Hi, I’m Fiona and I sell online IELTS courses and coaching. I do this because I enjoy teaching online, I think I can help a lot of people, and I need money to buy stuff.
In order to set myself up as an online tutor, I’ve bought a LOT of online courses and I’ve made a LOT of mistakes, so the aim of this blog is to help you see through all the marketing and sales tricks, and to help you choose the right course for the right reasons at the right price.
(Useful language of marketing in blue – see glossary below).
Summary of ‘red flags’ to check
- is the course REALLY full?
- did a space magically become available straight after you applied?
- is it REALLY worth the price they say it was before the discount?
- was the course REALLY sold at a higher price before the discount?
- is it REALLY the world’s most successful course? (any evidence?)
- is the teacher GENUINE and established?
- does the website look cheap, full of mistakes, stolen materials/images and adverts?
What I’ve discovered about online course marketing strategies
I remember the very first online course that I bought.
It was on Udemy for just $9.99. ‘How to build a website’. Wow, what a bargain! The full price was $299, and I got it for just $9.99! How good is that?
Well not good at all. I completed about 2 lessons before I got stuck and there was no one to ask for help. So I abandoned it. It was the first of many abandoned courses. What a waste of money.
The most expensive mistake I made was buying a year’s access to a reputable marketing guru’s materials. What could go wrong?
Well, every time she added a new course or live class there was an extra charge and it was impossible to benefit from the course without buying her extra classes. What a con!
The most disappointing experience I had was when another influencer that I trusted recommended a $199 course at a 50% discount. I bought it immediately, only to discover that it was little more than a few PDFs – not even a single video, and no access to the teacher or even a community to get help with questions!
It was so bad that I thought I had logged in to the free course by accident. I still see this ‘course’ selling for $497 (when you click away, it offers you a $100 discount).
I could go on and on. I have fallen for all the tricks – the glowing testimonials, the false discounts, the fake claims and the Fear of Missing Out (FOMO).
So the aim of this article is to help you make better decisions and see through the hype when you’re choosing an online IELTS course.
What I’m doing wrong
I am no expert at selling courses, so I look at how other people sell theirs, and I listen to feedback about the way I sell mine.
Here are some of the things I’ve been told I’m doing wrong:
- “You’re too cheap – they’ll think it’s not a good course.”
- “You’re too expensive – people can buy IELTS courses on Udemy for $1.99”.
- “Why don’t you guarantee a Band 7? All the other sites guarantee Band 7”.
- “Why don’t you pretend there’s a discount? Everyone loves a discount!”.
- “Tell them the course is full, so they panic-buy”.
- “Tell them you’re doubling the price tomorrow, so they’ll think they’re getting a great deal”.
Ugh. Why can’t I just be honest? Why can’t I just say that I think my course is the best IELTS course on the market?
“No-one will believe you”.
“So I have to tell lies?”
“That’s what everyone else does”.
And that, sadly, is true. I made a list of the lies and tactics that I see when I’m searching for a course (this is not limited to IELTS courses). Here are the top 10.
10 tricks that people use to make you buy their courses
Listen to the podcast version here:
Trick 1: “The course is FULL!”
Have you ever got really excited about an IELTS course, and clicked on the ‘Join Now’ button, only to find the course is FULL?
How disappointing! But then, miraculously, a place becomes available a minute later and you get a pre-recorded video telling you how amazingly lucky you are that someone JUST passed their test (no matter what time of day it is) so now there’s a place for you?
This is my Number 1 ‘red flag’ – a complete, bare-faced lie. It certainly works, but let’s think about it for a minute.
- Why would someone who wants to make money put a limit on the amount of money they can make? If they get a lot of students, they just hire more teachers.
- Why would someone who wants to HELP as many people as possible to pass the IELTS test put a limit on how many people they can help? They wouldn’t.
There is no such thing as a full course unless there are physical limits e.g. in a classroom (even then, they’d probably just hire more rooms) or limits on the teacher’s time (but they would just hire more teachers).
No-one in the business of selling online courses will restrict the number of students.
If someone tries to sell you this lie, you may need to consider what else they may be lying about.
Trick 2: “Only 2 spots left!”
I felt such an idiot falling for this trick very recently (will I never learn?!)
It was someone who I respected, selling a September 1st start-date in the middle of August with ‘only 2 spots left’. They didn’t even look as if they were trying to tell the truth.
Why would they try to sell a course with only 2 places available? Sounds a bit fishy.
I actually made a bet with a colleague that they would still accept me past the September 1st deadline.
And indeed they did. In fact they’re still accepting people and in the Facebook group, they’re celebrating getting 170 teachers.
