The Ethics of Selling Online Courses

Krystal Emerson

There’s a storm brewing in the online course industry that you need to know about if you sell online courses or are thinking about creating one.

Things are getting ugly.

For the record, I have always been a major proponent of ethical online courses.

I love the idea that ordinary people can package their skills into a digital product so others can benefit from their experience. I’ve taken hundreds of online courses over the years and have gotten value from most of them.

For example, last week, I wanted to learn how to use Adobe After Effects for a project I was working on. So, I went to Udemy, found an online course, and I was able to start creating my own animated graphics within a few hours.

In my opinion, this is the online course industry at its best — the student receives value equal to or greater than the price of the course, and the creator is compensated for their efforts and expertise.

Unfortunately, this isn’t always the case.

The Dark Side of Online Courses

The flip side of ethical online courses is online course scams.

I think the word “scam” gets thrown around a lot these days, so let’s be clear about what a scam actually is.

A scam is when someone fraudulently promises a result in exchange for money and fails to deliver on their promise.

These scams usually target vulnerable people desperate to make money fast or solve a serious health issue.

Many of these scam courses charge a hefty price tag of $997 to $10,000 (or more) but fail to deliver the promised results or those implied by the marketing.

For example, I’ve seen many examples of courses targeted at people who are unemployed or working in minimum wage jobs that claim to show them “the secret” to getting rich online, EVEN IF they don’t have any skills or business experience.

This is incredibly unlikely.

When I started my business, I had a plethora of freelance skills and a law degree, AND IT STILL took me several years to start earning a decent income on my own.

What’s worse is the devastating impact that buying into these scam courses can have on low-income individuals.

If you are working a minimum wage job and spend $997 or more on a course that turns out to be a scam, it could wipe out your entire savings, leaving you with nothing in the event of an emergency.

Many unscrupulous course creators encourage people to put these scam courses on their credit cards, take out loans, or borrow money from friends or family.

It’s shameful.

Some people are so desperate to change their circumstances that they are willing to gamble everything they have on these courses.

However, when the promised results inevitably don’t come, they are left holding the bag — plus interest.

The Rise of the Fake Online Course Guru

Scams have been around since the dawn of time, but the current crop of online course scams tends to follow the “fake guru” model.

A “fake guru” is a person who claims to have massive success in some area — usually involving money — and they claim that they can help you get the same results if you pay them to be your mentor.

What makes a “fake guru” fraudulent is that they usually haven’t achieved the level of success they are claiming, or if they have achieved some success, they aren’t able to replicate it on a mass scale.

Most fake online course gurus use a tactic called “flexing” to get people interested in their courses.

This is where they show off expensive sports cars, lavish homes, private jets, designer clothes, and attractive “girlfriends” in their ads.

The implied message is,

“Buy my course and all of this could be yours.”

It’s almost too tempting to pass up.

However, the reality is that most of these people are renting sports cars for the day of the shoot. The hot “girlfriend” in the background is actually a paid model.

Even the private jet is fake.

Many fake guru course creators have been called out for creating false income reports and fabricating testimonials to scam desperate people out of their money.

The popularity of the “fake guru” business model has exploded in recent years, and it is unlikely that it will be going away any time soon.

How This Affects You

If you create legitimate online courses, you should be concerned.

There is a growing movement online, especially in the YouTube community, that is calling out and exposing the fake online course gurus.

This is a good thing.

The online course industry is largely unregulated — the only real exception being the Federal Trade Commission rules regarding truth in advertising.

I think it’s great that there are people who are willing to use their time and resources to expose these scams and educate the public on what’s been going on.

However, my concern is that no real effort has been made to distinguish legitimate online courses from scam courses.

As the backlash against the fake gurus continues to grow, our online course businesses could also be tainted by the negative stigma.

What Can You Do?

I think there are a few things that legitimate online course creators can do to separate themselves from the “fake gurus.”

  1. Don’t make promises you can’t keep. Be honest about what people can reasonably expect to get out of your course. If you’re selling people a dream that they have little chance of achieving, you’re not being honest.
  2. Don’t sell courses that you haven’t tested. If you’re not sure about the results that your course can get for people, you need to do what’s called a “beta test.” This is where you have real people go through your course for free in exchange for feedback.
  3. Charge a reasonable price. If you have something valuable to teach, I believe you should be compensated for putting in the time and effort to create an online course, but the price that you charge should be REALISTICALLY proportional to the value that you are providing to the customer.
  4. Offer a refund policy. I know that some people don’t offer refunds for digital products, but I think that’s unwise. If you believe in what you are selling and care about your customers, you should want to refund people who aren’t happy with your product. It will save you a lot of headaches (and chargebacks) in the long run.

Closing Thoughts

At the end of the day, I think this issue comes down to product quality, pricing, and marketing.

If you put in the effort to create a high-quality online course and are honest about the results that your customers can reasonably expect, you shouldn’t have to worry about being labeled a “scam” just because you teach an online course.

However, we all need to carefully analyze and assess our marketing to make sure that we are not misleading people.

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