Fleecing our community: the social problem

Black sheep-1

I’ve been thinking about credibility nonstop lately. But it’s a topic I’m nervous to broach, because I know my opinions are unpopular in certain circles.

Then I read The Economist’s article on affinity fraud and decided to get off the sidelines.

Here’s the article. Basically, it’s about scams “in which the perpetrator uses personal contacts to swindle a specific group.” Of late, Bernie Madoff is the most famous example, but the article leads with a story about Ephren Taylor.

Taylor is a pastor/investor. His schtick was visiting churches and pitching parishioners, telling them he chose investments with God’s guidance. People who entrusted their money with Taylor were guaranteed 20 percent (apparently God’s track record is merely above average).

It sounds ridiculous, right? How did Taylor ever manage to convince people that God doled out investment advice?

Social approval.

First, Taylor spoke at mega churches. This put him in a position of undeniable authority before the parishioners, who already placed deep trust with their pastors.

Second, Taylor was sanctioned by the media. He appeared on legit news organizations like CNN and NPR.

In online parlance, Taylor had authority and social proof in spades.

“An essential element of Mr. Taylor’s approach was to make those he targeted want to invest in him personally, says Cathy Lerman, a lawyer representing some of the victims. “He was a master of creating a marketing presence. He would say: ‘If you want to check me out, just Google me.’” He had no problem convincing them that he was an ordained minister, even though he had no formal seminary training, according to court documents. (emphasis mine)

How did Taylor spend his social capital?

“Divine inspiration, alas, has given way to legal tribulation. For many investors, the 20 percent guaranteed returns proved illusory. Mr Taylor (whereabouts unknown) stands accused of fraud in a number of lawsuits.”

Gee, I love me some fraud.

It’s tempting to poke fun at the parishioners who believed God would watch over their investments.

And yet…

The techniques used by Taylor are best practices in marketing.

Guest blogging is the online equivalent of speaking from the pulpit. Anyone looking to become an expert in their field should appear on media channels.

These techniques are not inherently bad (except the lying bit). Indeed, I am pro guest posting, and my business is all about getting covered by the media.

There is nothing inherently wrong with marketing. The evil dwells within the mind of the fraudster.

Unfortunately for the trusting, honest and well-intentioned majority, social authority is easy to manufacture.

Anyone can buy Twitter followers, Facebook likes or blog subscribers. A skilled publicist knows how to create irresistible media angles for even the shadiest of characters.

No, I’m not naming names. My suspicions are gut reactions, the hair-on-edge feelings you get when your body is telling you danger is near. No proof = no throwing aspersions. I promise you this: I never write about or promote people that put me on edge.

So the question is…

How do we protect ourselves?

Study the psychology of marketing. This is a good idea, anyway. Whether you’re running a business, working for someone else or simply trying to get your kid to eat his peas, it’s good stuff to know. A few good books are Influence, How to Win Friends and Influence People and Scientific Advertising. Fair warning: after you read these books, you will see sales techniques everywhere. It’s a little frightening at first.

Ask yourself, Why am I giving my money to this person? I do this all the time. I’m happy to turn my money over to someone when there’s a clear benefit. But sometimes, when I dig deep, I realize that one of the following factors is at work: I like so-and-so and want to support them, everyone’s doing it and I don’t want to miss out, or I think Oh, I should learn that! when it never was on my radar previously. These are all huge red flags that maybe the product or course isn’t right for me.

Define a clear objective before you purchase. When I work with clients, I am obsessed with defining the project’s deliverables. Not, we’ll consult on your media strategy, but I’ll give you a customized Media Blueprint that will provide pitches, editorial profiles and contact information for 10-15 media outlets. Then I’ll teach you how to pitch them.

This is good for the client — and for me. You know exactly what you’re getting, and if it’s not a right fit, you can walk away. This has happened, by the way, when a potential client needed something I couldn’t or wouldn’t give them, and that’s as it should be.

Be wary of too-good-to-be-true claims. Is anyone making 20 percent returns? In what time frame? Can I talk to a client who can share with me their actual performance? An itty bit of skepticism is healthy.

Ask the uncomfortable questions. Not sure a service or product is right for you? Ask a tough question. I did that with Marianne Elliott before I took my first 30 days of yoga course. Her response was respectful, knowledgeable and directly answered my specific concern. Booyah!

  • Here’s something to watch out for: People write testimonials for their friends. That’s okay. We believe in our friends, and often they can help us! But sometimes these things are favors — the writer hasn’t actually read a guide or taken a course. A great question to ask is: Which of these testimonials were written by clients?
  • Find out how a person developed their skill set. Demand a specific answer. Do not accept: I’ve consulted with 100’s of small businesses on their social media strategy. Instead, listen for something like: I honed my craft working for clients like xx, who I achieved yy for. If someone is just starting out, it’s okay to take a leap of faith, but don’t let anyone get away with overstating their credentials.
  • Be wary of, Oh, I do that, too! style claims. Although I explicitly offer PR services, I also do some copywriting. I really enjoy it. But if a client asks me to consult on business development, I politely decline. Since I haven’t yet run my own successful business (although I hope I’m on the right track!), I feel it would be unethical to advise another in that capacity.People have skill sets that aren’t explicitly promoted on their websites or sales copy. But buyer, beware the business that claims expertise in everything.

As my old boss said, trust but verify.

This advice is more relevant than ever in an environment when media gives us all a platform — to use for good or the despicable.

What’s your take on this issue? Are you wary of the effects of social authority? How do you decide who you trust — and when do you walk away?