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 “Negative Option Billing.”) 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.)

I’m not a lawyer by any stretch. But as a copywriter and business owner, I do know the rules enough to know that there’s a difference between “optional continuity,” “forced continuity,” and “hidden continuity.”

Optional continuity is self-explanatory. Forced continuity is a very common marketing practice (I’m not a fan of it, but I don’t mind it). In fact, there’s nothing wrong with forced continuity in and of itself.

What’s wrong is when it’s used in a wrong way.

The real problem, I believe, is that good marketers, including marketers using “forced continuity” in an ethical and legitimate way, are getting a bad reputation because some marketers unscrupulously misuse forced continuity.

The lack of transparency is the real culprit — such as hiding it or disguising it. Especially when it’s done on purpose. That annoys me. Because it’s no longer an issue of misuse. It’s out-and-out abuse.

But what bothers me more is how it affects us all. And it affects us all, both customers and marketers alike, in more ways than you think.

Forced continuity is nothing new.

The vitamin industry uses it all the time. I’m told Anthony Robbins uses it, too. Popular products like Video Professor, Columbia House, Time Life, Audible.com, and tons of others use forced continuity in some way.

(One of my coaching students reported to me that the infamous “Girls Gone Wild” videos used Forced Continuity, too. Though, he added, “Believe it or not, I don’t know that from experience.” Sure. Wink, wink.) 😉

Forced continuity, done right, can be legal, ethical, and tremendously profitable. As long as it’s clear and transparent. There’s nothing wrong with forced continuity in and of itself.

The fine line is when some marketers try to hide the forced continuity, or use hidden continuity. It’s not only bad business, it’s also illegal.

Worse yet, when marketers cross that fine line by using deception (like skillfully hiding it or burying it in tiny print) just enough so their forced continuity offers are “borderline legal,” is something I personally despise.

When you’re clear and above board, and you don’t try to hide it, to me that’s fine. I’m speaking from a customer’s standpoint, not a marketer.

I love having choices. And I love making them when my choices are clear to me.

Some people buy products for the premiums alone. Just as some people will be forced into a continuity program to get their hands on the main product alone. It’s an offer like any other.

You either buy it or you don’t.

But either way, it’s still a choice.

However, when you’re hiding or disguising a continuity program, you’re removing that choice from your customers. That’s the kicker.

Borderline or not, misleading or not, or ethical or not is not the point I want to focus on. Clarity and transparency are simply common sense. Period.

What I’m concerned with mostly is the bad reputation the lack of transparency creates. It’s hurting the good marketers, as well as non-hidden, ethical forced continuity offers from legitimate marketers.

The bad taste it leaves in people’s mouths creates a negative impact on our industry that affects us all. That’s the real sinister side of forced continuity.

It’s when marketers abuse forced continuity.

My point is that poorly done or hidden continuity offers affect us in more ways than one. We lose more than just our credibility. We lose more than just our customers. We lose lifetime customers.

Let me put this in a different perspective for you.

Obviously, our customers lose, too. But they lose more than just in the transaction itself. They lose a lot more than you think.

To me, selling is part of serving your customer. Selling is customer service, in other words. You are offering them something that can enrich their lives or their businesses. And so you owe it to them to make that offer.

As copywriter Brian Keith Voiles says so often, “Remember that you are a blessing in their lives.” So you owe it to your customers to make them offers — products, services and solutions that will help them.

On the other hand, not selling them is a disservice.

When you fail to make an offer, you are cheating your client. To that I would add, selling them in the wrong way (or against their will) is just as bad if not worse.

Why? Because you’re not only offering a disservice to your customer, you are also cheating them out of all future offers they will not buy because of the previous bad experience, including offers by other, legitimate marketers selling products that are perfect for them and with which they can enrich their lives.

It’s something to think about.

In defense of some of the marketers I mentioned in my previous article, let me switch gears for a moment and give you a few extra insights.

Joel Comm posted a well-worded apology. Also, Matt Bacak has removed his offer completely. I spent two hours on the phone with him yesterday, on his way to New Orleans to give a check to Habitat for Humanity. He feels really bad about his mistake and the backlash it created.

And I believe him. Here’s why.

As Matt explained, the strange thing about this whole ordeal was, the ability to opt-out at the beginning was actually a programmer glitch. According to Matt, it was supposed to be easily “opt-outable” from the get-go.

But Matt said that the programmer failed to make the changes (he was actually working on it) before the launch, when some affiliates jumped the gun and started promoting it prematurely before the programmer had a chance to fix it.

(Some people opined that they wouldn’t have apologized if they didn’t get caught. I’m sure that’s true with some marketers out there. And this can be a whole different debate, I’m sure. But I want refrain from it, as Matt and Joel can defend themselves. They’re big boys. They can handle it.)

Nevertheless, Matt got hammered as a result. Naturally. And he got even more hammered because his offer came out at the exact same time Joel Comm did his thing, which compounded the entire issue.

