Honestly, friends. We’re a stone’s throw away from 2019, so how is this sort of thing still happening? How are there still this many people willing to fork over hundreds of dollars to learn about going “from being a broke traveler to becoming a six figure [sic] earning travel blogger” and feel duped when it doesn't pan out?
A Bridge to Sell
Lest you wonder what I’m talking about, I’m referring to a recent online course offered by an Instagrammer and self-professed “free spirit who can’t get enough of adventure,” The course, cleverly titled "How to Grow Your Instagram," involves a 12-week curriculum, hosted on Teachable.com, containing a series of videos shared each week with labels such as “CONTENT IS KING” and, as you can guess, “STORIES ARE QUEEN.”
Additionally, customers who take part in this “Master Tribe” for the low, low price of $497 are also added to a private Instagram account. According to the creator: “The private account is to not only share more content in a more direct format, do lives etc, it is also to allow you to meet more like-minded people who can help you stay accountable in your new career path!” [sic]
Respect My Authoritah
I wholeheartedly believe that anyone should be free to offer up a product or service and elect to charge an amount they feel it is worth. In fact, a significant percentage of my annual income is derived from sales of digital products that I offer in my online store. I know what was involved in building them and, as such, I know what a fair price to ask should be. Hell, the course creator even spells out her rationale, albeit awkwardly: “I wanted the price to be a little 'painful' so it feels like an investment and will discourage people who are not serious about blogging as their future to participate.” Cool.
The source of my umbrage isn’t from marketing a $497 video course where she sells her experiences of becoming a purportedly wealthy travel vlogger. Rather, my issue is that she deceived her “Master Tribe” and attempted to turn the product into a pyramid scheme.
60% of the Time, It Works Every Time
At this point, we generally understand that the speed at which one’s personal or brand reputation can be seriously marred is stupefyingly fast, and hell hath no fury like a scorned customer taking to the Internet. That is why I am neurotic about doing everything I can to ensure a positive customer experience and that I always deliver on what I promise.
Unfortunately, shortly after the 12-week course began, customers began feeling concerned. Perhaps part of that concern came from her co-opting the course’s first week's "challenge" and turning it into a pyramid scheme. As described by Master Tribe-person Wannabe Influencer, via her Medium post, the challenge “was to get someone else to sign up for the course. She would be providing affiliate links for every single student and wanted us to influence someone else to take the class. The confusion spread rapidly. The Instagram Course straight up seemed like a pyramid scheme. How could we ask our own followers to purchase a $500 Instagram Course that we had barely started ourselves?”
Furthermore, the creator misrepresented the dynamic of the course. Part of her justification for charging $497 for her class was to “keep the course reasonably small & manageable so I can make sure I can be reachable to students,” as she indicated in the screenshot above. If I was a prospective Master Tribe-person who read that, my assumption would be that I’d be part of a group of maybe 30-40 other people. That figure feels “reasonably small & manageable”, right? Alas, the group ended up including 500 paying customers, and, as you could imagine, it caused a lot of confusion and frustration. Almost immediately, customers began complaining and seeking refunds, which led to another dubious issue.
Getting Real Tired of You Ducking Me
According to Buzzfeed News, who spoke with several customers, including Juliet Hatley, the refund policy was duplicitous. Initially, the course description indicated that customers could withdraw from the course and receive a full refund within the first week. The problem was that her refund policy was in direct conflict with Teachable’s refund policy that offers users “a full refund within 30 days of their initial payment.” The confusion around this refund policy conflict resulted in a flurry of angry customer emails to Teachable and the threat of a class-action lawsuit by one of its members. In response to this, Teachable began issuing refunds to all customers who fell within their 30-day window.
The founder eventually made matters more convoluted by moving the payment processing away from Teachable’s payment gateway to a third party, thereby limiting what Teachable could do to support these customers, as confirmed by Teachable Community Manager, Noele Steadman, in the comments section of the Buzzfeed News article. Steadman writes: “The Master Tribe has since moved to their own payment gateway, and as a result, any future sales are subject to their own refund policy.” It is worth noting that the founder updated the refund policy on her product page to reflect 30 days, instead of 7, for a refund to be issued.
Putting It All Together
It’d take a separate article altogether to go into why I believe short-form, online courses covering these particular topics are reckless. It’s not like we’re talking about a 12-video series breaking down the particulars of luminosity masks or how to photograph a model. Rather, it is a completely reductive approach to an arbitrary topic like “becoming a successful social media influencer” with its many, many false positives.
The rate and scale at which digital marketing and social media practices change are mind-boggling. Wrapping an entire course around such ephemeral concepts seems like a fool’s errand. Also, I never understood the compulsion as to why anyone would want to learn how they should build and tailor something as deeply personal and proprietary as their brand from someone else. Sure, there are business and marketing strategies and tactics to learn, but I have to believe that there are more suitable and reputable avenues to explore.
But, as they say, caveat emptor.