How to Tell the Difference Between Good and Bad Online Marketing Education – Before You Buy

Here’s the sad truth about Online Marketing “education.” Most of it falls in one of two main strategies:

1. Tease, don’t teach

This looks like webinars, videos, and “special reports” that are nothing but long sales letters, with no valuable content in them. You can spot these stealth pitches by the frequent display of sales numbers, photos of fancy cars and expensive vacations, testimonials, and phrases like, “I don’t say this to brag, but to impress upon you…”

Now, there’s nothing wrong with including any of these elements in a presentation – after all, we want you to buy our stuff, and we understand that we have to sell it to you. But if all I’m doing is pretending to teach while I’m actually appealing to your fear and greed glands, I think that’s pretty disrespectful.

2. Open the firehose

This is a more subtle way of withholding value. I give you tons of information, speak fast, overwhelm you with data and options. And then I tell you about my paid training, in which I slow down and give you a step-by-step system that you can actually follow to make money.

Again, nothing wrong with making “simplicity and order” things of value that you have to pay for. But when the market consists of hungry and confused people searching desperately for a roadmap to success, I think it’s cruel to market by confusing them more.

The Way You Sell…

My favorite book on sales, Let’s Get Real or Let’s Not Play, by Mahan Khalsa, contains my favorite quote on sales: “The way you sell is a free sample of the way you solve.”

Meaning, if my sales material is manipulative and self-serving, my content will be manipulative and self-serving. If my promotional webinar is all promotion, my paid course will contain way too much self-promotion. If my free training is a scattershot firehose, my membership site will also provide you with “spray and pray” (as in, “I spray and you pray”) education.

I have a short list of great internet marketing teachers. (No, we’re not “gurus.”) People I’m honored to share a stage with, to collaborate with, to promote their work.

All of them have one thing in common: their free material, the stuff they lead with to get you onto their email list and the stuff they share to warm you up as a lead, is empowering, not manipulative.

Instead of promising you the moon, then tying on a blindfold and spinning ’til you’re dizzy, they reduce complexity, give you the whole system, and then offer you deeper training and/or personal time to help you navigate that system.

Sean D’Souza, Gideon Shalwick, Perry Marshall, Glenn Livingston, Christian Mickelsen, Drayton Bird; you’ll never regret a minute you spend consuming their marketing. You could, in fact, build a complete and successful internet business just on the fumes of their promotional material.

The Godfather of Value-Based Online Marketing Education

The godfather of this kind of marketing, in the Internet space, is Ken McCarthy. He founded the System Seminar in 2002 with a simple idea: direct response marketing on the Internet is not that complicated. It’s based on a century-old set of principles. Understand those principles, and you won’t be confused by all the technological changes and bright shiny new objects that come and go.

That’s why he called his training The System.

And that’s why, in September 2002, after 3 years of me chasing my tail trying to market a couple of consulting businesses on the Internet, the System Seminar changed my life in a weekend.

Ken caught my giddy testimonial on camera, so I still get to see it every once in a while. I stand there, slack-jawed, gushing that I was just given “the keys to the kingdom.” (Go here and scroll down a bit to watch the clip, including chubby cheeks and a full head of hair ;)

As it turns out, I was. The simple and profound System that Ken crafted and shared that weekend has been the basis of my work for the past decade.

The effect was immediate. As soon as I returned home, I changed the focus of my consulting from personal development for managers to marketing. I felt so confident that I knew something that almost nobody else knew, that I had the means to compete in just about any market.

I wasn’t nearly as good as I thought I was, of course. There’s a difference between theory and practice, and it takes practice to get good at the theory.

But I soon became good enough to land some decent-sized clients and do right by them. To get my writing noticed – and touted – by Seth Godin in 2003. To be asked by Ken to co-create the “Smart Beginners” course in 2004. To become a coach in Perry Marshall’s organization in 2004. And to be approached by Wiley to write AdWords For Dummies in 2006.

How I Peeled the Potato

One of the things that Ken has stressed for years is, “There’s more than one way to skin the cat.”

(Actually, he became a vegan a couple of years ago. Now he says, “There’s more than one way to peel the potato.” Seriously.)

Meaning, there are lots of different models for online business success. The trick is to find a model that plays to your strengths, and develop it for yourself.

My strength has always been teaching. So I built a teaching/consulting/coaching practice for myself. I couldn’t run an ecommerce store if my life depended on it. I’m the worst affiliate marketer I’ve ever seen, despite “knowing” what to do, theoretically.

The trick to making a living on the Internet is three-fold:

1. Learn the basics of direct response marketing
2. Identify where you can add unmistakeable value in a market
3. Dive deep into a specific model that matches your personal assets and passions

Any online marketing teacher who moves you in those three directions is a true mentor, to be valued and cherished.

Any one who distracts you from these three priorities, or tries to get you to put Step 3 before either of the other two steps, is a stumbling block to your success.

The Last System Seminar

After a ten-year run, the System Seminar for Internet Marketing is ending. The final seminar will be held in mid-April 2011 in NYC. More often than not I’ve been a presenter, but this year I’m going as a normal attendee (OK, I admit the word “normal” is a bit of a stretch).

One look at the roster of presenters was enough to convince me to subject myself to airport grope-downs and the PATH train as a small price to pay for that much knowledge and access.

