How to Screw Up Self-Promotion Without Breaking a Sweat

What’s on the iPod: The Woodpile by Frightened Rabbit

writing, freelance writing

Yesterday felt more like weekend recovery than a work day, but I did get some projects started and a few completed. It felt good to work through a stomach upset and headache and still be productive (and actually useful). Today is more of the same — a bit of work and a bit of marketing. I have three projects going right now and each has a different deadline (amen). It feels almost civilized!

I’ve been noticing some trends in promotion lately that are, well, really dumb. There. I’ve said it. I’ve heard it said that any promotion is better than no promotion. Not so. There are ways you can screw it up really, really badly. I’ve seen for myself a few instances of Promotions Gone Wild that make me wonder how these people get anyone to listen to them let alone buy from them. So here are some ways to screw up your promotional efforts without even trying (do NOT try this at home. Please):

Give bad advice that serves one person — you. You’ve seen the “advice” too — the people saying “You HAVE to do it this way or join this group in order to be successful.” Yet what they’re not telling you (and what you should deem for yourself) is how much money they’re making off leading you by the nose directly to their products and services. If you want to lose all credibility, by all means, tell people they must buy what you’re selling or they’re wasting their time.

Fail to disclose. While the above is bad, worse is the promotion where you lead someone right into a money-making opportunity for you. I know one person who haunts forums telling people the same thing — join this association because they’re so great. What isn’t being said — she makes a ton of money by selling courses and books through that very association, of which she’s an officer. What’s astounding is that in two years, she’s forgotten to bring it up every time.

Emulate your peers — identically. I saw evidence recently that one highly popular writer was being emulated right out of traffic and credibility. A follower copied this writer’s website nearly verbatim — doing that much-loathed “rewriting” of content, but using the same design, color scheme, and hey, even the same pages and page length. If you want to see yourself on the receiving end of a lawsuit, just ignore property and copyright laws and steal, steal, steal….

Sell out. Jenn Mattern has a great post up about selling out and when you should draw your boundaries. But if you’ve spent time and energy railing against the very thing you’re now doing a 180 on, bam! You’ve just shot your credibility squarely between the running lights. So if you want to lose followers, friends, and any hope of career success, just take the most convenient side at the moment and push away those pesky little convictions of yours.

Scare the snot out of people. Tell me, where did it become cool to be the bearer of the Doomsday Report Du Jour? I know scare tactics work in marketing, but they should be used in moderation, not as your entire plan. And if you’re using them as your sole means of selling yourself, guess what? I’m afraid to be anywhere near you (wouldn’t want all that terror rubbing off). If the “You Can’t Do This Without Me” messaging is done to death, it becomes so much less credible than if you illustrate what’s going wrong and how you can fix it. But hey, you think you know more, so go ahead. Chase away those paying customers.

What examples are you seeing of self-promotion gone wrong?

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  • Cathy Miller February 12, 2013 at 1:12 pm

    This is not as serious as selling out or stealing, but is it just me or do those I have been nominated for blog of the year, vote for me promotions rub you the wrong way?

    Sure, go ahead and say you are honored to be nominated, but let me decide if I want to go vote for you. Stop tweeting, posting, getting in my face about voting for you.

  • Lori February 12, 2013 at 1:22 pm

    Cathy, maybe it's because I'm contradictory by nature, but that's a sure way to make me NOT vote for someone. If you're doing it right, you shouldn't have to beg for votes. And frankly, I LOATHE those contests anyway. They're smart marketing for the blog owners, for sure, but they create a feeding frenzy that's embarrassing. Plus the blogs chosen tend to be arbitrarily selected anyway, so why bother with the feeding frenzy? Meh. That's my peeve. 🙂

  • Devon Ellington February 12, 2013 at 3:18 pm

    What drives me nuts is people who "teach" a class, but really, all it is is an extended advertorial to buy further services. If you're going to teach, TEACH and give me some damn information.

  • Paula February 12, 2013 at 5:22 pm

    Some people just don't know when to stop promoting themselves and simply engage in the discussion.

    It's like a friend of mine who is so focused on trying to impress people that it ends up putting them off. I've known this friend long enough to know that under the artifice there really is a smart, funny person. But she doesn't give anyone a chance to see those qualities when trying to impress them by acting as if she's the smartest, best traveled, hippest person in the room. After all, who wants to hang out with someone who acts as it they're so superior?

    When the "look at me!" approach backfires – and at some point it always does – you always wind up looking foolish. The same goes for a company or product being touted as the ultimate in its category.

  • Lori February 12, 2013 at 6:47 pm

    Devon, exactly. Also, if your information is good, you don't need to shout about it in your ads. What astounds me is how many writers have blinders on — they buy into the extended advertorial more often than not. TEACH something already!

    Paula, amen. I get so sick of trying to have a conversation with someone who's thinking about selling. Just interact, for crying out loud!

  • Cathy Miller February 12, 2013 at 6:57 pm

    Devon – AMEN! That's why I avoid most webinars like the plague. My favorite was one where it ended up in a pitch for mentoring for a select few for the bargain price of $10,000. I sprayed the monitor with my coffee.

  • Lori February 12, 2013 at 8:22 pm

    Cathy, $10K? What the…? That person should be ashamed. People paid good money for some help and that's what they get? Screw that.

  • Patsy February 12, 2013 at 8:52 pm

    I'm not good at self promotion but I think I've avoided most of these mistakes.

  • Lori February 13, 2013 at 1:10 pm

    Patsy, self-promotion is often a bit of a balancing act between creating a relationship and selling. I suggest just trying to make acquaintances. The sales will come.

