The great paradox of online business and marketing coaching

Every time I look on Instagram I am bombarded with ads from seemingly successful online business and marketing coaches, who are here to help me start and grow my online business and live the life of my dreams. I love these ads because I find them highly entertaining. They all seem similar, selling the same dream in a slightly different package, aiming to get me on their list, so that eventually they can live their dream life. Something’s up here and I want to figure it out.

The success story they tell you

It’s absolutely fascinating. These business coaches and smart marketeers have their ways to get people interested. They tell a story of how they understand our pain, because once they were in a similar position themselves. They were unsuccessful in what they were doing, they just didn’t know how to do it right, and so they spent many many resources without gaining their success.

But then they got smart and figured it all out. Everything changed when they learned a system to become more successful and they found some tips and tricks – even better: a framework! So they created the perfect simple and effective framework, with a certain number of steps that take you where you want to be.

And now their life is completely different. They have seen it all, they know it all. They know how to reach their ideal customers, how to get them involved, how to get them interested in buying their goods and (mostly) services, and how to seal the deal. And it’s easy. They are so successful that they hardly have to work to get their dream clients purchasing their services, and the money and abundance are flowing in.

The best part of it all is that they are here to help you get to such a blissful life too! They invite you to join their masterclass or download their free guide. The only thing you have to deliver is your e-mail address and your consent for them to send you (marketing) e-mails.

This way they can lure you in. Because the free sample is just that, a free sample. For the real deal of course you have to pay; they can’t work for free either, just like you cannot work for free in your business.

You may notice a slight sarcasm in my writing. The reason for that is that I think to notice a slight lack of honesty and transparency in this field of business coaching. And therefore I am eager to add some honesty myself, here in this post!

The online business & marketing coaches I’m talking about

In this post I am using the term ‘business coaches’ and ‘marketing coaches’ and of course this is a generalization and these are not necessarily the words these people use themselves. They are actually likely to use other words to make themselves stand out from the rest. However, I see innumerable similar ads promoting services to business-owners, of which many have to do with growing your business through (social media) marketing. So I keep it at this.

Also, I am mostly talking about services like online courses, that are not so much a (long) trajectory of one-on-one coaching, but instead are more generalized online offerings in which the ‘coach’ gives you tips and tricks that work for her. She may also include ready-made templates to use or other such resources. What I mean to clarify is that I’m mostly talking about online offers that are scalable, in which many people can partake at the same time, like in an online course. I completely recognize that this is a wholly different service than one-on-one coaching.

Of course I don’t mean to judge individuals, I simply cannot do that, but having seen many ads and related messages, makes that I have gained some overview of what this field looks like and of what is actually missing. So here I will share my observations that are not being mentioned in the messaging of this industry.

Interpreting their success stories

The biggest elephant in the room is that the succes of these business coaches is a result of your purchases. These business coaches are showing off with their perfect successful lives and with how they effortlessly reach their ideal customers, and even with how much money they make since they started using the method that they are selling.

If they are successful and have a high income (which they’ll brag about), it is because people like you are buying from them. It is because people like you are buying the exact same services from them that you are considering buying. That is vital to realize!

The success of these coaches may as well just be the result of selling the exact same offer you are considering buying right now.

At first I myself didn’t realize this. I figured that (some of) these coaches were apparently successful in the field in general, that they had done different things already and that from all those experiences they had created their perfect online offer, the one they are selling now. That would make total sense, wouldn’t it?

Well, by now I have come to see that this is not necessarily how it goes! These coaches have mostly just learnt to wave their success stories in your face and to mention just the things that make you want to buy from them. Because that is how it works.

So my assumption of being successful in many ways is mostly the image they create and my own projections onto that. So if I read that a coach has helped 400+ business-owners grow their businesses, I automatically assume that this is a tremendous achievement, because I am naive and trusting.

While in reality it can also be like this: this coach has only given one short ‘masterclass’ or made a one-pager with some information, of which the link has been sent to 400+ people, of which only a small fraction has opened it, and even a smaller fraction of people even used it, and even a smaller fraction reaped any benefits.

This is interesting because in this case the claim wouldn’t necessarily be a lie, however I would personally consider it dishonest. The coach themselves may think of it as a white lie and a self-fulfilling prophecy: as long as using this claim works to persuade people to buy, it will become the truth, purchase by purchase.

