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Use the Force, Luke: Why Marketers Get Seduced by the Dark Side and Led Into Unethical Marketing

Star Wars

Danny sent out an email not too long ago that really struck a chord with me. He was answering a question from a subscriber who’d been slapped by a recent Google algorithm update and wanted to know where to go with his 200+ sites that were now sitting there dead in the water. I guarantee that this internet marketer didn’t expect what happened next – Danny telling him bluntly that what he had been working on wasn’t a business, it was a scheme… and that he needed to wake up and decide whether he wanted to build something real going forward that actually offered value to an audience.

Go, Danny! I was cheering.

Why? Because there are two sides to this business called Internet Marketing. And one of them is like Darth Vader, hissing through his respirator as he tempts you toward the dark side. Whatever you do, don’t let ol’ tall, dark and wheezy seduce you, because once you do, you could wind up damaging your reputation beyond repair. And once you’ve lost the trust of your followers, chances are you’ll never get it back.

“I’m Luke Skywalker. I’m here to rescue you.”

“You’re who?”

Most of us trying to figure out how to make a living on the internet aren’t planning on being tempted down the path of darkness. We usually have much better motivations than that. Some of us are like Luke Skywalker at the beginning of Star Wars, eager to get away from the grind of a dead end job we hate. Others are more like Princess Leia, the ambassador – we have a cause we believe in, a tribe we think we can lead, and we go online intending to make a difference in the world. Still more are like Luke’s Uncle Owen might well have become after a couple of seasons of crop failure – hardworking people who’ve lost their livelihoods for many different reasons and are simply looking for another way to make the mortgage payments. We all start out with high hopes: buying catchy domain names, setting up WordPress sites (sometimes with a little help… sometimes with a lot!) and start posting content. We’re spurred on by seeing all those other successful blogs out there – how hard can it be, we think?

But all that enthusiasm starts to wane, bit by bit, when we realize that nothing – or not very much – is happening. This audience building thing isn’t as easy as it looks, after all. We’re still depressingly unknown. Our blog posts get no comments, our traffic stats are dismal. None of our cute bantha videos are going viral. Suddenly we feel like we’re out there wandering in the Tatooine desert, not sure where we went wrong or where all our would-be followers are hiding.

And that’s when the Jawas slide out of the shadows and start whispering in our ears that there’s a faster way, a better way to make money online… much more money… (C’mon, you knew those little guys with the glowy eyes were getting paid on the side by ol’ Dark Lord Darth and the Empire, right? Check the logo on their paychecks!)

“Is the Dark Side stronger?”

“No, no, no. Quicker, easier, more seductive.

We’ve all seen the signs that the dark side is encroaching. The blogger who used to inspire us with the honesty and integrity of her message starts slipping in emails to her list promoting “friends'” products.  Now, to be fair, that isn’t always a sign of impending evil on a galactic scale – how we feel about it usually depends on what’s being promoted. If the blog has been built around championing the right of mechanical beings to be treated as equals, say, then offering a link to someone else’s line of mugs and tee-shirts sporting the logo “‘Droids are People, Too!” would probably just make the blogger’s readers smile, and maybe even buy.

But what if the product isn’t related in any meaningful way to the mission of the blog? What if it’s an eBook that promises to teach the reader how to beat Wookies at 3D chess or how to hotwire a speeder? The blogger is now abusing the trust of her followers to make a few bucks off what is bound to be an affiliate link. And that’s called spamming in any universe.

I saw the slide down the garbage chute start happening a few months ago to someone I had once admired, and it made me truly sad. This self-help author and success coach had always impressed me as a grown-up Luke Skywalker, a nice, talented, humble man who seemed to have a genuine love for solving the inner problems of people who were struggling to achieve success in their lives. He’d written books, and already had a loyal following. And then one day something strange happened. He sent out an email to his list, encouraging them to sign up for an event hosted by his “good friend” (these people always have a lot of interesting “friends,” don’t they?). I clicked through on the link in the email and was taken aback to find that the event was actually a rather shady-looking internet marketing seminar on how to build membership sites, pull in the subscribers and keep milking them for revenue “on complete autopilot.” Yes, they used the word “milking.” One of the scheduled speakers was actually promising to teach “how to virtually eliminate unsubscriptions – all the best tactics to keep your members paying!”