  • John Soares February 13, 2013 at 10:08 pm

    Very important message Lori. I'm frankly quite disgusted with the way many people use deception and strong-arm tactics to get people to buy their products and services.

    Unfortunately, not enough people have a good B.S. detector. I know one person who's out at least 20K on products/mentoring for "get rich quick on the Internet" schemes.

  • Lori February 13, 2013 at 10:31 pm

    John, good seeing you here. 🙂 I'm with you. Yes, it makes them good money, but what I can't sacrifice is my respect for myself and people who follow my blog. If I offer something it's because I believe in it, not because I have to make sure to get the most money from you that I can.

    I think you're right — too many times we want to trust people, so we ignore the red flags. It takes time, but eventually that BS meter will kick in. 🙂

  • Jenn Mattern February 15, 2013 at 10:56 am

    Great post Lori!

    Cathy – I'm with you on the "top list" garbage. The people doing them do it for traffic. That's about it. They know it's easy to get others to rave about you and link to you when you're focused on kissing ass.

    The lists in general have been a pet peeve of mine for years (and I've asked to have sites removed from several of the more obnoxious ones). But the people asking (or begging)for nominations and votes are the worst. If you deserve them, you shouldn't have to ask for them. And if you do push people to vote for you, a win doesn't do anything more than show you have the biggest mouth and the biggest ego.

    Lori, you hit some big ones. You know how I feel about content theft. And writers especially should know copyright rules before getting into the game. If you can't write your own website copy, blog content, etc., then you don't deserve to be hired by any client.

    Sometimes it's less that someone is promoting their own stuff that bothers me, but the affiliate and sponsor relationships. I'm more forgiving if someone's excited about their own thing. But when you shove the same product, service, site, or whatever down readers' throats all the time because you're paid to do so, you're just a shill. It's one thing if they're an evangelist because they truly love something. But if they're doing it solely or mostly for the love of the money they'll get, it usually shows.

    And when it comes to scaring people, another example is the "you have to sign up now," "limited time," "limited space," garbage. It's usually BS. Sure, a sale can end. Products can come off the market (I removed one myself last year). But in most cases, those scare tactics make no sense. There's nothing to stop you from selling more digital copies of an e-book for example.

    Some great examples here of what not to do.

  • Peter Bowerman February 15, 2013 at 7:54 pm

    Great topic, Lori!

    And boy, this can be a tricky one… As someone who’s promoted my own products, AND, yes, those of others, you really do have to walk a very fine line.

    I agree with everything you and the others say here, and it can be tough to get that balance right. For starters, I don’t oversend to my list; other than the monthly ezine, I might send out two other emails a month. And by only sending that infrequently, I know I’m leaving money on the table. AND, I’ll still hear from a handful of folks, accusing me of spamming them!

    As for asking someone to vote for you, I hear what you guys are saying (i.e., “If your blog is good, you shouldn’t have to ask/beg people to vote for you…), but let’s be honest: if people aren’t aware of some contest, how can they vote for you? Bottom line, I don’t see a problem with sending a single email making people aware of the contest, and inviting them to vote for you IF they get real value from your blog, ezine, whatever.

    As for being an affiliate for other people’s products, another sticky area. I don’t do it very often, but I DO partner with guys like Ed Gandia, whom I’ve known personally for many years (we’re both here in Atlanta), and most importantly, is someone who creates excellent products. Does it feel a little funny sometimes, “shilling”? Sure, but if I believe in the quality of a product and in the person selling it, why not capitalize on my platform, and what I consider to be a good reputation in my field, to benefit?

    But, all that said, I just will never turn into a carnival barker (and obviously hope most people don’t see me that way!). Not my style.

    Great post!


  • Anonymous February 15, 2013 at 8:14 pm


    This is a very interesting topic. I have a related pet peeve concerning forums and blogs.

    Why is it that those with the weakest product and/or credentials are the ones who are so sure that there scheme will work.

    My son recently was asked to "sell" life coaching. In order to do so he would have had to take online seminars and buy video discs. His friend, who has been with this scam for 6 months made ^16 this month – spent $65 on seminars and other materials.

    I do not get MLM.

  • Lori February 16, 2013 at 3:20 pm

    Jenn, I do know how you feel about content theft — it's my stance, as well. To me, that's much more damaging than over-promotion. I've seen some really questionable practices that infringe on copyright, redefine plagiarism, and steal someone else's thunder. Is there really that little understanding of copyright?

    Peter, great seeing you here, as well. 🙂 I don't think anyone would accuse you of any of this, including shilling. 🙂 Actually, I find the way you handle promotion something to emulate. And I've had plenty of feedback from other writers who say you're always happy to reach out and help.

    I do agree with you on contests. If you're raising awareness and asking for a vote if someone has found value in what you provide, great. However, I've seen a few examples of people I respect begging for votes. Worst part is one or two of these contests aren't based on votes at all, but on arbitrary decisions by the person running it. So why vote? To drive traffic to the site.

    It's brilliant in that it works, but I question why the arbitrary decision and not one based on the votes themselves?

    I don't mind affiliate connections, either. I've yet to dip my toe in those waters, but I can see it as a mutual promotion, and that always appeals to me.

    I remember finding my name on a Top Blog list, one I didn't know existed. It was Maria Schneider's list on Writer's Digest. She called this blog "the little black dress" of blogs. THAT made my day because it was out of her own feelings.

    Anon, that sounds like a money pit. Multi-level marketing is just another word for pyramid. I've never gotten it, either. It makes one person rich and promises the others that they'll get there someday (and only a small percentage get close). You have to put way too much time and personal assets into it at the front end. Better, in my opinion, to do your own thing from the start.