Preamble: today, I’m taking a walk down memory lane, talking about my history and the seedy side of marketing. It’s not pretty. I tell this story in large part as a warning and a lesson. If you’re OK with that, then join me, will you?
After watching a brilliant video with copywriter Jim Clair opening up about the dark side of copywriting, I had an interesting phone conversation with an indie journalist about the state of the Internet marketing industry.
As you might (or not) know, I was well-steeped in this industry, writing copy for and giving talks at Internet marketing seminars around the world.
Up until I met my (now late) wife in the early 2000s, most of the talks I gave were about copywriting. A few were on marketing. After we met and got married, we spoke together on stage about how to create and run online businesses.
But when my wife got sick with breast cancer, everything took a backseat for obvious reasons. Before she passed, she wrote a scathing exposé on the darker side of the Internet marketing industry, called Internet Marketing Sins.
During the conversation with that journalist, I was reminded by how far we’ve come in some ways and how we haven’t in others. For example, we talked about the evolution of marketing online, and how that evolution brought about a certain schism in this industry. (I’ll come back to this later.)
It was also one of the main reasons I wrote my manifesto back in 2005, called The Death of The Salesletter, and also why I eventually left the industry.
Let me back up a little bit.
In my early career, I was working as a marketing consultant and copywriter for cosmetic surgeons and hair transplant doctors. I wrote full-page display ads, created collateral materials, and scripted late-night infomercials.
The infomercial invited viewers to call and request more information. We then mailed a brochure describing the procedure. From those who received one, interested candidates would call back to book an appointment with the doctor to discuss their hairloss and available treatment options.
At the time, I studied all the greats in sales and marketing. I attended day-long seminars, bought courses that came in huge three-ring binders, watched hours of VHS tapes, and listened to countless Nightingale-Conant cassettes. (In fact, I owned so many, I had an entire room with a library filled with tapes.)
I turned my car into a “university on wheels,” as Zig Ziglar would often say. My trunk had at least 10-20 of these tapesets at all times — each set containing anywhere from 12 to 36 cassettes.
I remember attending an all-day seminar in Toronto (back in 1990, I believe), paid for by the owner of the clinic who hired me. One of the speakers was Dan Kennedy. After that talk, I was hooked. I bought all his stuff, subscribed to his newsletter, and immersed myself in the world of direct marketing.
This helped me to create a late-night infomercial on hair transplants that was so successful, it ran for over a decade. The Internet wasn’t around back then (or not well known). But when I decided to create this clinic’s first website in 1992, I used the same principles I learned with infomercials.
In short, the Internet was a perfect place for mail-order marketing.
But here’s the interesting part.
Those seminars had speakers of all stripes: from motivational speakers and business people to peak performance coaches — including former Presidents, TV celebrities, award-winning athletes, and rockstar CEOs.
But these seminars were mostly pitchfests in disguise.
At the time, I didn’t know better. I only later learned that there was a seedy side to the seminar business. It was the kind of seminar where speakers usually sold get-rich-quick courses and bizopp programs from the stage — often promising overnight wealth and success.
These kinds of seminars were big in the 70s and 80s. Many of the speakers were mail-order business opportunity hawkers. They would pitch their Joe Karbo-esque moneymaking offers, often “businesses in a box,” to a crowd of hungry (and often financially hurting) audience members.
Most of them were quasi-Ponzi schemes sold by snake oil salespeople — the kind that promised you could make money buying their courses, which only taught you to basically create the same business they did.
And most of these speakers were affiliates for one another, promoting each other, often to the same group of people. Some were even competitors to each other, too. But that didn’t stop them. As my friend Paul Myers often said, “The industry is filled with incestuous cannibals.”
I was young, naive, gullible, and broke — the kind of person that a lot of these seminars preyed on. I even wrote saleletters for some of these seminars.
In the 70s and 80s, seminars like these were mostly about mail-order marketing (and a few on real estate and investing). But by the mid to late 90s, they started to include Internet marketing. It made perfect sense. After all, it’s essentially mail-order marketing but in a digital format.
I was invited to speak at one of them on the topic of copywriting. I spoke on stage before, but not at seminars like these. So I gladly accepted.