My self-help coach had just sent out an affiliate email, pushing a product that had absolutely nothing to do with the reason I signed up on his list in the first place. He’d gone over to the Dark Side.

And it didn’t end there. He was sending out more emails than ever before, but now his headlines all sounded like they were stolen from the idea files of the National Enquirer (no, not the ones about alien babies, now you’re just being silly!). From the sometimes complete lack of correlation with the content of the emails themselves, it was obvious he was being actively coached to get eyeballs any way he could. Worse, everything he wrote was now a funnel toward more and more webinars that promised all new content, all the answers to your problems. But the promises turned out to be empty…the webinars all turned out to be depressingly similar, and there was nothing in them that you couldn’t have read in one of his books or gleaned from his earlier blog posts…back when he actually had content in his posts. Sitting there on the other end of the internet connection made you wish for nothing but a fast forward button to get past the  same back story and the same waffle, all repackaged in a slightly different way every time. Every scrap of his “good stuff” was now stashed firmly behind a paywall that led to coaching products priced so high that I’m sure it gave most of his attendees the feeling they’d stepped on to the space elevator. Zero to outer-atmosphere nosebleed in six point three seconds…

The person I thought I’d gotten to know – the man I’d admired when reading his books and early communications, the man who had seemed to have such a genuine desire to make others’ lives better – had completely disappeared. He’d morphed into just another slick, slippery salesman with a pasted-on smile and a politician-like ability to answer a question without actually giving an answer. Unless you were willing to offer up your credit card, of course.

I swear he’d even started to sound like a used landspeeder salesman. Was his list still talking about him? Sure… just not in a good way anymore.

So what went wrong?

“Join me, and together, we can rule the galaxy…”

Affiliate marketing, done right, can be good business for you and your list. The idea is to ally yourself with others who have a similar audience, thereby multiplying your reach and those of your fellow marketers. It goes like this: Perhaps your passion is restoring classic Corellian light freighters, and your blog on the subject has gathered a small, but engaged audience. One of the frequent complaints you hear from your readers is that they’re having trouble buffing out the carbon deposits from all those Imperial “boarding attempts.”  One day you attend a conference, and you meet a fellow marketer who has just invented a product that cleans up the paintwork like magic, and its only negative is that it smells distinctly like Wookie morning breath. You check out the marketer’s reputation, and hear nothing but good things. So you go ahead and sign up as an affiliate for this product, agreeing to promote it to your own list in exchange for a percentage of the sales. And because you’re a good, honest marketer, you come completely clean to your list, telling them that the link they’re going to click on is an affiliate link, and that you will profit from any sales.

Win/win, because your focus is still where it should be: on helping and protecting your subscribers, even if they do need to wear nose plugs when using the product. Heck, you could even throw in a free set with purchase!

“If there’s a bright center to the universe, you’re on the planet that it’s farthest from.”

Ah, but what happens when it doesn’t go quite that well? What if subscribers are few and apathetic, nobody this side of the Maw Black Hole Cluster seems to be interested in designing parts to fit your salvaged hulks anymore, and you don’t have enough followers to persuade even an engineering apprentice at Awesomeballs Galactic Shipyards to do a webinar with you? What if your family’s patience is running thin and bills loom…and adventure still seems to be half a galaxy away even after all that hard work?

This is when the cockpit alarms start clamoring, because when the pressure reaches danger levels, the lure of a quicker – and significantly larger – payday can push our brave Jedis in training over the line. Now they’re in danger of diving deeper into the sleazier depths of internet marketing, out where the water goes dark and the dia nogus hide and wait. Suddenly it doesn’t matter as much that the products their new friends want them to push to their lists are a good fit for their audience. They just want to get a piece of that million dollar pie.

“Once you start down the dark path, forever will it dominate your destiny.”