In the marketing world, this trick is known as ‘fake scarcity’, and it is widely used. It is designed to create a ‘Fear of Missing Out’ (FOMO) and a false sense of urgency.
All of the red flags were there – why didn’t I see them? Did I just ignore the bad spelling and punctuation? Or did the pressure to buy blind me to the warning signs?
Now, there’s nothing wrong with deadlines. Deadlines are good, and sometimes they help us to take action.
We NEED deadlines. But not fake ones. I use deadlines for my challenges because I want everyone to start on the same day. If people want to join halfway through, they can, because all the materials are there for them to follow at their own pace if they want to.
My deadlines are just to let people know when the 28-day Bootcamps are starting.
And my Members Academy numbers are restricted by the amount of individual Writing marking I can manage each week.
But if 500 people needed my help, would I turn them away? Probably not – I’d just hire other teachers to help me with the marking.
Trick 3: “Total Value $1999. Buy today for just $99!”
I once used this technique of listing the value of each course included in the Academy (but I genuinely DO think the total value is at least $1999, so it was NOT a lie!).
What you have to remember is that the cost or value of a course is a very random figure. You only have to look at Udemy courses to see a completely imagined price for each course, and followed by the (discounted) price they think they can actually sell it for.
Course prices are often based on how much the seller has spent on advertising, how much they need to make in order to break even, how much other people are selling theirs for, and the ‘perceived value’ (what people think they’re worth, based on what you tell them).
What is the real cost of an e-book? Probably pennies for the electricity and wifi. But e-books sell from $0.99 to $9.99. It has nothing to do with the number of pages, printing costs or shipping. It’s just a completely random price that can change from day to day.
Of course, high-quality online courses cost a lot to make – in terms of time, technology and expertise. But once they’re made, it is up to the seller to decide on the price, and they can say whatever they like. If a course was actually worth $1999, they would be able to sell it for that amount (many people do – see the post below from someone planning to sell their course for over $2000).
Trick 4: False discounts
What exactly is a discount? If someone constantly gives discounts, or advertises their prices as permanently discounted, is their product really worth what they’re selling it for?
To me, a discount is what you get on something that is maybe not quite good enough for the full price, for example clothes that are ‘shop-soiled’, or food that is past its sell-by date.
There should be a good reason for a discount – in a normal shop, things are ‘on special offer’ because no-one’s buying them and they’ve got too many, or clothes that have gone out of fashion or are not fit for purpose e.g. at the end of winter, coats are always heavily discounted.
There’s no reason to give a discount on a digital course, unless the original price is not worth what they say it’s worth.
This tactic is illegal in some countries. In Denmark, you can’t market a “before” price if it hasn’t actually been sold before at that price. There’s a reason why it’s illegal.
I give discounts to students who have already invested in me, because I want to. But when a complete stranger asks me for a discount, I know that they are only interested in the price, and not the course or the teacher. So the answer is always no.
Trick 5: False claims and false promises
Have you seen that scene in ‘Elf’ where he has just arrived in New York after being brought up by elves in the North Pole?
He sees a sign:
“The World’s Best Cup Of Coffee”
and believes it really is the world’s best cup of coffee, because he doesn’t know any better.
In Academic Writing, you learn to think critically, question sources and look for evidence. It’s a skill you certainly need for the IELTS test.
So whenever you see someone claiming to be ‘the best IELTS course in the world’ or ‘the world’s most successful’ online IELTS course’, you MUST question the evidence.
False claims are quite difficult to detect and even more difficult to challenge. They sound very enticing, but the claims are often vague and unsubstantiated (with no evidence to back them up).
‘Buy the most successful online course in the world’
What does ‘most successful’ mean?
- Does it mean the course that has made the most money for the seller? Possibly.
- Does it mean they’ve had the most students? The quantity of students is not a measure of quality.
- Does it mean that they had the most successful students? If so, whose courses are they comparing it with? No-one has ever asked me for my success rates. How do they know that my course isn’t more successful than theirs?
Where is the evidence for the claim?
‘Band 7 guaranteed – or get your money back’
This is a lovely and comforting claim. A complete no-brainer for the customer. It means you can have access to the course until you get Band 7 or give up (see ‘Lifetime Access’).
But no-one can guarantee a Band 7.
6. Lifetime access
There’s nothing wrong with Lifetime Access. In fact, this week I was able to access an Excel course that I had bought 6 years ago!
Can you guess why I never accessed it before? Because I had lifetime access. I knew that I could access it any time (for the rest of my life?) Because of this, I never got round to do doing the course, and I still can’t use Excel.