Again, I am not saying it is always like this, but it certainly can be, and I am guessing this is how marketing works, especially in this area. So we should be aware of this and know that it is an option to figure out what the person has really been offering and selling, so we don’t have to rely on assumptions.

You are their ideal customer & their success is in your hands

Business and marketing coaches will teach you to define your ideal customer: the kind of people that you want to sell to and who eagerly wants to buy from you.

What they do not mention explicitly is that you are their ideal customer. And so they themselves are targeting you, and their success and income rely on your willingness to purchase their services.

Please consider this for some seconds. These coaches are business coaches. They are basically selling you ways to be successful in persuading your ideal customers to invest in your services. If you and others like you don’t buy from them, they aren’t doing a good job themselves (in what they are teaching/selling).

So then, this is what happens:

If you do bite and buy, they are successful in selling to you, and their marketing story holds. They can supposedly teach you how to be as successful as they are.

If you don’t bite, they are not successful in selling to you. So essentially this means that their story doesn’t hold. They did not succeed in selling to you. So they may not be the right people to teach you how to sell your services.

If you believe in their success story, it becomes the truth. If you don’t, it doesn’t.

This may sound weird, but there is truth in it. You buying or not buying from them either validates their success story or debunks this story.

Well now, of course you are only one customer, not all their ideal customers. You can even say: if I don’t buy from this business coach, that must mean I am not her ideal customer, that’s fine. Other people probably are, they will buy, so their story totally holds.

But we don’t know that.

That is funny, right? We don’t know if you are their ideal customer, how many other ideal customers are out there, or how many less ideal customers who would consider buying anyway. We don’t know how many people actually buy the service. We can only assume at this point.

We only know for sure that this business coach is playing with your mind, that she’s creating this image of a very successful business owner and that she’s engraving it in your brain. She is hoping that you are vulnerable to wanting a similar success story for yourself, and that you trust the coach to help get you there.

It may as well be that this marketing coach themselves is still tweaking their marketing so to make their own success story come true.

It may as well be that no one is buying at this point, and that the marketing coach themselves still needs to improve their strategy. And they can really tweak their marketing strategy endlessly to the point that it works and their ‘success story’ becomes the truth.

It’s a huge mind game if you ask me. And it goes on.

They use their marketing tricks on you first

So as we’ve seen, these marketing gurus are using their own marketing techniques on you first. If you buy, they’ll teach you the exact same techniques that they have used on you to lure you in.

I mean, if they are really honest and transparent, it should be like this! If they are selling their best possible service, they should be including the things they are doing themselves too, the things that they have found to be effective.

That is a bit weird, right? They lure you in with their marketing, and after that they teach you how they actually lure people in.

And it really does depend on their honesty how open they are about what they are doing themselves to get you to purchase. They don’t necessarily have to give you all the details of their own work and marketing, I suppose, but it would make a lot of sense to do that. That would be incredibly honest and trustworthy really.

If they are incredibly honest, they would be willing to give you all the details of their own marketing strategy, thereby giving away their own success formula.

However, if one would be so incredibly honest, I suppose one can only do that after the big purchase. If they would give away all their tips and tricks before the big purchase, there is no need to purchase anymore.

So there has to be some secrecy involved in the process, in their own marketing methods, because otherwise they would be giving it all away for free.

Do you see why I find this so intriguing? It’s very interesting to first be targeted as a potential customer, and to then learn from the one who targeted you how to target customers.

But business owners are a special target group

There’s another thing that I am missing in all these marketing outbursts. These marketing gurus do tell you about their success, but what they don’t mention specifically is that the group of potential clients they are targeting is a very special one: (wannabe) business owners.

Yes, you read that correctly. I think (wannabe) business owners are a very special group of ideal customers to target, and I haven’t seen one single business or marketing coach mention this in all honesty.

This is important because of the following:

Business owners are undoubtedly ambitious, entrepreneurial, creative, idealistic, and many other things! They have a dream of being successful with their biz and creating the life of their dreams. In addition, they also have a specific financial situation: they rely on the succes of their business for their income. Therefore, they have a very serious reason to be willing to invest financially in services that promise to increase their business success in the long term.

They can already taste the succes that they are going to have if it all works out.

(Wannabe) business owners are a very eager group of customers, always looking for more ways to make their business more successful and thereby increase their income.

