A few months back I received a personalized invitation to the "2011 Internet Marketing Conference" held here in Greenville, SC. They were renting out the Hyatt Downtown, offering a free meal, free entrance to the conference, a free MP3 player, and oh, a netbook computer to the first 50 people that signed up! Sound like a scam? Oh yea! Normally I shy away from stuff like this when it comes in my mailbox but instead of instantly putting it in the recycling bin I let it sit with the other mail for a few days.
Looks like a scam huh?
After a few days I was mulling over in my mind just how companies like StoresOnline.com can afford to put on big productions like this without charging anyone for attending. I mean, I'm planning a wedding right now and I know how expensive it is to rent out a ballroom at the Hyatt, feed everyone, and give a free gift to everyone that attends. They must really think that they are going to sell something big to at least a good portion of the people that attend.
So I called the number on the card and was met with a very nice lady on the other end. She spoke understandable english and was very polite. She reminded me that the attire was business casusal and that they would begin promptly at 6:00pm. She also notified me that I would recieve a package in the mail with tickets to the event.
A few days later, sure enough, a package showed up with the customized tickets for me and a business colleague. They also sent a letter wishing me success "as you take this opportunity to begin profiting from the e-commerce explosion." Perfect! This should be a fun little event!
Just a couple weeks later I grabbed my fiance (who thought I was crazy for wanting to attend such an obvious scam conference) and we headed for the Hyatt. We met at the registration table and settled into a big ballroom with around a hundred seats in it. I noticed the demographics in the room were pretty interesting. Mostly OLDER people, a lot of women, a lot of people who looked as if they had just gotten their first computer in the past year. Interesting.
Shortly after, our speaker for the night, Bob Schneck, showed up. A middle aged man who obviously had a lot of public speaking experience. A big projector in the front of the room had "2011 Internet Marketing Conference" in big letters and at the bottom in much smaller letters, "All testimonials shared at this event are not typical." Sound like a scam yet? OH YEA! Yet I was still intrigued by why all these people showed up, and what they were going to try to sell me (or get me to "invest" in).
Bob told us that after his hour and a half presentation dinner would be served. Perfect, everyone is starving already so no one will leave! He started into his presentation, mostly some statistics about Google and some basic tips on how ordinary people (JUST LIKE YOU!) can make thousands selling things on the internet. He did a great job to make the conference seem like it was educational and not at all designed to sell you anything. One smart move he did make though. He did the unthinkable, he mentioned the elephant in the room. He mentioned that everyone in the room was probably wondering "whats the catch" he said he would get to that later. A few minutes later he mentioned that they were there to sell a solution to help people start their own online businesses. He didn't go in for the sale yet though. Instead, he took an informal poll on who had websites currently, just 3 off the roughly hundred people in the room raised their hands. Perfect! Lots of fresh meat.
After about another hour of "educating" the people in the room on the basics of running a business and how to market themselves online he had clearly gained a lot of people's trust. People were paying attention and most people were taking notes. He mentioned that there would be an exclusive follow up full day of learning for the people that were paying good attention, and not texting on their phones or day dreaming. Throughout the presentation he alluded to a test that would be given at the end of the presentation and that only a few people in the room would be selected to go to this exclusive full day of learning!
He then went into the testimonials section and talked about an ordinary woman, Diana Blair, who had used their software to start a website selling maps online. He then went live on the internet and searched for "Map Books" . The audience was clearly impressed when her website showed up first, out of over 700 million results. After clicking on her website (which is mapbooks4u.com if you want to checkout how bad of a design it is) he scrolled to the bottom of her page. The words "Powered by StoresOnline.com" showed up. By doing this he was basically taking the trust that he earned from the first hour of education, and then relating a store being hosted by stores online to being easy to find on the internet. Perfect baiting! Unfortunately, he failed to mention that wayyy back on the first slide it said, "All testimonials shared at this event are not typical."
At this point I just wanted to stand up and tell Bob how Google REALLY works and save all these people from having to go to another seminar. I was a good boy though and sat at my seat.
