First of all, sorry for the radio silence this week. It’s National Dance Week (yay!) and, as part of that, I have five performances this week, plus rehearsals and classes to get ready for all of them. It’s been a blast so far, but yes – I’m pretty tired right now!!!
However, I did want to take a few minutes to talk to you guys today about something that came up in my Talk Marketing Now chat show this past Monday. As you all know, ethics in internet business is a major focus of mine – both as part of my educational philosophy on this site and on the affiliate sites that I build.
The thing is, though, it’s really easy to talk about ethics in a theoretical way. Like, we can sit around and say, “Of course I’m going to make purely ethical decisions when it comes to my internet business,” but when we’re actually faced with decisions that require us to make these judgment calls, it isn’t always so easy to clearly see what’s right and what’s wrong.
As an example, I want to share with you the story of scammy Sarah and the acai berry…
Most of you know that I’ve been involved with site flipping throughout my internet marketing career. It all started with the site I sold that launched my article writing agency, but since then, I’ve bought and sold dozens of websites in plenty of different niches. In fact, I still spend lots of time on Flippa keeping an eye out for promising “fixer upper” sites that I can buy and turnaround for a profit.
In early 2009, I spotted a listing that met my criteria for promising sites to buy. It had some traffic, but wasn’t taking advantage of some strong opportunities that I could implement. It had some content, but there was definitely room for expansion. And it was making some money, which shows me that a site is likely to continue to convert once I buy it.
And oh yeah… Did I mention that it was one of those “flogs” (fake blog sites documenting someone’s “experiences”) that were popular a few years ago?
Or that it was promoting acai berry and colon cleanse CPA offers – two of the scammiest products on the market at the time?
(2009 Sarah clearly wasn’t as concerned with business ethics as 2011 Sarah is…)
When I bought the site, it was making around $200/month through these offers, and I got it for around $800 – roughly four times the site’s monthly income, which is a pretty reasonable price. In my experience, sites tend to sell for 4-8 times their monthly revenues, so I got the site for the low end of what I was willing to pay.
I had guessed – correctly – that with some changes to the site’s traffic model, I could get it closer to $800-$1,000/month. It took a little while, but after a few months, I had the site earning at this level. Sounds great, right?!
Now, here’s the tricky part. If you aren’t familiar with the issues surrounding these products, there’s two big ones – first, that the “free trials” automatically enroll buyers into forced continuity programs that are nearly impossible to get out of, and second, that the companies responsible for these products were notorious for signing people up in other forced continuity programs, based on consent given in the fine print.
So basically, you – as the affiliate marketer – send visitors to these sites, and if they don’t read all the fine print, they aren’t just auto-enrolled in programs that charge $80+/month for products that can be found at any health store for much less, they can also be signed up for similar programs without their explicit knowledge and consent. Pretty shady dealings…
(On a side note, did anyone watch South Park this week? Pretty weird episode, but the same basic premise…)
Now, you can argue that it’s the responsibility of the visitor to read through the fine print of any offer before clicking on the “Sign Up Now” button. You can even convince yourself that putting something like, “For best results, use these products along with a healthy diet and exercise plan,” alongside your banners or text links is enough to say that you’re being reasonable and encouraging healthy behaviors.
But I’ve got to tell you, it’s still hard to deal with the fact that you’re profiting off of people who are seeking an easy solution to a common problem and getting scammed in the process.
That said, it still wasn’t an easy decision to sell the website. Scam or no scam, $1,000/month puts a lot of groceries on the table. And while I’d like to say that the decision to sell the site after three months was motivated purely by ethical considerations, there were a number of other factors that made it advantageous to get out of that market (ie – increased media scrutiny, truth in advertising legislation, etc).
As far as site flipping goes, the project was a definite success. I sold the site for $4,000, which recouped my initial investment and put a healthy profit into my bank account. But to this day, it’s not easy for me to justify the fact that that profit came from the dozens of people that I knowingly sent to buy scammy products.
Now, the moral of this story isn’t that you shouldn’t promote CPA offers – it’s that you need to get comfortable with your own ethical limits. Personally, I can’t stomach sending people to that particular type of offer, and for my own mental health and sanity, it’s important for me to promote affiliate products I believe are ethical. If you don’t have an issue with these CPA offers, that’s entirely your own business, and I’m by no means trying to say that your moral compass needs to match up with mine.
But in most cases, finding those ethical limits can be tricky, and it’s often a process that only happens when we unknowingly stumble across that line.
So my advice to you is this – listen to your gut feeling and trust yourself to make good choices for your internet business. You may not always get things right on the first try, but at the end of the day, you’ll find that running a business you can be proud of can be both profitable and tremendously rewarding.
Have you ever been in a situation that compromised your ethics or helped you to figure out where your own ethical limits are? Talk about it in the comments!
Image: Steve Snodgrass