Also, what does ‘lifetime access’ mean? It might not be what you think. In most cases, it simply means ‘for the lifetime of the course’.
It certainly does NOT mean ‘for the rest of your life’ (check the small print). The seller could stop trading tomorrow, stop paying the monthly course hosting fees and you would not have access to the course. Just saying.
7. Vague offers
“Unlimited writing and speaking”.
You mean I can keep writing and speaking 24 hours a day, 7 days a week? Great! (but how exactly can this promise be fulfilled?)
I once promised ‘24-hour access to me’, meaning that I will email you back within 24 hours. A student sensibly asked ‘Does that mean I can call you up any time for advice?’. Er…
So, ask questions about vague offers, and check the small print.
‘Free to join/Free tier’
If something is free to join, it usually means that you can access all the free materials which you can get on the internet anyway. It’s a way of getting your email address so they can hassle you to upgrade.
I’m noy saying that this is deceptive but you need to be aware that it is another ploy to get you to pay for more, and the ‘free tier’ is often nothing more than what you can find for free online anyway. People tell me I have too much free stuff on my website and that I should create a ‘Free to join’ level. I call that a website, but maybe I will try it one day.
8. Affliate Marketing
In the Facebook comment that I shared above about selling a $27 course for $2000, the woman who runs it, sells only Premium courses ($5000+).
I often hear other ‘high-ticket’ course sellers promoting her course. Why would they do that? Because they’ll get a $1000 affiliate payout every time they sell one of her courses, and vice versa.
It’s called ‘affiliate marketing’ and it’s something you need to be aware of.
People often declare ‘affiliate links’ and it is a common practice (but not one that I do). I only recommend people that I genuinely trust, and whose courses I have actually SEEN, whose quality I can vouch for or who provide something that I do not provide.
The person whose course I stupidly bought in point #2 had around 400 video testimonials, and they were NOT fake.
I watched some of the videos and I was impressed. These people seemed very genuine. But…
- had they received any kind of incentive to record these videos? Maybe not.
- Were they all affiliates (so they get money for every person why signs up through their link)? Possibly. Who knows?
- Was this the first time they’d done a course and so they had nothing to compare it with?
Testimonials, or ‘social proof’ is a really important way for course sellers to show you that other people trust them, but let’s be honest, are they going to show you any negative testimonials?
The important thing is do YOU trust them? (see #10 – Red Flags)
10. Red Flags
What is a ‘red flag’?
Literal Meaning: A red flag is a flag that is used to indicate danger or as a sign that you should stop.
Modern Meaning: a term used to describe when somebody has a feeling that they are potentially dealing with a manipulative individual.
Marketing is very manipulative, and whenever I feel I’ve been conned, I look for the warning signals I might have missed.
I have outlined many of them above – basically if someone is treating you like an idiot, they are not to be trusted.
Here are some red flags to help you make informed decisions:
1. You don’t know what the person looks like or sounds like.
Someone signed up to my Members Academy last month. They didn’t reply to my emails, didn’t attend any of the live sessions, didn’t submit any writing, or join any of the community groups.
Eventually I tracked them down and discovered their (very popular) IELTS website, but still no face, no video, no social media presence. Very dodgy.
Perhaps they are on social media but when you go to check out their video tutorials on YouTube, they get someone else or AI to voiceover their videos (I have a colleague who does this, believe it or not).
2. They copy other people’s posts (plagiarism).
I could give you a list of these people – check out TED-IELTS’s excellent blog for a list of the worst offenders (Yes, I’m on his ‘nice’ list, but I’m not an affiliate, honestly!)
Seriously, if people can’t create their own materials, what are their courses going to be like? And even if they’ve stolen a high-quality course, how are they going to teach it?
3. There are obvious spelling and grammar mistakes.
4. They screenshot stolen images with the watermarks still on them.
5. They use a marketing system called something like ‘Cluck Funnels’
I have changed the name as they probably won’t like being called crooks, but they design their software specifically to deceive and manipulate people into thinking that there is no time left or that the product is in limited supply e.g. ’98 out of 100 spots taken’.
6. They constantly tell you how much they’re worth, but then offer their services for free.
They have a really cheap and ugly-looking red and blue logo and when you buy something, it will automatically try to sell you something else with a flashing red arrow.
(My red arrows point to the poor punctuation).
Test yourself: Can you spot the red flags?
What are the 3 red flags in this email? (I’ve trained my students to spot them and now they send me examples like this!).
