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 students reported to me that the infamous “Girls Gone Wild” videos do it, too. Though, he added, “Believe it or not, I don't know that from experience.”) 😉
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.
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 lunch 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 coaching students bought a package from a company who has 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.
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.