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Is that writing course a scam?
I ask this as someone who nearly created one myself.
Back in March 2020 when I started my YouTube channel as the world descended into chaos, I fell down the “online course guru” rabbit hole and considered scamming my followers.
Let me explain.
What if you could make tens of thousands of dollars a month in passive income? No, I’m not talking about playing the stock market or investing in Zitcoin. You don’t have to have an education in finance or business or economics. The real money is in….TEACHING.
Yes! Being a teacher is THE ANSWER! Shhhh, don’t tell the ones working sixty hour weeks in public schools, dealing with book bans and dangerous TikTok challenges and active shooter drills and actual active shooters, all while trying to give kids a good education for a very underwhelming annual salary.
They have, like, degrees and certifications in education. What a waste of time! You don’t need any of that to make millions teaching. Did you know the online course industry is projected to be worth more than Jeff Bezos’s cat’s net worth in 2028?…
And so on.
So, here I am in March 2020. I’ve started my channel, mostly because I want to make videos about writing and publishing. I’ve always been a teacher (my degree is in music ed, I’ve taught middle and high school band, I taught ESL overseas, I’ve taught and still teach creative writing workshops.
To me, at this point, an online course is just a course I’ll teach in a classroom, but online with Skype (I didn’t know what Zoom was at the time). And as March turns to April, to May, and the pandemic news doesn’t get any less scary, I’m worried about a lot of things and one of those things is money. Because I ghostwrite books for a living now, and I don’t know if that work is going to dry up during the pandemic. I’m scared that summer is going to hit and I’m going to have literally no work and no income. So starting my channel was really my pandemic distraction project: I put a ton of time into it instead of doomscrolling every day, and I watched a ton of super helpful videos about building a YouTube channel. And the more I got into it, the more I found creators who said “Here’s how to build a YouTube channel…and use it as a marketing tool to funnel people into your online course, where you make jillions of dollars in your sleep.”
I was intrigued. Tell me more.
They all do the same thing, these gurus. And I’m not going to lie, it’s smart. This is smart. They hooked me. They put out these (again, very helpful) videos about growing on YouTube, peppered with videos about online courses, always with links to a free webinar. And at some point you’re like, free webinar, cool, I’ll check it out. I can’t tell you how many of these I watched. They are all exactly the same.
For one thing, they’re prerecorded but they pretend to be live. It’s comedy gold, honestly. You register and they send you a link that will only work at a pre-determined time, and at that time, you click the link and the video starts and the guru appears and starts greeting everyone in the chat—because yes, there’s a chat window, but weirdly when you try typing into it you never actually see your message? Is it a glitch? Or are there just sooooooOOoooo many people in the chat flooding it with messages that yours got lost? It’s got to be the latter, right?
It’s bizarre. There’s nothing wrong with a prerecorded webinar, so why do they want you to think it’s live? (There’s a reason - more on that in a minute.)
Anyway, once the slideshow starts it takes about forty-five minutes…but I’ll save you the time and tell you how it goes.
The guru tells you their life story, which focuses on them hitting their lowest point financially and personally and professionally, then transforming into a rich af online course creator with a Lamborghini they probably rented just to take a photo in front of for this slide.
Then they promise to teach you how to do it too! For free! Here’s how:
You figure out what it is that you can teach others to do because you’ve been successful at it. Something you figured out a process for. Training your dog, self-publishing a book, line dancing like a boss, whatever.
Then you outline your process. (This is called lesson planning in teacher-world, but if you’re an online course guru, you’re better than a teacher so you don’t call it that.)
Then, and this is key, you set a premium price. Premium meaning bare minimum $500, but over $1k is preferred. Sales psychology is at play here—if people see a low price, they assume your course is trash. And maybe it is! I mean, you don’t actually know yet because you haven’t taught anyone, but if you charge four easy payments of $997.97 people will assume your course is premium and they’ll be more willing to, and this is the phrase right here: INVEST IN THEMSELVES.
Next, you find a few
pawnsstudents willing to pay this wild price and teach them your process live (virtually or in person). Use themthis experience to work out the kinks of your course.
Finally, you film some video lessons. Put them up online with that fat price tag and get your handful of students to act as your ambassadors and invite others to throw their money at you. Maybe give them an affiliate link so they make a little cash and have a little incentive. Then those students recruit more students, and those students recruit more and they all make a little bit but you make a TON and is this sounding familiar?