So I believe it is widely different to target business owners with business related products and services than it is to target a group of people that have a steady job and income and to try to sell them something for convenience or leisure. The first group has a huge financial reason to want to purchase, and the second group largely doesn’t have this specific trigger.

And we know how we are all focused on money.

I want to stress this because the marketeers can and will use this longing for having a successful business (against you!). They will tell you that investing in their services has the potential to drastically increase your income. They will show you raving customer reviews of people who doubled or tripled their income after using their frameworks. They will tell you that while you do have to pay for the service, it’s definitely a great investment that can only increase your income in the long term, so you will more than earn the initial investment back.

That last point is very important too, the promise of earning the investment back. That is a great promise, and one that every business coach will use in their marketing strategy. It makes business owners more wiling to invest.

Their success isn’t your success

So it’s just not the same situation: business coaches targeting business owners vs. your service-oriented business targeting ‘regular’ customers. This then also means that if the business coach is really successful in selling, this does not mean she can easily transfer her success (mechanisms) onto you. Because if you are selling something different that does not directly have a financial return on investment, this big financial reason to buy just isn’t there. So your potential customers will likely be more hesitant in buying.

Of course there should be a return on investment for the people who buy your goods or services, because your goods and services surely have something to offer and that should be a reason to buy for your ideal customer. And while that is all true, I still think there is a stark difference between the situations, and I haven’t seen one business coach naming this yet.

So what I am saying is that their succes is not the same as your success if you’re not selling to business owners. Really cynically, one could even say that their success is your loss first, namely your investment, and the potential success can only come later.

How these business coaches come to be

Now we have untangled all of that, we can have a good guess of how so many of these business and marketing coaches come to be.

Easy targets

First of all, entrepreneurship is totally booming. This is not accidental, instead multiple cultural and political trends have lead to this. At least in the Netherlands we now have more flexible job markets which don’t offer the same financial security as they did decades ago, and culturally there’s more focus on individual responsibility in which you are being held responsible for your own failure and success. Sadly, the current pandemic seems to only reinforce these trends.

And now with the digital age we also have more possibilities than ever before to create our own (online) businesses. You have seen it happening, right? As I wrote before, the internet has become a gigantic mall.

As a result, many creatives are looking into alternative and new ways to earn an income, especially online. And if they weren’t looking into this already, they will easily be recruited my the many business coaches that are out there. These coaches that tell of the dream scenarios in which they can leave their 9-5 job to become an independent and thriving digital nomad who can live on the beach!

Who doesn’t want to become a digital nomad? You can work from all over the world on your own terms, and all you need is a laptop and a certain business course!

Here I want to stress that many of these business and marketing coaches even especially target people who don’t have a business yet or may not even have the intention to start one yet. The coaches literally use lines such as: ‘Are you unhappy in your job?’; ‘How are you going to use your skills: in continuing working for a boss or for yourself?’, ‘My program can help you start and grow your business so you can make more money than you do now and leave your 9-5 job’, and ‘Do you want to work following your own time schedule and from anywhere in the world with the people you want to work with?’.

This means that they are targeting basically everyone who is somewhat unhappy with their current job or life situation, and that they are presenting starting a business as a solution to a wide array of very unspecific problems. They are basically creating wannabe business owners.

Business coaches are creating more and more (wannabe) business owners.

And once these creatives are enthusiastic about entrepreneurship, they need guidance. They were never taught how to do such a thing, how to start and build a business, so they could certainly use some help in establishing their business and their online presence. So there you have it, a gigantic target market full of eager potential customers! Who, mind you, don’t have a clue what their business is going to be about.

The course doesn’t teach you which business to start

They may enroll in a business program where they learn some tips and tricks, maybe very useful ones too – if you have a business. In the course you likely don’t learn how to decide what business to start. Because you know, this is very personal! No (digital) coach can truly tell you what business would fit you and if this is really a good idea. Of course they can guide you, give you resources et cetera, but in the end you have to figure it out yourself.

That makes total sense too, but it may be dramatic also. Because chances are that you will not figure it out at all. I can speak from experience; I myself have a lot of trouble figuring such things out. I find many things very interesting, but I cannot decide what I would do as a business. And maybe that is just my own shortcoming or way of being, but I have reason to believe that I am not the only one! Which is the following.

