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Snake Oil Selling Hurts Us All: An Online Business Call to Arms

  |   Business Tips, Classy Marketing, Reputation   |   2 Comments

Snake oil selling is setting dangerously unrealistic expectations for not only what we as online business owners can achieve, but also what we SHOULD achieve. It's time to rise up and say no to misleading sales tactics that are preventing us from growing truly sustainable, successful, and fulfilling businesses.


If it wasn’t obvious by now, I’ve been reflecting quite a bit about online business. As of late, my thoughts have kept circling around this nagging question:


What is causing us to feel so overwhelmed, pressured, and, if it goes on long enough, FED UP with the whole idea of making money online?


There’s something going on here.


I mean, I know (and you know) that growing and running a business is difficult NO MATTER WHAT kind it is. There’s always going to be those long days, sleepless nights, and obsessive periods where it seems everything is about “the biz.”


Whether you’re trying to grow in the virtual space or not, that reality is the same.


Yet as I talk to more and more online-focused entrepreneurs — who have only been doing this for about 6 months to 3 years, mind you — I hear things I DON’T hear from my friends who own locally-based, brick-and-mortar shops, studios, offices, etc.


Things like,


“I honestly don’t know if I want to do this with my life anymore…”




“No one would guess it, but I’ve been seriously struggling for the last couple of months and am planning on shutting down most of my offerings soon…”




“I’m constantly feeling stressed, frustrated, and behind…something needs to change or I can’t continue…”


As I’ve been thinking about this, I keep coming to back to one disturbing factor that I think has a lot to do with this level of unhappiness and burnout:


By and large, we as online biz owners are being sold a steady diet of snake oil.


What do I mean by this?


Unlike other business niches, the online business arena — particularly online marketing “education” — has messaging that primarily revolves around two glitzy things:


1. Becoming insanely popular.


2. Becoming insanely wealthy.


Attached to this messaging is typically a promise — even if oh-so-subtly implied and even if rejected in the “fine print” — that the above can happen for anyone in just a few days/weeks/months.


The issue?


It’s all sounds amazing, wonderful, and like the ideal solution to all of our ailments…but it’s also all patently false.


It is, as it were, no more than the the modern-day version of selling snake oil.


There’s something that has to be said about online business education, friends. It has to be said clearly, it has to be said forcefully, and it has to be said repeatedly:


It’s misleading, unethical, and wrong to perpetuate the idea that if someone just learns or accomplishes X, Y, and Z, it will make them internet rich + internet famous. What’s more, it’s ridiculous to even suggest that this can be done in a specific — usually insanely brief — amount of time.



[ fun aside ]


Have you ever noticed that it’s really only in the online marketing space where you hear people promoting themselves on the basis of how much they make every month?


How many doctors, engineers, or college presidents mention their salary in an effort to prop themselves up as someone who should be listened to or trusted? If you went to a lecture or career training held by one of these people and they kept dropping references to their wealth, wouldn’t you feel like that person was being rather silly…even offensive?


The more I think about it, the more it strikes me as terribly strange that anyone trying to genuinely instruct + help people succeed in an endeavor would feel it’s appropriate to make their “multiple 6-figure income” a selling point — or hold it out there as a goal “anyone” can reach with only a certain level of knowledge or training in ____ .


Realistically, veryveryVERY few people will end up making $20k, $50k, or $100k every single month in their small business or with their blog, even if it’s a near-copy of what another person claiming to earn that amount is doing.


However, nearly everyone can learn how to provide great customer service, write a smart email series, or create a quality end-product that will help them advance their business or monetize more successfully.


[ / fun aside ]


In my favorite blog post of all time, anywhere, Regina of byRegina and the epic Humans of Online Business Facebook Group spoke to this very issue. I love her for it (+ for a ton of other things, like being so smart and helpful and genuine — NOT icky, smarmy, or full of hype):


“Can the average motivated person really go from $0 to $10K in the 30 days they take your course? How many people have created 6-figure webinars after implementing the tips in your class? Are people truly going to learn all they need to in your “6-figure” coaching business webinar that lasts 45 minutes and is just a sales attempt for your $2,200 offering?


