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Please note when I mention someone's work, it doesn’t mean that I fully endorse them or that they endorse me. It doesn’t mean I approve or disapprove of everything they write, publish or teach. It just means there’s something significant about their work that merits a conversation, and I want to give credit where it is due. (h/t to Kelly Diels, for teaching me this practice.)
It’s 3:30am and my mother is sitting in an auditorium with a few hundred other people. She tugs her shawl a little tighter around her slim frame. It’s freezing in there. She’s hungry. It’s been hours since they’ve had so much as a bathroom break.
Master Sha, self-proclaimed Grandmaster of I Ging, Tai Chi, Qi Gong, and Feng Shui, is chirping away energetically from the stage. He’s in the middle of a pitch for a karmic cleansing at the special price of $450 (marked down from $995!) It’s just for tonight though. He makes a point of mentioning how some of his followers are so committed they’re willing to mortgage their house to work with him!
One of his star students is vigorously diagnosing some serious karmic issues, energetically pronouncing things like, “You will die of pancreatic cancer by age 64!” or “Dark spirits are working against you.”
Naturally, all of this can be remedied by a $450 cleansing. On the spot!
Everyone is exhausted and tired. In about a half-hour, at 4am, everyone will be excused, but not before being reminded that the morning session will start promptly at 8:30am.
It's interesting people actually spend time debating whether or not Master Sha is a cult leader. My mom was one of the luckier ones. She never mortgaged her house. She walked away with a few laundry baskets overflowing with more copies of Sha’s books than any one person could possibly need to own, and that’s about it.
(It’s also up for debate whether or not Sha is a legitimate best-selling author, or just really good at manipulating his followers into buying thousands of books, and thus artificially inflating his book sales. The laundry baskets speak for themselves.)
This example may sound like an extreme case, but it’s not at all uncommon. It’s the same formula Tony Robbins uses, and it’s trickled down to Jeff Walker, and to the many thousands of entrepreneurs who use his formula—which is more or less everyone in the online course space (Maggie Patterson was the first person to make the link for me between cult tactics and online business).
I hosted one of these events myself.
I didn’t see at the time, but I was following the same basic framework—a framework that is used by most events in this space. It basically goes like this: sell tickets cheap or give them away “free with the purchase of a $xxxx program” so that you can pack the room, then sell some people something really expensive, usually a $10K program they don’t really need.
These $10K programs typically come with group coaching from salaried employees who might have entrepreneurial experience (but more likely not), and the people who buy them are very often beginners, with little more than an idea for a business. The bigger the star on stage, and the more 8-figure or 9-figure the business, the less likely students are to get any real time with that person.
You may have attended one of these events. You might’ve thought it was a self-help event. But it’s not really. It’s a sales event designed to extract the most money possible from attendees. And it’s not a coincidence that they often run way overtime, leave you barely enough time to get food, and keep the rooms cold.
It’s supposed to be uncomfortable. Hungry, tired people will pay almost anything to make the discomfort go away.
But I’ve already gotten off track.
How Live Events Leverage “Sunk Cost Fallacy”
Looking back, I can’t remember why I even wanted to host an event. I was just following the formula, creating new offers according to what everyone else was doing. It felt like the next step after creating a signature program: host an event to move people to the next rung on the ladder of offers, which usually looks like a pyramid (which should be the first clue):
This offer pyramid is so familiar I can count ten different people and name their offers without really thinking too hard about it. Is it inherently bad? Maybe not, but probably yes. Especially when you add a sales event into the mix, because the more people spend with you (and at an event they’ll spend thousands after airfare, AirBnBs, takeout, and maybe even a VIP upsell), the more they spend with you.
The offer pyramid is all about leveraging the persuasion trigger called “consistency.” Once we’ve made a decision, we’re likely to make another decision that’s consistent with the last one.
In other words, if I buy your program, then spend thousands to attend your free event (which is not really ever free), I’m highly likely to purchase your $10,000 program because it’s further proof that I made the right decision. In doing so, I am affirming the rightness of my choice.
There’s also something called “escalation of commitment.”
Escalation of commitment is a behavior pattern where a student facing increasingly negative outcomes from an investment continues the behavior instead of trying something different. Even when the decision makes no sense, it’s attractive because it aligns with previous investments.