It’s shockingly easy to be seduced by the Sith Lords of the IM industry… the ones with the videos claiming to make $30,000 a month from “one ugly little site,” usually on complete autopilot, of course. Jabba the Hut has nothing on these guys… at least you’d see him slithering in your direction! In another decade, they made videos of themselves pitching their wares alongside bright red Ferraris and bikini clad models. Now that Lifestyles of the Rich and Intergalactically Famous has become less PC, they sell themselves as former average Joes, only now they’re way cooler and more successful, of course. And if our young Jedi buys their thousands of dollars’ worth of courses, he’ll be an instant rock star, just like them. Except that he won’t be, unless he manages to do one thing: crack that inner circle himself and become one of them. Because most of the real money in that end of the industry is being made by a small handful of people… and they’re making it on the backs of all the other, smaller marketers out there.

The field is so dominated by these gurus that most of the little guys will be hard pressed to make any money at all – but that’s not the saddest part. In the pursuit of that elusive payday, they risk selling out their integrity, compromising their ethics, and betraying the trust of their lists. Before very long, their formerly loyal followers will begin to talk about them a whole lot… but not, as in our earlier example of the self-help author, in the way they’d like. And next comes the dreaded  “unsubscribe.”

And the young Jedi marketer himself? He winds up with a garage full of shiny objects that don’t work, his subscribers have all left him and his new marketing “friends” won’t return his emails… and suddenly that day job serving Traladon rib sandwiches at the local Speed Thru doesn’t sound so bad anymore…

“Who’s the more foolish, the fool or the fool who follows him?”

Choosing the wrong leader to emulate can be a costly mistake indeed. You don’t want to be on that battle station when it blows up, no matter how much the brochures go on about how the ladies can’t resist a man in a stormtrooper’s uniform. You want a career, not a revolving door of traffic because you keep burning your list and have to start building all over again. And don’t think you’ll be able to hide… Dark Lords come and Dark Lords go, but the internet is making the universe a very small place. Sites can be cached and Googled long after they’ve been pulled down, and when the word’s out, a reputation for being a galactic sleazeball can last longer than fossilized bantha dung.

So what’s the answer? How do you rescue your internet career from that galaxy far, far away and put it on the map without wrecking your chances of that happy ending where the princess hangs a medal round your neck and the cheering and applause is all for you?

“Help me, Obi-wan Kenobi! You’re my only hope.”

It’s been said many times, in many industries all over the galaxy, but the best route to success is to find someone you admire, someone whose success you want to emulate… and do what they’ve done. As Danny said in the email that inspired this post, it’s time to decide whether you want to build a real business that offers value to an audience. Be ready to put in the time and effort. Reward the faith of your followers by nurturing and protecting them. Earn their attention, and remember your mission… to add value to their lives. Give before you think about getting. And if you’re doing all that and still having a tough time growing your business, it might be time to find a Jedi master and ask for help. Often just a few adjustments in course can make all the difference between imminent failure and the jump coordinates to success. Even if you have to sling a few of those Traladon rib sandwiches to make ends meet until your internet business takes off, you’ll have kept your reputation intact. And that’s a whole lot better than winding up with Boba Fett on your trail for selling out your fans. Carbonite? Brrr. Just sayin’.

And be sure to pick your mentor very carefully – don’t be taken in by someone who dazzles you with his financial success and sweeps his motivations and methods under the carpet. Ask questions. Study. There are a many genuine, honest internet marketers out there who have solid reputations – I’m privileged to have found some myself, so I know they exist – and they’re often willing and able to guide a young internet Jedi on to the right path. When you’re looking for a coach, give it time. Choose a leader who is already where you want to be, and who got there the right way. Someone you feel you might have chemistry with (it does no good to try to work with a mentor whose style and manner leaves blaster burns on you, no matter how brilliant his guidance might be!) Park your ship in orbit around his space station for a while; watch what he does, listen to what he says.  Make sure he really walks the spacewalk, and most importantly, that he’s someone you’d be proud to stand beside on that dais one day. On the other side from the Wookie. (Did I mention they have really long arms?)

“Luminous beings are we. Not this crude matter… Already know you that which you need.”

Thanks, Yoda.

In other words, it’s simple. Use the Force, Luke, and you won’t go wrong.

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