Soon after it was time for him to seal the deal. The EXCLUSIVE 8-hour internet marketing conference only had room for about a third of the people in the room. He mentioned that it was a small cost of just $99 and would include lunch, as well as a free pass for a guest. And the seal the deal, you would receive a free netbook just for attending! He then had his staff pass out the test that he talked about earlier. Based on what you put on the test would determine your opportunity to attend the full time conference. Here is the form that I filled out.
Now does it look like I put a lot of time, effort, or enthusiasm into filling out this form? Pretend this was a job application, would you really want to call the person back?
After all the forms were collected dinner was served. It consisted of a bland chicken sandwitch, a tiny scoop of potato salad, and a pickle. I'm not a super picky eater but honestly this barely counted as dinner. They obviously picked the cheapest food the Hyatt could offer, just so they could advertise it on their invitations (can you really blame them though!).
While we were eating Bob got back on the microphone to announce the lucky people who were accepted to
Bob must have called off 30 or 40 names and then paused to take a break. What he was really doing was giving the people who were already called time to sign up at the back of the room. Once most of those people were back in the front of the room he said there were a few "borderline" people that he forgot to call off. He then proceeded to call off another 20-30 names but slower this time, so that there were never too many people at the back (so it still looked special when you were called up). I would have to estimate that he called up probably 75% of the room. He then mentioned that "If your name was not called, and you want to attend, come see me after and we might be able to find a spot." So much for the EXCLUSIVE event that only could accommodate 35 or so people in the room, he basically INVITED EVERYONE! Yes, eventually they even invited me! I don't think many people picked up on this though, they were just excited about being able to attend the event.
After this he just had a few closing comments and explained that he didn't have the free MP3 players available to giveout that day. Instead on your way out you received a mail in coupon for the MP3 player. Both me and my fiance took one and left the event.
I went home and mailed in both of our coupons. Just over a month later I got this package in the mail:
Despite the fact I mailed TWO vouchers in, I only received ONE MP3 player back. I took the MP3 player out of the package. Looked pretty nice, just like an ipod shuffle ripoff. It also came with a small USB cord and a pair of headphones (with the shortest cord ever on them, seriously it won't even reach to my pocket!). Just like the "dinner" at the Hyatt, they evidently found the cheapest supplier of MP3 players in the world. I plugged in the MP3 player and loaded up a few songs on its HUGE 128MB of storage (what is this the 90's!). I let the player charge up over night, flipped it on, and tried to play a song. Nothing. I played around with it for a few more minutes. Loaded on some other song, one that I knew worked on all my other MP3 players. Still nothing. Great I got an MP3 player that can't even play a modern MP3 file on it! I guess you could use the thing as a 128mb flash drive if you really wanted.
So that's my story about the whole StoresOnline.com conference scam. But was it really a scam? I don't really think so. Was it manipulative? Oh yea. First of all they made it seem like with their software and a little bit of work you could be making thousands on the internet. They also showed some outdated statistics that made their products (web hosting, web development software) sound like a steal. They also did the classic thing every TV Paid Program does, show testimonials that are completely atypical. So why did I really go? Honestly I was interested in just how stores online can afford to put on big productions like this. I was also interested in seeing what sales techniques the speaker would try to use! So did they make money on the night? No, even if all 100 people signed up. But if half of those people sign up for their incredibly overpriced software ($3600) and hosting services ($30 a month) during the next conference that is where they will make their money. There are lots of interesting sales tactics at play here.
So if you get invited to one of these events should you go? For most people the answer is NO. But it really depends on what you are looking for. I enjoyed it because I got fed (not that well though) and enjoyed watching the sales tactics of the speaker. If you are looking to start an online business, I can't say I would recommend going though. You will be miles ahead by taking a class at a local community college, reading up on search engines, taling to friends that own their own businesses, and going to the library and checking out a book on how to start a small business.
P.S. Apparently a lot of other people think stores online is a scam as well. Just type "stores online" into the google, don't hit search yet but look at the suggestions, the first one that pops up is "stores online scam." According to Google over 3000 people search for these keywords every month! How hypocritical, a company that wants to sell you on the power of search engine marketing to drive sales can't even keep a decent reputation on the internet.