It’s similar to “sunk cost fallacy,” which, in simple terms, is when a person justifies spending MORE money with a coach or teacher, because, well, “I’m already in so deep with this person, might as well stay the course.” (Dr. Michelle Mazur and Maggie Patterson address “sunk cost fallacy” in their podcast Duped: The Dark Side of Online Business. The entire series is worth a listen.)
Have you ever bought a program, not gotten any results from it, but still went on to buy something else even more expensive from the same person? You just escalated your commitment, and we do this all the time.
As a teacher or coach, when you construct a ladder of offers like this, you’re actually intentionally making students dependent on your coaching and programs rather than giving them the tools they need to go it alone.
And live events are a huge part of moving people up that ladder. So let’s get back to the story I’m trying to avoid telling you.
My coach at the time, a former bro marketer and wonderful man I genuinely believe is working at doing better¹, advised me to sell tickets for $97, which I did. There was also a BOGO offer, where you could buy a ticket and also bring a friend too. Honestly, we did so many ticket deals I forget what half of them were.
Get butts in seats. That was the sole focus.
Once the butts were in seats, I could sell them something. Oops, I mean teach them something.
I was far from ready for an event like that. The planning alone took all of the mental energy I had. For every two hours I spent planning the event and crafting that pitch, I spent about 5 minutes planning the actual content. The content was always something I would figure out later. Days before the actual event, I was still scraping together a slide deck and scratching down what I was actually going to say.
The speaker lineup was stacked with people who wouldn’t charge a speaking fee. Would they be good speakers? Who knows?! Let’s find out.
The event itself is a blur. I was exhausted before I ever set foot on stage. I can’t remember what I taught about, which is telling because there are speeches I’ve given just one time that I can still recite verbatim (like the talk I gave at ConvertKit’s Craft + Commerce event, which was a superb event, and nothing like the events I’m talking about.)
I remember music and dancing. I remember people liked the chill out space we set up, where participants could lay on a shag rug in the back of the room and not talk to anyone. We hosted a Pass The Mic night in our PJs, where anyone could sign up to be a speaker. That was really special.
It wasn’t 100% bad. In fact, it was probably at least 30% good. Or maybe more! Maybe I’m selling myself short. I certainly hope so. But most of what I remember is all the problems I learned about afterward.
The second day was capped off with the big $10K pitch to join a private mastermind. I remember thinking to myself, “Everyone will expect a lot of pitching because the ticket price was so cheap. I mean, half the people here didn’t pay anything. I shouldn’t feel bad about this.”
Except of course that most of our attendees had airfare, hotel rooms and a dozen other things they had to spend money on to get there. But I stuck with my story if only because, at this point, we’d sunk so much money and time into the event, it didn’t feel optional.²
People did complain about the pitching. I heard it a lot in the days following the event. Along with some glowing feedback, it must also be said. I’d sat through so much pitching at other events, I chalked it up to “just how things are done.” Like seriously, suck it up people! Pay me the money if you want actual information! (I’m joking, OBV, but this is the underlying principle for content marketing.)
If I could have just one takeback, it wouldn’t be the pitching. It would be the way we ended the event. And before I tell you about that, I also have to tell you that we did not have any people of colour on stage. Between myself, my co-host, our four speakers, eight guest mentors, and three staff members, there was only one woman of colour (who I actually thought was white, so don’t go giving me any diversity cookies).
We closed the event with a call for donations to the charity Village Impact. If you’ve ever attended an event by Jeff Walker, Stu McLaren, Amy Porterfield, or anyone in this circle (or maybe you were at my event), you’ve likely seen this pitch before. If you watch closely, you’ll see people intentionally leave the room, and if you follow them to the back, you are in for an interesting conversation.
I should also say that I have made several donations to this charity over the years. I’ve even been one of the top donors whose name was mentioned from the stage! That made me feel really good about myself. But let the record show: I didn’t have a single Black speaker at my event, and the only Black representation from the stage came in the form of a call for donations to build schools for children in Kenya. Of all the things that happened at this event, this is the one thing about which I feel most ashamed.³
¹ Which isn’t to say “my coach made me do it!.” My intention isn’t to shift the blame onto another’s shoulders. The responsibility lies with the student/mentee to filter advice and to challenge it when something doesn’t feel right..
² Only people who’ve ever hosted an event can truly appreciate how freaking expensive they are! We had about 85 guests and spent around $50,000 CAD on the event.
