Selling success, a business model?

How young content creators are monetising our need for instant success.

Success does not come overnight, it’s not a hack and you definitely don’t get rich while you’re sleeping. Success is the product of hard work, an effort, taking risks and luck is often involved. Yet there are plenty of content creators that are trying to tell you otherwise. In fact, they’ve made it their business model to sell you overnight success. In this blog I analyse what I came across and what these skilled content creators are doing right, even though it’s for the wrong reasons.

The internet is a great place to find information, research and to be in the know. Finding information online is part of my daily job and private life. It’s great, it’s awesome and I can’t imagine living without it. Yet, there’s also a negative side to the internet. Fake news, digital propaganda, privacy issues, increasing regulation and scammers are ever present on the internet. Lately I’ve been noticing a different kind of “scam”, but that’s not really the word that describes it. I am talking about the “shortcuts to success” or “self-help scams” that have been targeting me quite often.

In the recent months I’ve opened a webshop with my partner and we’re using Shopify as our back-end software. Naturally I’ve used Google to research features, best practices, tutorials and help for small issues. Among the search results there were a many websites suggesting the “best plugins to maximise your profit”. On YouTube, I started to see the ad featuring a seemingly successful young person telling you how to earn XYZ amount of money with just a few plugins. To my surprise, the ads were pretty well-made and told quite the compelling story. Of course, they were usually referencing drop shipping.

When I was researching for some new workshop methods, I started to see even more ads. This time they were selling “exclusive” masterclasses, courses and even books. All featuring the “best tips you’ll ever need”.

Medium is also full of these. I recently optimised my Medium front page and added the category Writing. My homepage started flooding with articles to help me write better and start earning money as a writer. I’ll be honest. Some of them are great and actually helped me progress, but a lot of them are trying to sell something unrealistic. “How to get 3.5 million views in your first months on Medium”, “This simple trick will get your blog on Medium’s front page” and “I will teach you how to make your first $10k from writing” — were among the titles.

It occurred to me that all of these efforts to sell me something, were actually kind of spot on. I was indeed looking for ways to set up my webshop, practice my writing, understand Medium better and get some inspiration to spice up a client workshop. And being offered a shortcut to success in a very compelling way would’ve made sense. But I wasn’t looking for a shortcut to get rich overnight or to buy a book to progress in my career. In fact, I was looking for a small bit of information.

I like to think of myself as a critical internet user & logical thinker, being able to dissect messages directed at me. Being able to make a decision when I know I’m being sold to. I also know that there’s plenty of people out there who’re not equipped to fend of these messages. These shortcuts to success are made in such a compelling way that it’s almost too hard to believe it wouldn’t work. The guy in the video was chilling in his pool while he told about his overnight drop shipping success. And these ads are also available in Dutch, may native language. So it has to be real, right?

“It is better to fail in originality than to succeed in imitation.”
— Herman Melville

These young successful gurus are doing something right and that’s producing content, albeit for the wrong reasons. They are very compelling, visually well executed and exactly addressing the thing you’re looking for. But if success was so easy everybody would know this, right? After some quick research my assumptions were confirmed, most of these videos are scams. Filmed at rental homes telling about some seeming success story they read about. They show you impossible results, but without showing the actual webshop. Here are some content marketing techniques they’re applying that makes it hard to recognize to separate the facts from the scams.

The ‘help content’ frame

The shortcut to success content pieces are usually packaged as content that wants to help you or answer your question. Funnily enough, it’s also exactly what we want to read and hear. Of course, we want our hobbies to become a success. And we all want to chill in our fancy apartments while orders keep coming in. But we also know this is not realistic.

The help frame is a proven content strategy, also part of the Hero — Hub — Help strategy. It makes your content findable. It’s relevant, as a user is looking for information. And it’s not perceived as a sales pitch. When we’re searching for information, chances are very high you’ll find help content to provide answers.

“If you really look closely, most overnight successes took a long time.”
— Steve Jobs

Based on insights

These content creators are smart, they know something about you. They know what kind of problem you’re having, and they know what is needed to convince you. And that’s how the ads find you, as they’re using clever targeting based on your search behaviour.

And you don’t need that many insights to reach a broad audience. In my case, researching for my webshop, I almost instantly started seeing these ads. And on the platforms I was researching too. Google, YouTube and even on Instagram.

Content craftsmanship

The video ads are very well-made, it comes off as legit advice. They always feature a real human talking to you, vlog style. Some sitting beside their fancy pool, as proof of concept. Others sitting in their living room, showcasing nice furniture or views. In the content pieces they present you with plenty of data, proof points and use a proper attention span to convince you of their success.

In some cases the shortcut to success even comes in the form of an actual product. I’ve seen books, digital masterclasses, plenty of apps and even complete courses. Combine this with professional video editing and you have your shortcut to success. These content creators are able to tell a convincing and compelling story, it seems, but in fact they’re trying to sell you something unrealistic.

“Stop chasing the money and start chasing the passion.”
— Tony Hsieh

Social currency

And the final one, they’re using social currency to the fullest. You get information that feels exclusive and gives you the “why didn’t I know this before” feeling. You are now in the know and have everything you need to become an overnight success. Or at least that’s what they want you to think. This final ingredient is actually quite brilliant. You’re looking for something, trying to figure something out. And then it’s there, the perfect solution to all your problems.

You’ve discovered something that you can tell at birthday parties and seem in the know, smarter. But don’t be mistaken, it doesn’t only sound too good to be true, it actually is. Of course, there’s the small chance that what they’re recommending might actually work. But definitely not in the majority of situations, but that doesn’t make for a juicy story at the bar.

Digital Strategist from Amsterdam, focused on earned first social media, content & digital. Writes about content marketing, productivity and digital things.

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