Once you’re in the business course, you figure out some business or marketing mechanics, you get enthusiastic because a lot of it is good fun. If you don’t know yet what your business is going to be about, you may as well just learn more and more about building online businesses and doing marketing. You are in the community now, so there’s plenty to learn there.

You may as well end up becoming a business or marketing coach yourself

And then you may as well get the idea to become a business or marketing coach! That way you can help other business owners with all the things that you have been learning about. That is a great idea, because it is very interesting, and you can just learn as you go. You don’t necessarily need to have a specific educational background or prior knowledge to do it, you mostly just need to have your marketing in place, and in the end you need to have some tips or tricks ready to offer to your customers.

Wow. That is mind blowing, isn’t it?

One more time: creatives get interested in entrepreneurship and they take a course, not yet knowing what exactly they want to be doing. What then happens is that they get more interested in entrepreneurship and marketing than in building a business around something else. They will just continue learning about business and marketing (it’s totally fascinating and exciting!) and/or specialize in certain area thereof. And then, they end up building their business around that.

Essentially this means that this whole increasing interest in entrepreneurship and marketing is leading to more and more business and marketing coaches. And each business and marketing coach is contributing to creating even more of them.

This also feeds back to what I mentioned about how coaches project success to persuade you to buy from them. It may seem like they have had a long career in business or marketing coaching, but often this is not even true. I believe many of these coaches (that are marketing on Instagram right now) are just getting started. They figured out that this is a gold mine and started doing it.

Many are also honest about this, and they’ll tell you how last year they were still miserable and this year they are living the dream. Knowing everything I mentioned in this post, that statement is a very weird one if you ask me. It basically tells you that they’re just getting started as a business coach with selling something they recently learnt in another person’s course. They figured out that selling to (potential) business owners works wonders and they just started to do so too.

An unintentional pyramid scheme

It almost sounds like an unintentional pyramid scheme to me. Like a gigantic unstoppable wave of business owners and creatives who are buying into this dream scenario of being your own boss and creating your own succes and life, all the while supporting each other and exchanging money and services among the same growing group of creatives.

Of course that wouldn’t last, and the community is also sucking in people with ‘fresh money’ at the bottom and people who run other businesses with other ideal customers. But still, more and more money would be going around in the (small) (online) business community, and the people therein would be learning from each other and with each other in sub-communities like certain Facebook groups. At the same time, there would also be competition within the community.

Can you see what I mean? It is a plausible theory, a strong image.

And while all these business coaches will tell you that this way more and more people gain financial independence, which sounds great, to me many questions remain unanswered. What is happening to the many individuals who invest in a course and who don’t leave raving reviews? How are they doing? What is happening on a large scale when more and more people are tempted to leave their jobs and aim to become financially independent? How does this work out on the long term?

To be continued

This booming of business and marketing coaches is a huge cultural trend of which the implications are endless. I believe there are many paradoxes to this too, of which some I have already mentioned, and some I haven’t. There is a lot more to unpack here, way more than fits in this one article. So it will likely become a series! I aim to further explore this theme of what is happening in the online business world and where this may be going.

If you have any commentaries or questions, let me know! I am very interested in this field so I’d like to exchange ideas.

Also, I realize that I am totally pulling these coaches down now, which is not my intention per se, but I do believe this article provides a healthy addition to what I have seen and read so far.

I definitely don’t mean to offend anyone here, I myself certainly belong to this group of people who are very interested in starting a small service-oriented business and everything that comes with it. And that is exactly why I can see the mentioned mechanics so clearly. To be honest, I myself have invested in a business course and I did not become a successful business owner. ๐Ÿ˜‰ I started teaching kundalini yoga, but that turned out to be an unethical pyramid scheme in itself so I quit. (To be clear, this blog Munching on a Dream is not part of any business at all.)

Lastly, I don’t write this article because I am bitter about it, I do write it because these very insights could have helped me to decide not to invest in the business course and this would have saved me a lot of money. Also, I find it all fascinating and that’s why I like digging into it and untangling it. I hope you find it interesting too!

Photos by Leon Deo and Bram Naus on Unsplash.






8 responses to “The great paradox of online business and marketing coaching”

  1. Sophie Carleen Avatar

    Great article! I have (unfortunately…) invested quite some money in business, marketing and ‘girlboss’ courses. I always felt like I didn’t quite get it, but this person surely did or that program would teach me what I needed to learn. All these programs are SO similar yet once you’ve bought one course, you’re continuously being persuaded to buy another one, or to join a Mastermind or invest in yourself in some other way. It never ends!