³ Side Note: Tickets were refundable to everyone who actually attended. We gave attendees the option to pass on their refund as a donation to Village Impact. I remember my coach telling me how he and his business partner used to do this at events—and then keep the money! Although we didn’t keep the money, offering this option to attendees at all feels a little questionable.
The Email That Changed My Business Forever
I received an email from one of our attendees in the days following the event. Her name is Saira Siddiqui and her email was the most important email I’ve ever received from a subscriber.⁴ In it she said:
“The most upsetting part of the weekend, however, came in the form of the talk by Amy Mclaren? Excuse me if I misspelled her name. Her cause, like many charities organized by white individuals in western countries, was extremely problematic for me. Termed “white saviors”, when white westerners enter other spaces in the name of “doing good” or helping, it often comes with certain assumptions. The first is that they know best. Better than the individuals working on the ground. Better than the locals who know, much more intimately what the needs and the culture of their people are.
[…] for myself, ending the day on Sunday with a woman who consistently centered herself and her work instead of providing a platform to empower those whom she was trying to help was too much for me. My friends and I sat in the back, unable to stomach many of the words coming from the stage.”
Saira was extremely kind in the way that she articulated the many problems with our event, which reflected the problems of an industry dominated by white culture.
“A shame,” she said, “since the very nature of this industry is that it has the opportunity to uplift so many people of color held back financially by institutional and generational racism.”
This was the wake up call that my business and I badly needed. It was the beginning of a journey my subscribers have been graciously walking with me since January 2020, when I finally spoke about it on Instagram for the first time.
This industry has a long history of hoarding information, dripping it out a little at a time, and continuing to sell more and more expensive offers even after all critical information has been dripped out.
It’s become just the way things are done.
The people at the top make tons of money, and the people at the bottom are left holding the bag, which, in this case, is a credit card bill.
I was honestly hoping I could avoid talking about this. I’ve only spoken about it in passing once or twice as “this bad thing I did one time.” I could go on and on about all the things I wish were different about this event, but we have passed the 2000 word mark, and honestly, it’s nothing new or different from the way most events in this industry operate.
Just watch I Am Not Your Guru on Netflix if you need a reminder. You know the one where Tony Robbins poses like Jesus Christ on the cover? 😂 I’ll never forget watching him publicly expose one woman’s sexual trauma in a room full of people, and then make another person break up with her boyfriend on the phone while being recorded on camera. Badly done, Tony!
But Tony’s methods represent the gold standard in sales events. And they’re not even free!
It’s much easier to point at Jeff Walker or Tony Robbins or Master Sha as the source of all problems in the online business world, instead of looking at my own business to see which of those oh-so-common sales tactics I’ve been using that cause harm.
⁴ Saira Siddiqui went on to work with my team for several months, and much of what you read here is the impact of our work together.
Does this mean lighting a dumpster fire on the whole industry?
I want to be part of the solution, and in order to be a part of the solution, we have to be able to talk about the problem. Because we’re grown-ups. The point isn’t that we all have to agree on everything. Every business owner has to decide on their own ethical practices, and they will be different for everyone. But if we’re not willing to come to the table and at least have a conversation, how do we grow?
You don’t become an ethical business overnight. It will take time to undo the harm that’s been done by the industry, especially with so many people teaching the same methods. The next generation of marketers is already being groomed to bake in all the same messaging and tactics.
But we can start by loosening the pressure valve when it comes to selling. Fewer fast-action, get-it-by-Friday-or-it’s-gone-forever bonuses that take away customer’s ability to make the right decision. There doesn’t need to be a countdown timer in every email. And it’s okay to be really, really explicit about who your products are NOT for (like, y’know, maybe don’t buy my $10,000 mastermind program if you’re in your first year in business!).
We do NOT need to throw out the whole industry. My business employs 5 people, spreads lots of money back into the industry via service providers and coaches, and has been able to help many people. I believe in “the opportunity” – to borrow a phrase from the Multi-Level-Marketing world. There is real possibility here, and the online learning industry is only going to grow (Maggie Patterson also introduced me to the way multi-level marketing and online business are similar. I’ve linked to a relevant podcast below).
If you’re just coming into the industry, you are in for a rich experience that can be both challenging, and incredibly rewarding. The industry's problems are complex, varied and deeply embedded. It’s up to us, the next generation of marketers, to find a better way. Otherwise, we’ll simply be replicating the same oppressive systems that the industry is purporting to make obsolete.