The idea is that if your students are happy and out there recruiting more students, you don’t have to pay for advertising and again—this is clever, and frankly I know I am WAY more likely to sign up for something that a friend of mine personally recommended than if I just saw a Facebook ad or whatever.
Anyway, the webinar ends with an inspirational slideshow of the guru’s ambassadors all with their Lamborghinis filled with piles of cash and then they say “you can go out now and try this ~*~OR~*~ you can INVEST IN YOURSELF AND YOUR BUSINESS and have a MUCH better chance at success if you enroll in my online course…where I teach you how to build an online course…for four easy payments of $997.97.”
Oh, and this is important: enrollment is only open for the next twelve hours. So make that decision before it’s too late!
(See, this is why they want you to think that webinar is live. Because if you realize it’s prerecorded, you also realize enrollment is always open. Just sign up for the webinar again and magically, you’ll get another twelve hours to decide.)
Obviously, this is just scarcity marketing. And you know, we don’t tend to think about “limited time” sales on products in general as being scammy. So this isn’t either—it’s the same concept. But man, the lengths they go to to convince you this webinar is live really doesn’t sit right with me, and I think even early on in me getting into all this stuff, this was a red flag I noticed.
I just chose to ignore it.
The hilarious thing is that when you really go far down this rabbit hole, there are some people out there who have taken these online course online courses and launched moderately successful courses of their own about writing or dancing or crafting. But so many of them launch their own online course about building an online course, and their students to the same, and...it’s a Mobius strip, don’t think about it too hard.
But look. I’m not saying that this model is by nature a scam. It highly depends on the price and the actual value of the course content. Even if the course includes zero interaction or feedback, like it’s entirely video on demand—I don’t think that’s necessarily a scam. (I have a few of those out there, in fact! But they’re not thousands, or even hundreds, of dollars.) It’s not scammy to create a thing and put it out there for sale over and over again. Hey, it’s kinda like…publishing books. Royalties. Residual income. All that.
One thing a lot of online course gurus point out that I agree with is that a lot of the value for people is time. Yes, you can learn almost anything for free online, like how to pursue traditional or self-publishing. But it will take you a ton of time to sift through all the garbage and actually find the good info. If a course is truly good, and it can teach you how to do something very specific, in a very effective way, in a very condensed amount of time? Yeah, that’s worth something.
So picture me in the spring of 2020 freaking out over the world trashfire and also money and my career. All this guru-talk got in my head. Okay, I’ve taught literally hundreds of creative writing workshops. I could make a really good one, film it once, put it up online, and make that sweet, sweet passive income every month. It was such a soothing thought. And I started doing it: I had a course, a topic, an extensive Google Doc where I was outlining and scripting it out.
The only thing freaking me out was the price, because $500 minimum was drilled into my head. And the more the course started to take shape, the less I wanted to work on it. So by July 2020, I stopped.
I just had a Moment one day. I cannot remember what triggered it exactly, but you guys remember summer of 2020, right? It was just…awful. Everything about it. And I got to a point where I thought, what are you doing? I had gone from a place of selfish fear (selfish in a not necessarily negative way; it’s okay to worry about your finances and your health and your well-being during a pandemic) to more “okay, my work is still going fine and if there are people out there who are trying to write their first novel during all this world trashfire, I want to help them and I don’t want to charge a crapton of money to do it.”
And money mindset is a HUGE thing in this online course guru world. The basic thing they want you to get your head around is that it’s not selfish to want wealth, and that the more wealth you have and the bigger your business, the more people you can serve. All true. But so much of that depends on what you’re offering. I’ve seen fairly pricey courses where the creator has a team of people working and they are giving serious attention and value to those who enroll. But that’s not always the case.
It’s not selfish to want wealth. It IS selfish to slap together a course on something you haven’t mastered yourself, then target newbies to the field and charge them hundreds or thousands of dollars with big promises you can’t deliver on.
An incredible author might not be an incredible writing teacher. An incredible writing teacher might not be a super successful published author. And writers and teachers are both professions we’re supposed to believe are always underpaid, like “oh well that’s just how it is,” and I don’t think it should be that way. I do not judge any author out there for wanting to put an online course together as another source of income, because earning a living writing is hard.
But it’s not an excuse to scam people, either.