lot more damage in its wake. Why? Not because it is bad in itself, or the fact that it leaves a bad taste in people's mouths.

But because, bottom line, it affects us all as marketers.

(And remember, some of us marketers are your joint-venture partners. Some of us are your affiliates. And yes, some of us are your clients, too.)

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