Here are some ways that we can start moving the industry in a new direction:
For Course Launches
- Offer fewer fast-action bonuses that force a decision quickly, especially on higher ticket items (which I would define as anything over $1000)
- Loosen up enrollment deadlines in general—let’s agree not to force people into making a big spending decision without taking a few days to sleep on it
- Don’t use countdown timers to manufacture urgency when there really is none – be explicit about what happens when the countdown timer expires. *For more nuance on this conversation, read this post from Brittany Berger on urgency in funnel automation*
- Use countdown timers THROUGHOUT the launch, not just in the final hours, to let people know they have time to consider their purchasing decision rather than to force a potential customer to “panic buy”
- Avoid triggering, fomo-inducing language “WARNING, THIS OFFER IS ABOUT TO EXPIRE!”
- Avoid all caps and red fonts
- Consider adding bonuses throughout a campaign, instead of taking them away
- When offering a very short bonus window (like a webinar-only bonus), let your potential customers know what’s coming, when the window will open and close, so that they have more than 20 minutes to consider their spending decision
For Affiliate Programs
- If you promote programs as an affiliate, use your platform to introduce more diverse teachers and programs to your audience, instead of the same people they already know about
- Always ask, “Who else is promoting this program?” so you can gauge if there is audience overlap, and dial back the pressure as needed (since your subscribers will be getting a LOT of it already)—and also so that you know who you’re climbing into bed with!
- Eliminate “I’ll email for you if you email for me” handshake deals that keep revenue from courses flowing between the same hands
- If you have an affiliate program, think about it from the perspective of “Who could I share my course revenue with?” rather than “Who can send me the most leads?” – and recruit new affiliates with that goal in mind
- When putting together a bonus package as an affiliate, don’t just tack on another course since that is very overwhelming for new students – what most students need is more support, preferably 1:1 support
- Don’t burn your subscribers by sending offers after offers, and treating your email list like it’s an ATM machine
For Live Events
- Never pressure attendees into a 5-figure spending decision without giving them time to consider or talk to their families
- Do not offer event-only bonuses (when people are untethered from their everyday reality, they’re not always considering whether or not they can handle the car payment, grocery bills and the $1k/month mastermind – give them time for the new ideas to land before pressuring a big decision)
- Offer a generous refund policy if you do sell from stage, meaning no homework requirements or hoop jumping, and at least a 30-day money-back guarantee
- Understand Sunk Cost Fallacy and how it impacts buying decisions—do NOT encourage students to buy your next offer if they haven’t completed or gotten results from the last one
- Consider the environmental impact of continuing to do large in-person events at all; Is this even necessary?
We have the tools. Now we have to learn how to use them.
Credit, Citations and Further Reading
This blog post, in its original form, was missing citations. Regurgitating ideas without citing the source is all too common in this industry and I want to thank Maggie Patterson for giving me the opportunity to correct this problem. In Maggie’s words, “Credit and citation is a feminist practice. Without it, we're perpetuating more harm, and upholding the very systems we're all working to change.”
This article would not have been possible without the last year of work I’ve done with Coach Kathleen Oh, unpacking the myriad of ways my business is upholding patriarchy and causing harm. Many of these ideas come out of our private sessions, and she should be given equal credit for the material you read here. In addition, Dr. Rocio Rosales Meza’s work on Unlearning & Divesting The White Colonial Mind has been an enormous influence on both of us.
I have learned from the following teachers through their paid workshops, one-on-one offers and group programs:
- Kelly Diels, Feminist Copywriting Certification and We Are The Culture Makers membership
- Dr. Saira Siddiqui (start by following her Instagram!)
- Dr. Michelle Mazur, Bro Marketing Overthrow
- Dr. Frantonia Pollins, The Evil Behind Your Love & Light (live series)
In addition to what I’ve already cited, some of my ideas came from the following podcasts:
- The Dream, with Jane Marie
- The B.S. Free Service-Based Business, with Maggie Patterson
- Duped: The Dark Side of Online Business, with Maggie Patterson and Dr. Michelle Mazur
- Rebel Uprising, with Dr. Michelle Mazur
- Business Remixed with Trudi Lebron
- Conspirituality, with Derek Beres, Matthew Remski and Julian Walker (tangentially related but still enormously impactful)