Wow, It's Too Good to Be True

Marketing taps into our emotions, as Rory Sutherland shares in this great TED speech

Online any good idea that works well is quickly cloned by competitors. Both the larger competitors with piles of money AND those who are driven by money so much that they would sell their own mothers for a nickel.

This fierce competition for attention forces continuous (perceived) value add. Some of that is created through innovation and/or branding. But it also encourages sustainable margin creation by criminals through outright fraud. As long as there is an optimized conversion funnel, someone will step in and connect supply and demand. Take, for instance, the rise of fake security software:

"They'll take your credit card information, any personal information you've entered there and they've got your machine," he said, referring to some rogue software's ability to rope a users' machine into a botnet, a network of machines taken over to send spam or worse.
..., which has been shut down, had boasted that its top affiliates earned as much as $332,000 a month for selling scam security software, according to Weafer.

I am not so sure if earned was the right word. Stole, maybe? But when the product is layer upon layer of fraud, it is easy to pay out a high bounty for customers, especially when you use their computers to set up bot nets to further spread spam.

Worse yet, any level of popularity or credibility you gain with a legitimate business needs to be protected because people will trade off it. Yesterday in our support section Brian Menhennett wrote

Do you know or know of a Mr ____ ___ who claims to be associated with and takes money for search engine optimization in your name
If you do can you please advise me of a contact email address.
Kind regards

And, after hearing my response that I did not know the guy, I got this back

Thank you for your reply.

Unfortunately if I cannot find or contact ____ ___, whom I paid $10000 to do a SEO job that was not completed, then I have no alternative than to spread the word on a campaign of facebook, twitter, myspace and other social media pages and blogs to advise potential customers of the situation. Again, unfortunately, as your company name was used to procure the $10,000 contract so your company will be included in the campaign.

If you have any information on this person it would be greatly appreciated.

So people register similar domain names, point them at legit sites, and then start selling to people who can't tell the difference. And then rather than taking the opportunity to learn from the honest person, such ignorant people want to smear your brand for their own ignorance and stupidity. As though lashing out at me will get him his money back or cure him of his ignorance.

For every person who wants to learn to earn and become an expert there are hundreds or thousands looking for free money. And so they buy hyped scams from career con men...the only people willing to service them selling a "dream" package (with no substance) at the price they are willing to pay.

A similarly polluting marketing strategy that harms legit sales strategies is the sell the "anyone can do it" angle. When you sell the story of "mentally ill blind grandmother who just got an 8080 computer last week accidentally unlocks unbelievable secret blueprint to make millions per month, working 1 hour per day, printing cash from the nursing home, with one hand amputated" there is a segment of the population that will buy into such pitches. And that type of desperate / gullible / greedy / intellectually lazy person is often the easiest to influence by advertising.

They are the 8% of the web that clicks 85% of display ads. And once they buy one scam they will buy another. And then another. They are caveman clickers who buy buy buy. They tend to have thousands of Dollars of revolving credit card debt and a pile of useless junk they don't need. Debt slaves thinking that "this time is different."

This is why Bing traffic converts better than Google does. And this is why AOL traffic often converts better than Bing does. Stereotypes can be bad, but demographics are visible in conversion statistics, just like they are in ad click-through rates. See the following chart built from millions of ad impressions and hundreds of thousands of ad clicks

Automated ad networks syndicate whatever ads have the highest yield. When a product is layer upon layer of fraud it is easy to pay out a high bounty for customers - so ads promoting scams deliver a high yield, and are thus distributed everywhere. This is why the Fox News article blasting SEO as a scam carried the following wonderful advertisements by scumbag affiliates who set up fake newspapers to carry fake advertorials

Where this becomes a problem for marketers is when you come up with an unbelievably good promotion that is honest. Why? Well people are going to become more skeptical of the altruistic offer, especially if they do not know you. We did one such promotion recently that failed because affiliates pushing offers like the above "security software" simply polluted the space with junk. A once remarkable formula now creates something that is either unremarkable or unbelievable - due to a proliferation of scams that (at first glance) look somewhat similar. A friend who launched a cool free software tool recently had the same problem - people asking "what's the catch?"

The modern day robber baron bankers and slimy affiliates who whore out anything that makes a Dollar create an economic environment where people become more cynical and less trusting. Which makes it that much harder to give away value and hope for eventual returns to come in. If the publicity never comes then you just end up giving away money and getting nothing in return - a failed business strategy.

Years ago a professor did not want to link to one of my sites because he thought it was too pure with no ads. It was simply too good to be true. If I dirtied up the site with ads it would have been more linkworthy to him! And in the years to come, as the lines between media and advertising continue to blur, many people will become more like that savvy professor.