    I’ve also learned that it’s 90% marketing and personal branding. These coaches know how to persuade you to keep on investing more money. They know how to brand themselves so that others will want what they have. And so many people fall for it and end up trying to become a “coach” themselves as this seems to be the quickest way to make money. Yet they then will soon discover that unless they’re conventionally attractive, outgoing and are able to gather online followers, it’s really not that easy.

    And the ones at the top (usually the ones who have been doing this the longest) will make most of the money, just like multi level marketing companies. And at the bottom there seems to be an endless supply of new wannabe coaches who are willing to invest all their savings for a chance to become a successful coach too. I’m glad I finally saw through it and stopped spending money on these courses!

    1. Nina Avatar

      I am glad too that you see through it now and that you write about it too. I agree with you. In the online (business or life) coaching world it’s mostly marketing and personal branding, including being conventionally attractive and posting lots of pictures of yourself and inspirational quotes on social media. Which is really weird really, because what do someones looks and social media behavior even add to their coaching skills?

      And indeed, it definitely reminds of a multi level marketing system, in which there’s an endless supply of wannabe business owners or wannabe coaches. I notice once again that I’m not done with the subject yet so more will be coming up haha!

  2. Catherine Cerulli Avatar

    Ahh…..all so very true. It takes courage to call out and name the shadow side of the ever-escalating “business coaching” paradigm.

    I, not a young entrepreneur, but rather a woman over 65 who was ready to shift her focus to an online platform in order to reach a broader audience and generate some income, quickly learned that the truth of the old adage “the only ones who make money in the gold rush are those who sell the shovels.” I think you are speaking “an inconvenient truth” that will resonate with those of us who got seduced by the promises and were left with a formula that works only if you have a B2B ICA, rather than a B2C ICA. (LOL….I did learn some business-speak!)

    1. Nina Avatar

      Thank you for your comment!
      You put it very simply: it mostly works for a B2B ICA not for a B2C ICA! I have never heard anyone put it like this until now and I am glad we agree. Of course one can also do business following B2C but there are stark differences and I believe these should be mentioned too.
      And indeed, selling the shovels! That is how it works right now, building those pyramid schemes leads to the highest profits.

      I hope you did find something of value through the process of looking into these business possibilities. I definitely love the feel of your website so I am guessing you did!

  3. Julia Avatar

    Hi Nina
    What a nice blog ๐Ÿ™‚
    And Interesting to read especially since this topic also moved and frustrated me! I feel the same way. I started an “6 figure online business ” the coaches always claim to help you with and never purchased an information product to achieve the goal. I feel like a big part of succeeding as a small business owner is trial and error, finding an offer that works for your audience. One part is of course common sense marketing techniques (opt in, email marketing, building an audience etc) but that information is pretty easy to find in a few simple marketing books. However to find the right offer is something that you need to test and figure out with trial and etror. No one can help you with that (maybe except employees ๐Ÿ™‚ ). I always wonder why people do not rather invest in an assistant to help me for a few months than in an online course, especially if it costs thousands of dollars. Xox Julia

    1. Nina Avatar

      Hi Julia!
      Thanks for your comment. ๐Ÿ˜€ So cool that you did it without any of those programs and that you’re happy with that too.
      Yes indeed, a lot of this marketing information is common sense and can easily be found in cheaper ways. I guess people (including me) just like to be inspired by someone who seems to know how it all works, who cheers you on to achieve similar goals and to become ‘successful’ too. I really think that’s a big part of it, the idea that you are part of something and that you have help (don’t have to do it all alone) even though it may not even be the help you need.
      So much to unpack here. ๐Ÿ™‚

  4. […] So here’s a bonus interpretation of Munching on a Dream: The Dream is the ‘ideal’ image that is all too often portrayed in online business and marketing coaching, of you living your ideal life as a business owner. The Munching is the work of these ‘coaches’ and others businesses that has the purpose of you purchasing there products and services, so they’re actually eating away at you. Too grim? It could also be your own hard work as a business owner to get to that dream scenario. Better? (Read my analysis about this online business and marketing coaching phenomenon here.) […]

  5. […] and income through ‘influencing’ or selling e-books. Also, there’s a growing scene of online business coaches that’s displaying toxic positivity to sell more online business and marketing courses. Many […]

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