Like. Really. I’m truly asking you this question dear brand owner.


How about telling us how YOU created $100K in income from a webinar after 10 years in business and 55 other webinars? That’s a course I might take.”


Now that’s truth.


Because making money online — whether it’s $100 or $10,000 — simply does. not. happen. overnight.


What’s more, it might not even happen for years.


(Remember when you thought if you just put up a blog and inserted some Google Adsense banners, you’d immediately start earning an easy $10 or $50 every month? I do. It doesn’t work.)


This why you’ll never see me say,


“Oh, heyyyy, I started a blog and the first e-book I sold a year later made $1000+ on its release. Here, take this $487 course I created called How to Make $___ in ___ Days with E-books!


I could never deliver on that course, and here’s why:


The basic action of creating + marketing an e-book played only a minor role in my monetary earnings.


I could tell you my exact process, I could lead you to create almost the exact same thing, and yet it’s totally possible you would make exactly $0 from it.


That’s because what I’m NOT telling you is…


• that I’ve been passionate about writing novellas since childhood, earned an A+ in my English classes, was the News Editor for my high school newspaper, and majored in Journalism in college.


• that I began teaching myself graphics and photo editing at about 14 years old, specialized in Layout + Design in my advanced journalism classes, and took a $240 night course through my local college right before I launched by business in order to learn Adobe InDesign.


• that I coded my first website in 1995, started blogging around 2002, and gained experience building online communities through my multiple years of freelance work for non-profits & volunteer groups.


• how I built up + nurtured an engaged online audience over 1.5 total years that trusted me enough to buy from me.


• that my e-book content was perfectly positioned for my specific audience in terms of knowledge they needed to know, the goal they wanted to achieve, and a price they were willing to pay.


plus a lot of other unique-to-me factors about my business, not all of which I had anticipated or had full control over, such as: word-of-mouth recommendations from people with larger audiences, the open-rate of my emails at that time, the fact I had relatively no competition, and even my unique personality + style of relating to people.


Do you see what I mean?


It would be plain gross for me to sell around my highly-individualized results because then I’m just selling you your wildest dream, which may — and probably may NOT — have any chance of coming true…whereas the ethical, responsible business owner would sell you something limited + concrete that can solve a specific, attainable need.


(So, for instance, a much more legitimate course than the one I mentioned above would be “How to Design and Write Your First E-book” or “A Step-by-Step Guide to Publishing an E-book in 60 Days.”)




Let’s bring this back around to burnout and how I’m come to believe deceptive, outlandish selling practices in the online business world negatively affects ALL of us who are trying to establish a brand online…


even if we never personally purchase the kind of products that I’ve been talking about.


The large number of “snake oil products” + the incredible corresponding claims hawked today are harming all of us because they’re setting crazy unrealistic expectations for not only what we can achieve, but also what we should achieve.


As more people promote themselves by using uncommon — and perhaps even untrue, as much as I cringe to say that — fame or wealth results as a flashy selling point (e.g. they excitedly! point! out! that the tactics to be revealed in a mere 1 hour webinar or 6-module course made them $140,000 in 1 week or earned them 30,000 raving fans in 3 months), that sends an unspoken message to everyone who sees it:


• First, it must be possible for the masses (aka: me).


• Second, there must be something wrong or deficient about my brand if I can’t achieve it OR don’t aim to achieve it.


This puts an extraordinary pressure on every young business owner who wants to achieve “success” (as it’s being presented to them by the loudest voices) online.


So what do we do?