But something else made things worse.

When you add to that the fact that Matt mixed his forced continuity offer with a bunch of upsells one had to listen to and go through before completing their order (which can be annoying), it aggravated the situation.

This naturally gave people more to sink their teeth into.

It’s like the ketchup principle I teach at seminars.

Let’s say a sales professional is meeting you, his prospect, over lunch. His attire is professional, topnotch, and impeccable. His sales and collateral materials are of high quality, impressive, and persuasive.

He gives you an absolutely fabulous presentation. He did his homework, asked you the right questions, and said all the right things to close the deal.

But throughout your encounter, you couldn’t help but notice a tiny ketchup stain on his tie. Nothing significant, but just enough to catch your attention.

Now, tell me, if I were to ask you a few weeks later, “What do you remember most from that presentation with that salesperson?” The first thing that will pop into your mind will be, you guessed it, the ketchup stain.

Similarly, Matt or Joel’s mistakes aside, the upsell offers, which are not real problems in and of themselves, compounded the issue.

In fact, in the flurry of negative feedback I received, what I found was that people were more upset about being forced to go through the upsell offers than they were about being forced into a continuity program.

Like the ketchup stain, everything happened all at once, which diverted people’s attention to, and magnified, the forced continuity offers — or better said, mistakes. The ketchup stain became the elephant in the room.

I said to Matt on the phone, “If you’re going to get a $5,000 seminar for just a buck, putting up with a few ‘commercials’ ain’t bad… But when you’re mixing that with a programmer glitch that forces continuity, you’re bound to freak people out.” And freak out, they did. Rightfully so.

Back to my original point…

My previous blog post had several purposes.

For one, I think that people are confusing the issue, here, between optional, forced, and hidden continuity. I also wanted to express my opinions in an effort to expose different and more important sides of the issue.

I, too, made a mistake because I failed to investigate the offer beforehand, and didn’t notice the error myself. I still would have promoted it, but I would have definitely warned my subscribers about it.

Again, it all comes back down to transparency.

So my post was, in some way, trying to divert some attention away from the ethics of the practice (which is an entirely different debate) to the more important long-term effects of doing it wrong…

… And how some real scammers, who do hide their forced continuity offers, on purpose, affects us all as marketers and customers as a whole — and how it affects us in more ways than one.

I think that bad marketing causes a lot more problems than the backlash from Matt’s or Joel’s mistake. When I said in my previous post that “Joel and Matt are the good guys” and that “we’ve seen worse,” I meant it.

Just last week, one of my students bought a package from a company with a history of delivering poor customer service. (She didn’t know this.)

After not receiving what she paid for, she asked about the status of her order. The marketer in question outright told to her that, if she wasn’t happy, to stop bothering him and to ask for a refund. So she did.

(This alone is enough to make you wince.)

But what dismayed her most was, he not only outright refused to cancel her order and refund her (according to the credit card company, he allegedly exploited a loophole to prevent any chargebacks)…

… But he also had the coyones to call her an idiot for wanting a refund, and even threatened legal action if she continued asking.

Literally! I’m not kidding.

So when people are forced into continuity, that’s one thing. It’s perfectly acceptable to me. I speak as a consumer. (As a marketer, however, it’s not my cup of tea. I wouldn’t use it myself.)

When people are forced into continuity against their will, that’s a whole different ball game. And it’s wrong. (Moreover, when marketers outright refuse to cancel and refund orders, those are the worst of the bunch.)

To me, those are the real scammers. And those are the guys who are giving us a bad name — including legitimate forced continuity offers.

It’s no wonder people are scared to buy into forced continuity offers. And it’s also no wonder why some unscrupulous marketers feel the need to hide it and resort to doing so.

Unscrupulous and lazy, too.

Why lazy? Because, if you’re willing to do it right, be transparent, and use good copywriting to ethically persuade your customer on your forced continuity offer (and, above all, on keeping it), you’re going to be a lot more successful.

As Andrew Cavanagh pointed out in the comments of my previous post, you need great copywriting not only to sell the continuity offer, but also to sell the customer on keeping their subscriptions active, before they buy.

Otherwise, like it or not, you’re going to be hit with a flood of cancellations and refunds. And you’ve created a ton of ill-will, too.

I’ll finish by repeating something I said before:

Be clear. Be transparent. Use great copy. Serve your customers well. And think twice before you make a forced continuity offer — including how your offer will affect your reputation, your sales, and your industry as a whole.

And above all, your relationships.

That’s the bottom line.

About The Author

Avatar of Michel Fortin
Michel Fortin is a certified SEO consultant, content strategist, and marketing advisor helping plastic surgeons, cosmetic surgeons, and medical aesthetic clinics attract more patients. Since 1991, he helps cosmetic and aesthetic professionals increase their visibility and grow their practices. He is the author of the More Traffic Memo™ SEO email newsletter.

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