You can learn more about the event – and get some of the best zero-cost marketing education ever – by going to

I personally know several people who have built successful and fulfilling online businesses solely based on the content of Ken’s pre-seminar freebies. The reason, as I’ve spoken about above, is that Ken insists on teaching the basics first, and putting everything new and cutting edge into context.

And he’s ruthless in making sure his presenters do the same (I say this from personal experience).

If you decide to attend the System Seminar in April, please drop me a line and we’ll hang out and talk shop.

But even if you can’t make it – timing’s bad, funds are low, etc. – please take advantage of the free training. Especially if funds are low.

Yes, that’s an affiliate link. I’m proud to earn money, in part, by knowing the difference between quality and junk, and sharing that knowledge with my readers. If the idea of giving me a cut offends you, simply type the URL manually and replace the org with com.

Keep the Conversation Going

Got comments or questions? Think I’m full of it? Have similar stories to share about your own online marketing journey? Share it all in comments, below.

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7 Comments. Leave a comment or send a Trackback.
  1. #1 • Ben Roberts said on February 2 2011:

    Howie – You are the real deal. Thank you so much for sharing this information. Everything I have ever gotten from you or your fellows is solid gold and is very much appreciated. It has given me the courage to stop dabbling and start doing this for real (hobby vs. business). All the best to you and your family.

    Ben Roberts

  2. #2 • Jeff said on February 2 2011:

    Good post. I appreciate the distinction about how you’re sold is what you’ll buy. I’d add one item to your list. But, I’m not sure how you’d be able to tell.

    I think there’s a lot to be said about fit.

    The wrong fit will be just as confusing as working with someone who just turns on the hose. “Standing under a waterfall when a cup of hot, soothing butternut squash soup on a cold winter day will do.”

    In fact, I spent way too much time under the tutelage of a mentor (one of the one’s you site, btw). Don’t get me wrong. He did well by a number of students. But, I, along with a few others I’ve known, were more confused with working with him then before. It set me back a good three years.

    And it was my exposure to Ken McCarthy’s work that started me on the path out of the fog.

    And when standing back a few years later, I really feel like I was seduced. If he had had a clear, honest statement of ‘who I work with.’ I might have made a better choice picking a marketing mentor.

  3. #3 • Howie Jacobson said on February 2 2011:

    Jeff, thanks for chiming in. I agree that fit is extremely important. I’m a good guy and all, a good husband and father; but there are a lot of women I dated who are very glad they got away. Largely it was an issue of fit, not fitness.

    I’m sorry to hear that one of my marketing heroes wasn’t all that for you.

    I guess I’m thinking that there’s never a foolproof way to figure out whose star to hitch your wagon to. The more I teach, the better I get at anticipating a poor fit. And as a coach, I’ve learned to be hyper-sensitive to signals that a student or client was struggling, even if they couldn’t or wouldn’t articulate it to me.

    I also have been seduced down wrong paths; I like to blame whatever piper was blowing, but in the end, most of these seductions have been at least partly an inside job. I abdicated some self-responsibility, ignored some gut feelings, and overrode better judgment with outlandish hope.

    I’m not saying that’s true for you; obviously I have no way of knowing.

    But I will stand by my statement that all of these folks’ marketing is incredibly valuable even if you never give them a dime for their products or services. Because all of them understand that their first obligation is to expose the fundamentals, rather than the trick shots.

    I’ll send a note to Ken about your reply – he’ll be gratified to read it.

  4. #4 • David Szetela said on February 2 2011:

    Howie – first, I agree with Ben: you ARE “the real deal.” And a damn fine singer.

    My 100% biased recommendation for training;

  5. #5 • Howie Jacobson said on February 3 2011:

    David, I appreciate the compliment about my singing. I’ve been toying with the idea of adapting AdWords For Dummies into a musical for several years, but I can’t think of anything that rhymes with “click.”

    I’ve heard wonderful things about MarketMotive – maybe you need to send me a free pass so I can verify them ;)

  6. #6 • Karen Tiede said on February 3 2011:

    Speaking of lack-o-fit–is there a sales website in America that doesn’t force you to sit through 5 minutes of video before you get to the # anymore?

    I appreciate your recommendation; I’ve joined the Club and pondered going to the weekend. However, when I hear, “it’s the last one I’ll ever do,” I can’t help but think that we’ll simply see something “new and different” in 2012. Guess I’m a bit more burned out than I want to admit.

    Ken’s own marketing to me for this event has been painfully circular–MANY more than one email AFTER I joined, inviting me to join the $49 trial program so I could attend the LAST system seminar. And I still haven’t seen the prices.

  7. #7 • Howie Jacobson said on February 3 2011:

    I hear you.

    There is a lot of fake scarcity BS in our world, no doubt. But I know Ken, and I’ve been to most of his events. He’s really getting tired of doing this every year, I promise you that.

    I’m pretty sure he isn’t going to quit marketing and start an organic farm in upstate New York, but I take him at his word that these large public events are history.

    I’ve thought about running stuff like this myself, but knowing my strengths and weaknesses I hope to God there’s always someone around to talk me out of it.

    Can’t comment on his email strategy this year, as I’m on a whole different list.