How buying a really expensive vacuum changed my entire business

Not long enough ago, a stranger knocked on my door. She was young and seemed nice and, even though my toddler and I were home alone, I honestly didn’t think twice about opening my door to her.

After telling me how cute my daughter is (so true) and making friendly conversation (much needed), she told me she needed help winning a work contest. If she did enough demonstrations that day, she could win a trip to Las Vegas. She’d never been there and she was only two demonstrations short. Would I let her come in to vacuum just a tiny stretch of carpet? Just that little section right by my door?

Call me a sucker, but I said yes.

She did a little excited dance, thanked me, and waved at a car sitting in the parking lot. A man hopped out, unloaded a shiny chrome vacuum, and walked into my apartment.

Already, this was not what I’d signed up for. But the nice woman introduced us, explained that he was part of her team, and promised he’d leave in 10 minutes.

So, I hunkered down in the bedroom with my crying kid who had a serious fear vacuums (as two year olds are known to have).

Fast forward 4 hours and my husband had gotten home from work to find a stranger moving our furniture around for a deep clean and every once in a while interjecting comments like, “Isn’t this a great machine? Don’t you think you deserve to clean easily like this? Your daughter deserves to always sit on a couch this clean!”

It was late, we were all hungry, but there was literally nothing to eat because in the time that I was supposed to get groceries, I was busy comforting a small child instead.

All I wanted was for these strangers to leave my home… but I’d let hours pass and the thought of kicking them out felt awkwarder by the second.

Next thing I knew, I was signing a credit application for a $3,000 vacuum cleaning system just to get rid of them. They took another hour to slowly open the box, calmly set up the new machine, and congratulated us.

To be honest, this story still embarrasses me. Part of me still feels like this vacuum incident was completely my fault.

Why did I open the door? Why did I let them in? Why didn’t I ask them to leave? Why, oh why, couldn’t I just say no when they asked if they could run my credit?

I counted exactly how many opportunities I’d had to say no… and how many times I’d failed to do just that. It wasn’t until someone pointed me to an analysis of predatory marketing that it clicked:

  1. The vacuum incident was not my fault. The people who knocked on my door had mastered the nefarious art of taking advantage of parts of my psyche I wasn’t even aware of. They had deliberately tapped into reflexes I didn’t even know were there to get me to buy that vacuum.
  2. I had been trying to do the same thing in my business.

When I started Wild Olive, I was pretty fresh out of design school. I had experience working in a few marketing/design departments and studios. I even had some freelance work under my belt. But I had no idea how to start a legit stand-alone business.

So I did what a lot of us who embark on this entrepreneurial journey do: I searched the internet, found my gurus, and did everything they told me to do.

I bought into the formula that promises success if you make people believe you are their friend, give them something so they think you care about them, and then pressure them into giving you their money by telling them they need to prove they care about themselves by buying your thing.

It’s really no different than what the vacuum people did to me: they sent a friendly young woman to knock on my door and make conversation, they vacuumed my entire messy cobwebbed apartment for free, and they subtly sent the message that I needed to buy this vacuum if I wanted to take better care of my family and myself.

And just in case I wasn’t fully convinced this was what my family and I really needed, they paired their whole marketing scheme with aggressive sales techniques… but that’s a different story.

The nastiest thing about this kind of marketing is that it works. And it works because the marketing tactics so often touted by online business coaches, teachers, and self-proclaimed gurus tap into some of the primal-level wiring we all share.

First, they take advantage of our need for relationship, intimacy, and connection by creating the illusion of friendship.

They craft personas that look and feel welcoming. They share just enough so that we feel like we really know them. They let us in on the messy side of things with scripted moments of authenticity, complete with a messy-ish background, hair in a bun, and no makeup.

It’s no coincidence that we end up feeling like these personas are our friends. And there wouldn’t really be much wrong with that if it weren’t just the tip of the so-called relationship marketing iceberg.

The problem with brands that want to be our friend is exactly that. They are brands.

The sole purpose of their existence is to sell us something. And it gets shady when they do everything in their power to make us believe they are actually just friends with no ulterior motives.

Because we let our guards down around our friends. We listen to the things they say with a special kind of attention. We don’t filter their messages through our usual ad-aware filters. We let them into our home when they offer to vacuum our living rooms. And we buy.

Next, they tap into reciprocity by offering a free gift.

Reciprocity is the part of our wiring that makes us be nice to people who are nice to us, help the people who help us, and give to the people who give to us. We see it in action when we’re compelled to return favors — like buying that co-worker a coffee the day after they pick up your Starbucks.

Reciprocity is a good thing. Heck, it’s a beautiful thing. It’s meant to ensure that we’re all taken care of by giving us the assurance that if we help when we can, we’ll receive help when we need it.

In the online marketing world, this gets hijacked and turned into everything we hear about creating content that adds value, offering freebies, and showing up to be helpful.

On the surface, this all looks like a good thing. It’s when it’s paired with the hidden agenda of training us for a sale that it becomes problematic.

Because when a brand that’s made us believe it’s our friend gives us a free downloadable gift, what we’re often actually getting is sucked into an uneven cycle of reciprocity. Marketers are banking on our feeling compelled to return the favor by spending our cash on their offering.

And just like the vacuum people primed me for that final yes, I’ll buy this machine by first getting me to say yes, I’ll open the door… online marketers are training us to say yes to their big-ticket items. And it usually starts by getting us to say yes, I’ll give you my email address to grab your free worksheet.

To seal the deal, they tell us they have an opportunity for us to invest in ourselves.

The offer doesn’t get framed as an offer. It gets framed as a once in a lifetime opportunity. As something we need to buy to prove that we care about ourselves, our families, our communities, the world…

I honestly can’t see how this one can even seem like a good thing.

Because it blatantly targets those parts of our psyche where all our self-doubt lives. It exploits our feelings of unworthiness. It takes all our insecurities and uses them against us.

It tells us we are not enough… and that all we need is to by this one thing.

And, I guess, yes, there can be some purchases that really are an investment in ourselves and all the things we care about. But its up to us to decide whether a service or product is an investment, not for the marketer to shove that narrative down our throats.

This is the marketing model that’s being taught by so many online business experts…and it’s the model I was trying so hard to follow.

I was trying to create a friendly persona for the sole purpose of selling.

I was trying to give out free stuff for the sole purpose of selling.

I was trying to convince you that you weren’t enough for the sole purpose of selling.

And that’s not even all of the yuck in online marketing circles. There’s so much more that I can only begin to unpack a fraction of it here.

And there’s also a better way.

There’s a better way to do business that puts people first, that values real connection, and that allows us to sincerely make true friends… with no ulterior motives.

There’s a better way to do business that makes room for being completely honest when you’re trying to sell something, that treats people with enough respect to not try to trick them into a transaction, and that doesn’t require us to spend all our time trying to craft the next awesomest freebie ever.

There’s a better way to do business that trusts our clients to know what is right for them and when, that strengthens their security in themselves, and that even motivates them to love themselves more deeply.

This is the way I started on some months back and it’s the way I’m going as I move forward. It’s better over here and I’d love for you to join me.

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