1. We start obsessing about our daily, or even hour-by-hour, follower numbers.


2. We start obsessing about making more and more money each month — even if our current income is enough to support us.


3. We start obsessing about the “need” to: grow an email list to tens of thousands of people, do JV webinars, create massive + multiple passive income products, pitch a steady stream of affiliate products, do live video, schedule social media posts 5x/day on 3+ platforms, host Facebook Groups, get invited to present at online summits, get invited to speak at conferences, hire “a team,” etc.


4. We start obsessing about consuming more and more and more information that will give us the so-called secret to this level of success.


5. And, ultimately, we start obsessing about what we look like if we don’t do all of these things. If we can’t or don’t brag about our income or our numbers. If we can’t give the impression of being successful according to the noisy voices talking about fame, and wealth, and what constitutes an “impressive” or “influential” business.


It’s this obsession that leads us down the road of certain burnout: longer and more stressful days, less fulfillment in our work, and the adoption of unhealthy habits in our personal lives can have only ONE kind of result, and it doesn’t take a psychologist to acknowledge that it’s NOT a positive one.


This is why so many of us are unhappy…and why it’s not unusual to abandon our online businesses within a couple of years of launching them.


There are obviously a lot of things to tackle about burnout, but here’s the deal:


I’m strongly persuaded that ending #BizOverwhelm all starts with tackling Snake Oil Selling first.


It’s a danger to all of us.


If we want to lead happier lives and grow sustainable businesses, we must purposefully reject it wherever we see it.


And not only that, we must help one another reject it as well.


(We can do this by talking more openly about our opposition to Snake Oil Selling [hello great new hashtag: #StopSnakeOilSelling], choosing not to talk about or share products being marketed in snakey ways, refusing to become affiliates for such products, or even actively — but respectfully — pointing out a product’s incredulous marketing language when our fellow biz peers or people in our Facebook Groups promote it.)


By ceasing to tolerate harmful selling practices, we can begin to powerfully influence our experience as both/either online business owners and/or customers of these businesses.


I’m convinced that as we start demanding reality-based, honest value from ourselves and others, we will ALL find greater happiness, experience greater quality products, and enjoy greater profits.


There is nothing to lose, but as I hope you see, there is everything to gain.


Will YOU join me?



Erika Madden

(Chief Olyvia)


  • Yessssss can I co-sign this entire thing? I absolutely love this part: “And, ultimately, we start obsessing about what we look like if we don’t do all of these things. If we can’t or don’t brag about our income or our numbers. If we can’t give the impression of being successful according to the noisy voices talking about fame, and wealth, and what constitutes an “impressive” or “influential” business.”

    ? ? ?

  • I’ve been thinking about this for about a year or so. One thing you didn’t mention (but that I feel) is the confused influence it puts on people outside of this online space. People who work in this space may know a lot of other folks who aren’t making a killing, so while they may feel behind or wrong, they also know they’re not alone. But when your friends and family who are not in this online space see all these flashy articles about so-and-so blogger who became a millionaire in 2 years, or such-and-so online entrepreneur who created a signature program that earns them $100K per month… and don’t even talk about the instagram stars who travel the world looking chic and trendy while earning $2M a year just being pretty and eating ethnic food around the world… your friends and family then look at you like.. “why aren’t you doing the same thing?”

    Personally, I found myself in a bad spot last year when a couple of very dear friends came to me and asked me to “teach them how to blog” – and I put that in quotation marks because the back story to their reasons for wanting to blog were serious and basically they wanted to learn how to make lots of money and become an expert respected voice for their topic. And my first thought was, how can I teach you that when I don’t even know it for myself? I tried to explain that blogging or online entrepreneurship really wasn’t as easy as it seems and even if you do everything “right” according to this week’s experts, everything will shift in a few weeks or months and all that you’ve done might not matter…. but I don’t think they understood. I ended up pointing them towards people who do teach intro blogging (and who I respect) so that they could start and get a feel for things. I just feel torn. I like working online. I hate the “slickness” that has come about from all the snake oil salespeople. We’re all struggling.

    All that to say… thanks for this post.