1. They’re pretending that they’ve been asked to contact you personally but they don’t even know your name.
2. They’re pretending that their time is worth HUNDREDS of dollars yet they’re practically begging you to use them for free.
3. They’re using shocking, emotive language (‘Why you’ve failed‘). This truly disgusts me and I find the whole tone quite sleazy and creepy.
Conclusion: 'Know, Like and Trust'
The best advice I was ever given about marketing was that if you want someone to buy something from you, they have to:
- know you
- like you
- trust you
It is quite easy these days to get to know and like teachers by watching how they conduct themselves online.
But I see so many online companies breaking the trust of their followers with these tricks and gimmicks to get people to buy.
If a seller is trying to trick you into buying, it means that they have very little respect for you. But not all teachers are like that.
Smaller course platforms and self-employed teachers like me are growing in popularity because they can offer a more honest alternative to the ‘Macdonalds’ of online tutoring companies.
They don’t have the time or the budget to set up these expensive marketing funnels, so they have to rely on the quality of their teaching and the integrity of what they offer. Perhaps it’s time for you to put your trust in them.
Is there a better way? I think so.
Join The Members Academy
No false promises, fake discounts, phoney videos, dodgy credentials, backhanders, manipulative offers and certainly no fear of missing out.
I don’t put limits on learning. You can join ANY TIME YOU WANT.
Get expert feedack on your Speaking and Writing, plus instant access to all courses, challenges, boot camps, live classes, interactive and engaging classes, 1:1 support, and a friendly tight-knit community of like-minded learners to get you to Band 7+.
Glossary of useful marketing vocabulary
The language of advertising and marketing is useful for the IELTS Speaking and Writing tests, where questions about adverts come up regularly.
Here’s a quick list – I’ll update it later today:
- a second-hand/used car salesman – someone who can’t be trusted
- a snake-oil salesman – someone who sells fraudulent remedies or solutions.
- a con-artist – a person who cheats or tricks others by persuading them to believe something that is not true
- a cowboy – a dishonest or careless person in business, especially an unqualified one.
- a charlatan – a person falsely claiming to have a special knowledge or skill.
- a creep – someone who favours manipulation and deceit
- a red flag – a warning of danger
- to sell snake-oil (see below)
- to fall for (a trick) – to believe that a trick is true
- to panic-buy – to buy a product due to a sudden fear of shortage or price rise
- to deceive – deliberately cause (someone) to believe something that is not true, especially for personal gain.
- to manipulate – control or influence a person unscrupulously.
- to rip someone off/to get ripped off – to cheat someone, especially financially.
- snake oil = a term to describe deceptive marketing
- a con – an instance of deceiving or tricking someone.
- a rip-off – cheating someone by charging too much or not giving anything of value for money spent
- a bargain – a thing bought or offered for sale much more cheaply than is usual or expected.
- a steal – so cheap that it’s almost as if you haven’t paid for it
- a no-brainer – a very easy decision to make
- a claim – state that something is true, typically without providing evidence or proof.
- an affiliate – a person or organization officially attached to a larger body.
- an incentive – a thing that motivates or encourages someone to do something.
- BS filter* – he ability to notice and disregard other people’s bullshit (BS)
- FOMO (Fear of Missing Out)
- scarcity – being in short supply, a lack of or shortage of something
- social proof
- unscrupulous – having or showing no moral principles; not honest or fair.
- sleazy* – morally bad and low in quality, but trying to attract people by a showy appearance or false manner
- dodgy* – dishonest or unreliable. Potentially dangerous.
- fishy* – arousing feelings of doubt or suspicion.
- creepy* – causing an unpleasant feeling of fear or unease.
- fraudulent – involving deception
- transparent (pricing)
- If it looks too good to be true, it probably is.
- There’s no such thing as a free lunch.
- Always read the small prini
Thank you so much for your kind comment. It’s very nice to chat with you on Instagram and I’m so glad that you and your students are enjoying my materials and resources. Please spread the word about these misleading marketing offers!
Hello dear Fiona
I say “dear” because you only one female- teacher, who can I trust on internet platform. You really had done hard work to make your online course ..trying different ways..to be the best for your students. I’m your follower for many years and I have been seeing desing changes of your courses but one is permanently true is your high qulificating of teaching us( students)
I really appreciate everything what you do for me exactly, I mean, your task, podcast, messages, planning, replies to my letters…I’m proud of you..and my students prepare for IELTS with you and Keith, recently we add Eli’s classes. Thank you very much for your post about misleading online courses, it’s worth reading..as I did)
My best regards.
Thank you so much for your kind comment. It’s very nice to chat with you on Instagram and I’m so glad that you and your students are enjoying my materials and resources. Please spread the word about these misleading marketing offers!
