Sneaky Marketing: Education “Experts”

As a marketer I think it’s important to define a line that you will not cross.  Marketing can have an ugly connotation with a lot of people because it can be construed as tricking people or deceiving consumers. Some marketers do cross the line, ethically, and become spammy, sneaky, “car salesman”-like crooks.  And they give the rest of us a bad name.

As someone who has spent much of my early career working in the education sector, I tend to have more of an insider’s insight into the workings of education marketing, naturally.

Bringing this altogether, there is one marketing practice that I don’t necessarily agree with at the moment.  Allow me to take a moment to “hate” on this very profitable, and mostly successful method of advertising.

Lead generation is a common form of online marketing, and for those of us in the education sector, it represents a huge percentage of advertising costs.  There are plenty of ways to do it, but one way growing in popularity is to purchase “leads” (a potential customer’s phone number or email address) from websites claiming to be easy to use school search engines or organizers.

Without naming names, these companies use TV, Radio, Print, and Online ads to target potential students, claiming that they will help Connect you with the right school.  They feature “expert” articles about education and schooling, and let you search schools by location and specialty or area of study.  And boom, they give you their suggestions.

What they never tell you is that those schools are paying to be listed there, and schools that don’t pay or don’t even know about that company, will never be listed.  If I operate a for profit school, I would pay an agreed upon dollar value to show up in your search and collect your information should you choose to give it to me.

At the moment, this is a perfectly legitimate practice, and I will admit to being on the school end of this in the past, paying to get listed in your search results.  I still feel, however, that this is a deceptive strategy, leading on students (minors or close to it for the most part) and making them think you are actually there to help.

I’m not naïve, if something makes money, people will flock to it.  It’s up to each person individually to decide whether or not it’s worth it to compromise their own ethical values.  The point of marketing, I believe, is not to deceive, but to get your message in front of the right people at the right time.  You’re not always going to be helping every person, but if you present your message honestly, you can at least sleep a little easier at night.

Other examples of what I call the Pay to Play Sneaky Marketing strategy include organizations like Yelp (who has been accused in the past of forcing companies to pay for advertising by threatening poor user reviews on them) and the BBB (who choose not to list or rank perfectly legitimate companies who are not paying members of the Bureau).

What do you think about this type of business model? Share your thoughts in the comments section below.