What is the solution? There are a couple options IMHO. You either need to dirty up your strategy to make it look less altruistic OR you need to be well known by the community BEFORE you launch a major promotion. Publishing becomes more about developing and maintaining relationships in the industry.

Online marketers will need to be good at 1 or more of the following to remain profitable...

  • promoting scams (or carry ads from 3rd party networks that promote scams)
  • building an economic reward system directly in the distribution channel (like the often hyped internet marketer product launches)
  • leveraging ego-bait marketing (a type of payment that costs ~ $0, except for when it backfires!)
  • mastering conversion and value-add sales techniques
  • becoming publishers who own media brands with strong user loyalty + affinity + distribution (even Google is recommending this, BTW)
Published: October 21, 2009 by Aaron Wall in marketing


October 21, 2009 - 9:29pm

Somebody's blaming you because they didn't due diligence on a spam artist claiming to be affiliated with you? Ridiculous...

October 22, 2009 - 7:40pm

Not to worry though. That guy's facebook network probably is one of two things...very small filled with people that don't even know your company and aren't potential clients, or very large filled with other intellectually lazy people who don't care about that guy's $10,000 anyway. I guess I just wonder about the type of company/friends a guy keeps who claims to have sent $10,000 to a guy he never met or verified.

If it were me I'd formally charge him with extortion, libel, and whatever else he's done. It seems as though he's trying to extort the $10,000 from you to avoid being negatively publicized on facebook....anyone agree with me? If that's the case, you have a case, imho.

Glen Allsopp
October 21, 2009 - 10:44pm

Ah, so true Peter, great post.

I'm sick of all of these social media 'experts'. I have been the social media manager for companies like Land Rover, Nissan and Hewlett Packard where we worked on real projects and not just the typical stuff you have mentioned here.

Even though, I'm hesitant to call myself an SMM expert. I'm just creative :)

October 22, 2009 - 5:08am

It's the classic Market for Lemons.

Although it's terrible, I think it creates an advantage for SEOs like Aaron who have had their reputation built by what most would consider trustworthy sources. I believe a competitive advantage exist for companies that have been "proven" legitimate in a market where the customer is afraid of getting a lemon.

Also, a great opportunity exists for the organization that can provide value to the consumers by leveling the playing field (ie: CarFax)

October 22, 2009 - 5:27am

Received a call from a woman inquiring about design work we didn't complete for her.

Turns out that a guy on some freelance job site pitched his services while pretending to be an employee of my company. He even used text from my site and pointed links to my portfolio claiming the work was his. He then took her money and never delivered.

On the upside, the woman was rational enough to listen and understand - not to mention believe me.

October 22, 2009 - 8:23am

I know a few moms that make more 70 bucks an hour. But I don't think they offer their services online.

Just a little joke to break off the ice. :)

October 22, 2009 - 3:47pm

I've noticed that the 'flat tummy' ads are finally showing up on Google AdSense. I hate that on my advertising-oriented sites, since it hurts my brand image.

Google's got a mechanism to filter out certain categories of scam ads, but you're not allowed to filter them all out.

My understanding is that the people running those ads are looking for cheap places to advertise; those ads don't show up on my sites that make > $1 eCPM, but they're all over the place if you're making < $0.20 eCPM. I don't see them in Facebook so much, because I think Facebook is finally starting to get some other advertisers. Since the Acai scam involves recurrent billing, the affiliates get a good chunk of cash for every person that converts, but I can't imagine the CTR is good at all on those ads.

November 4, 2009 - 7:40pm

Hi my name is Ratheesan yoganathan i am new to this field ... and thanks for joining me in here... i like to learn seo ...kindly guide me

December 6, 2009 - 5:07am

Yes if this fool presses forward, I'd say you have a legal case against them.

This also gives me an idea - why not create a page that lists all the employees and associates of your company, with a statement that any others claiming to be associated with your company are impostors - so that if anyone claims to be associated with you, they can either be caught out (by directing the plaintiff to the relevant page) or charged with impersonation? It could be made into an image file to prevent scraping.

Seeing as this is type of scam is becoming more prevalent, maybe there's a way to encrypt this information and have it stored securely - perhaps an independent web site that allows people to do this and then unlocks the file in the event of dispute.

I'm just bouncing ideas around. Anyway, damn good article Aaron. It's true, all this garbage makes people untrusting of even the good stuff. It's amazing though, I mean does anyone actually get rich throwing their reputation to the wind? Seems to me that one way or the other, the ride is going to be over pretty quick if that's their attitude to life.

December 6, 2009 - 12:14pm

I don't think their is a cure for people who are intellectually lazy though. If the person who was conned thought the other person was associated with me then they wouldn't have searched for a page listing all our relationships.

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