I fell hook, line and sinker. Yes me, a careful, skeptical—I’d go so far as to say suspicious—buyer, got sucked in. I bought a useless information product from a copywriting “expert.”
This post could easily be a paean to the copywriter’s craft. An admiring how-to on targeting customers. A dissection of the perfect hook, a parsing of an irresistible promise.
But it’s not. This post is about trust. How important it is to build it. And how easy—and expensive—it is to lose it.
How I bought the Brooklyn Bridge.
I fell for the copywriting guru’s sales letter at a particularly vulnerable moment in my career. The economy was beginning its dive. Some of my most reliable clients had closed doors. Editors and marketers on whom I depended had lost jobs. Advertising and marketing industries were in transition. The whole professional landscape felt unfamiliar and scary. I was shaken.
The copywriter’s sales letter reassured me. He spoke in a friendly, confidence-inspiring voice. He used an appealing, peer-to-peer tone to whisper exactly the right promises—the words I most longed to hear. He tapped right into my core desires—and I tapped my VISA number right into his sales form.
I downloaded the white paper immediately.
He broke my trust for $40 bucks.
It was rubbish.
The white paper was worthless. I read it quickly—it took about 15 minutes—and with mounting disbelief. Basically, he’d rehashed his sales page and suggested a few tips on online search. The product revealed no new intelligence or insider tips. There was nothing in it that hadn’t been bulleted ad infinitum in any number of copywriting blogs—or that wasn’t common knowledge to working copywriters.
Yet, as I reread it, I realized it wasn’t actually deceptive. In an oily way, it never promised anything it didn’t vaguely deliver.
I felt so stupid. And…betrayed.
What you lose when you lose trust
So the copywriting marketer made $40—but here’s what he lost:
- Lost trust. Today, I weigh every word this marketer writes with suspicion. Perversely, I stay on his mailing list to monitor his snake oil specials—that’s how cynically I view him and his products. Even his once-innocuous photograph looks sneaky and suspect. Irrational? Yes. Remember, sales’ decisions—and trust—are about emotion, not reason.
- Lost authority. Before I bought the white paper, I held a certain image of its author in my mind: I saw him as a successful copywriting veteran passing on industry wisdom to colleagues. It seemed perfectly fair that he make a few bucks doing so. Today—true or not—I view him as a loser.
- Lost revenue. Since I purchased the white paper, this marketer has produced more products: a book, conferences, podcasts. I won’t even think about buying them.
- Lost credibility. I don’t recommend this marketer’s blog, book or products to others. And I don’t tweet or retweet him.
You spend years building trust—and lose it in a second.
Here’s the thing: Maybe the lousy white paper was an anomaly for this marketer. Maybe it was his only weak product. It’s possible that his book, conferences and podcasts provide tremendous value.
But as a burned customer, I don’t care. I have no incentive to give him a second chance.
Online trust: A contradiction in terms?
Savvy as we may feel about digital media, our knowledge of it is infantile. We type our yearnings into the ether and believe that the electronic blips touch minds, hearts and—if we’re marketers—pocketbooks.
We easily mistake these electronic “conversations” for genuine, intimate and mutual relationships.
And truthfully, sometimes we do form real, meaningful relationships online. But when intimacy pivots on Paypal, buyer beware.
My takeaways from buying snake oil
Though the bogus info product cost me a few bucks, it taught be some important lessons. Luckily, you don’t have to lose money to learn from my mistakes. Instead, I urge you to…
Trust your mistrust. Chummy, emotionally appealing copy is powerful—but you’re equipped with an acute bullshit meter that lets you resist it. Don’t ignore your raised antennae: That friendly, hip blogger you like so much? Does she actually work with clients—or does her business depend on selling info products and forum memberships? While you may glean useful information from someone purveying the latter, don’t forget her primary goal: To sell to you, not to be your buddy.
Grow up. You’ve heard it before: Online communities are like schoolyards. Inside the social media chain links you find every clichéd high school personality: jock, cheerleader, bad girl, nerd, stoner. You overhear their cliquish chatter and insider jokes. At one time or other, all of us have felt like outsiders wanting to belong. It’s only human to acknowledge this yearning. But today your inner child is accompanied by an adult—the smart, skeptical you, who thinks rationally and keeps an eye on the BS meter. Free your mind and use common sense: If association with cool bloggers costs money, think hard—think very hard—before clicking the Paypal button.
Get a life. When you’re feeling vulnerable and misunderstood, it’s easy to get snookered. The antidote is a rich life. Reacquaint yourself with reality. Drag yourself away from the screen and take a walk in the fresh air. Go to the gym. Or the library. Cook a meal from scratch. Go to a museum or art gallery. Read a book. Call a friend and have a cup of coffee or glass of wine. If you’re in New York, call me for a cup of coffee or glass of wine.
Make sure you don’t sell snake oil.
As freelance copywriters, we have ethical boundaries with client projects. We need to hold onto those same ethics as we blog, develop and sell our own products. Not to say that I never will, but for now I don’t sell information products. Before I do, I’ll need to ask myself some questions: Will my product provide genuine value? Will it give people something they can’t find elsewhere? Can I be responsible and responsive to customers after the initial sale? Am I willing to offer a money-back guarantee—with a smile? Until I can answer yes to all of these questions, I have no business selling information products.
And, if I may be so bold, neither do you.