That’s really true. I did fall prey to many such tactics and false promises. Only after actually using them, realised and regret what a big mistake it was and the worst part is both your time and effort is in vain.
Hi Huzma. Sorry to hear you had this kind of bad experience (so did I, many times!). Hopefully we will learn from it so that it wasn’t all in vain. Many thanks for your comment, Best wishes, Fiona.
Hi Fiona – Thank you for writing this blog. This is really informative. There are loads of websites which claim band 7 and use all the tricks you mentioned above just to earn money and mislead students. I’m sure this blog will help IELTS aspirants to think critically before signing up.
Thanks for your comment Mandeep. I really hope it will help students think more critically – a great life skill to develop!
Sidharth Pradhan says
This is so well articulated!! All the things that I see on the internet these days related to IELTS and other courses have the same things that you have mentioned above. I would definitely recommend everyone to atleast read this blogpost before buying any online courses. I’m much obliged you have provided us this truth of deep dark black hole of marketing world. Thank youu!
Hi Sidharth. Thank you so much for your comment. I hope we can help people make more informed decisions before they get sucked into the black hole of marketing-speak!
Xavier Martel says
This is a fantastic blog post – very thorough and informative. I think we all need reminding occasionally of the dodgy tactics used online. If something sounds too good to be true it often is.
Thank you for your comment Xavier. My thoughts exactly!
In my opinion, this post is fantastic and helpful for many people. Not only can it help numerous people who prepare for the IELTS, but for all people who want to buy courses in general. I shared this link with my friends and they also consider that it a world-class post.
Thank you for everything
Dear Slava. Thank you so much for sharing this. I’m very lucky that I get the brightest students!
Maria Morro says
I’m very glad that I’ve found you, your character, conduct and passion for teaching and coaching people really impress me! Honestly, I think more people need to know about you, that’s why I highly recommend Ieltsetc.com.
I’ve already bought two courses, and even when I couldn’t be present on live session, I was always able to catch up anytime after in an incredible way. Another great attitude of yours, your videos on YouTube videos are straightforward, very didactic, without buy this or buy that.
I can assure that the resources you prepared and leave available for everyone, even for those whose aren’t members, are great, it’s unbelievable the amount of information you give out. The thing I like most about you is your sincerity and humbleness, if you don’t know about something you’re asked or if something goes wrong during the session you say “bear with me” and deal with it, even asking or accepting help from someone that could help you. In my opinion this is amazing!
Overall, by the attention you give to us (students) its really fells like you know each one of them personally. It’s so important to know that you are there, able to answer when we need.
I wish you all the best, and also I’d like to thank you for your support and dedication.
Thank you so much Angelica! What a pleasure it was for me to have you as a student in the Academy!
I wish you every success with your test, and hope to see you in the Zoom Room again 🙂
This is really an eye-opener for those who go online and purchase courses blindly.
thank you so much for this blog, I will pass it to my friends and advise them not to follow things without any research and I may stop them to waste their valuable money.
Thank you so much for reading it (it’s very long!). I hope that it will be useful to your friends and help them distinguish the real teachers from the money-grabbers!
I would advise IELTS students to read this before signing up for an online course, there is a lot of deception out there around IELTS websites and courses and Fiona cuts right through that.
If you are an IELTS teacher with a social media following share this post around.
Thank you so much Ray. I’m planning Part 2 to be a more positive post about IELTS teachers that are genuine and trustworthy like you. I’m hoping that we can help students find teachers who are NOT just trying to make money out of them!
Will McCulloch says
This is really one of the best blog posts that I’ve ever read concerning dodgy internet sales & marketing techniques. Like you & countless others I’ve fallen for several internet offers that initially looked fantastic but sadly turned out to be a complete rip off full of false promises.
On a more positive note, I’m sure that what you have written can help many readers to avoid costly mistakes in the future & I will certainly be encouraging my own students to share this post far and wide on social media platforms. The more people that read it the better – and hopefully some will want to share their thoughts on the topic in a comment….
Finally, it’s also an excellent topic for language teachers to discuss in speaking classes and that is exactly what I’ll be doing later today. So thanks a million for preparing my lesson – you are a star!
Big cheers from Hamburg
Thanks Will. I’ve added the word ‘rip off’ to the list! Yes, so many false promises. I hope it will help people to at least think twice the next time they see this kind of offer. Best wishes, Fiona
Hi Will and Hi Fiona,
I totally agree with you, thank you for this blog post and Information.
Best regards from Berlin
Thank you for your comment Roya,