I always loved teaching. That’s why I taught marketing part-time at a local college in the late 90s. And part of me wanted to become a public speaker, too. I even remember buying public speaking courses from the same purveyors I bought marketing courses from.
But I made a mistake. I wasn’t aware that I had to pitch something at the end of my talk. Little did I know that I had to sell something. The reason is, the seminar promoter would take a 50% cut of your sales. After all, the seminar promoter paid to pack the seminar room and to process all the speakers’ sales.
Obviously, by not making a single sale, I failed miserably. I lost a lot of money for the promoter that day. And I felt absolutely terrible.
Other speakers criticized me, and some even teased me about it for years. I felt utterly dejected and I was also in a lot of pain. That’s not an exaggeration. With people with RSD (or rejection-sensitive dysphoria, a common issue among people with ADHD), the pain is very real. It can also be debilitating, too.
I thought that I would never be asked to speak again.
And for years, nobody did ask.
But one day, a few years later, the same seminar promoter took a chance on me. This time, I was determined to prove myself. I hated being chastised, much less ostracised, by my peers. My RSD was begging for peer acceptance.
I did it not for the money but for the attention.
This time, I did exceptionally well. I even broke that entire event’s sales record and they christened me as the “top speaker” at the end. My pitch? It was for a copywriting course where I shared videos of me critiquing other people’s copy.
The seminar industry was rife with platform pitches (it still is, but it’s nowhere near the bubble it was back in the 2000s). I do believe that some speakers sold legitimate courses. But at one point, it seemed as if internet marketing was becoming less about education and more about making money.
In fact, what the speakers were pitching started to look more like packaged business opportunities and get-rich-quick schemes. It was at that point that I grew increasingly disenchanted with the industry as a whole.
More importantly (and disgustingly), many of them preyed on the financially vulnerable and gullible. I’ve heard stories of people refinancing their homes to be able to buy some of these courses. Ouch.
Some Internet marketers even hired boilerroom-style telemarketers who used high-pressure sales tactics to close deals. I heard stories that some of them made up prices just to fit whatever was left on credit cards in an attempt to squeeze out every single penny they could.
And to think that I was part of that circle.
I’m glad that I got out. In fact, my exit was largely precipitated by my wife’s cancer, which was a blessing in disguise. When her health took a turn for the worse, we stopped speaking or even attending these seminars.
(It was also around the same time my mother passed away from cancer. We set up a hospice in our home so I could take care of her. She died right in front of me. So did my wife just a few years later. But I digress.)
When we were hearing more and more horror stories of people falling for these hucksters, it made both of us sick, and it wasn’t because of the chemotherapy.
Speaking of which, this was also a time when a lot of these snake-oil pushers were hounding my sick, dying wife with their infoproducts touting natural cures and pseudo-scientific bull manure. One even accused me of being a shill for Big Pharma and that I should be ashamed of “killing my wife with chemo.”
This was the impetus that led my wife to write her Internet Marketing Sins report. It made us a lot of enemies, and I remember we weren’t being asked to speak anymore — let alone to become an affiliate for other Internet marketers during their big launches. We were perfectly fine with that.
Fast-forward to today.
I watch a lot of videos on marketing. And I’m astounded when I see YouTube preroll ads from marketers who are selling their moneymaking courses. New faces and new pitches, but it’s all the same old game.
It’s predatory at best and illegal at worst.
Which reminds me, here’s what I meant about the schism earlier…
Many of the old Internet marketers who are still around — only a few of them are, and others may have left the industry or gone underground, I really don’t know — have pivoted to the SaaS industry, and now sell software or services.
Maybe they’ve seen the errors of their ways. Maybe they’ve realized there’s more money in selling picks and shovels — i.e., software and services that help build real businesses — rather than snake oil (i.e., hopes and dreams).
I guess that’s a good thing.
Personally, here’s my take.
I don’t believe in teaching someone how to make money. Not directly. And not anymore. Money is a byproduct of running a business, serving a customer, and solving a problem. It’s better to sell courses that teach people real skills on how to run and grow a business, or to sell tools and services that help them do so.
To reiterate something my late wife said in Internet Marketing Sins: “Make money at the service of others, not at the expense of others.”
Lesson learned. And lesson earned.