This post originally appeared on American Express OPENForum.

There is a never-ending list of things businesses must purchase in order to grow. It’s just a fact, and that fact is exploited by plenty of folks that want to sell you things that may or may not actually propel you towards growth.

In the building of your brand, both online and off, there will come a time when a company approaches you with an offer for a service that seems to address a need, but in fact, is so detrimental it may actually do more harm than good.

These offers often address our inherent desire to shortcut the real work required to produce sustainable business and marketing results—but, of course, that’s the appeal.

Below are five things you must do the right way—and that usually means you should never pay for them.

Advertising you can’t account for

I’m not against paying for advertising, in fact, quite the opposite; I think advertising is an essential part of small business lead generation. What I am opposed to is buying any advertising that you can’t or don’t track.

Advertising only works if it’s the right message, presented at the exact right time, to the exact right audience. There are so many variables at play here that the only way to get your bang for the buck is to measure real results, in almost real time. Advertising without accountability is like playing roulette with your money.


Lots of companies offer incentives for referrals, and in some instances a little cash for the act of a referral can motivate, but is it the right motivation?

Referral generation is an important aspect of marketing, but when you pay for referrals you change the relationship from social to financial and that changes the dynamic in ways that won’t last long-term.

The proper motivation for a referral is the lending of trust in an effort to help either the company receiving the referral or the individual being referred. That’s not to say that you shouldn’t use creative incentives to keep referrals top of mind, it’s just that if you provide something of value, you shouldn’t have to bribe people to share.

Reviews of your business

Online reviews carry increasing weight in the information gathering routine of prospects, as well as in the ranking factors that contribute to high search engine results. Because of that, smart marketers are paying more attention to reviews and even getting more proactive about stimulating written reviews from happy customers.

So, it should come as no surprise that enterprising snake oil types are offering reviews for fee services that can get your business favorably reviewed by professional Yelp and Google Places review accounts located right there in your town.

On top of being dishonest, my guess is that paying for these reviews may actually get some businesses banned from review participation. Put the work in and make reviews an authentic arm of your message.

Links to your site

This one has faded from the mainstream for the most part, mainly because the search engines police it so heavily, but there are still lots of SEO types willing to sell you links from high quality sites leading back to your site.

Back links to your site are extremely important, but its become extremely easy for search engines to recognize abnormal linking behavior, and even easier to penalize sites that participate in it.

Write good content, point to good content and participate in social networks—that’s how you create organic links to your site.

Opt-in e-mail lists

Every list company, including the largest, most respected names, will sell you a list of targeted opt-in e-mails. The thing is, no matter how many hoops they jump through to make sure these e-mails are CAN-SPAM compliant, they aren’t opt-in, because they did not opt-in to get your e-mails.

Some companies get around this by not actually selling you the list, but instead renting you the ability to send an e-mail from their servers to a list. No matter how tempting this may sound, it’s still spam and not something you should even consider.

It can be difficult to navigate the various offers of help that show up at your door, but some things just simply can’t be bought.

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John Jantsch

John Jantsch is a marketing consultant, speaker and author of Duct Tape Marketing, Duct Tape Selling, The Commitment Engine and The Referral Engine and the founder of the Duct Tape Marketing Consultant Network.
  • Paying for reviews are totally unethical not to mention borderline illegal. If your product or service is awesome, your fans will always give you good reviews. Period. For customer reviews FCC guidelines here: would help, too.

  • Edward Adamsky

    You cannot always completely measure the impact of advertising. I have received many referrals from people who saw my advertising and then gave my name to someone else – at least I believe that is what has happened, but since I cannot talk to the first person, I’m not always sure. My advertising reaches places that I cannot track.  I don’t know how you deal with this fact, but I’m sure some people stop advertising that doesn’t bring them immediately measurable results when it actually was bringing them results – but they could not track them back to the ads. 

    • I agree, but most small businesses don’t or can’t account for any of their advertising – it’s the tracking and integrating mindset that needs to be in place before you can confidently expand your ads.

  • Couldn’t agree more. Social media ought to be another one. If you can be taught how to do it, (as in, you aren’t technologically inept) then you should be doing it yourself.

    • Yep, paying for tweets is a pretty silly practice unless you’re a restaurant wanting to share your daily happy hour

  • Calypsobay

    Thanks for the tips. This is such a big help for us.

  • Advertising is like those sexual enhancement products:  You don’t know if it will work but you sure hope it does.  After more than a decade as an entrepreneur I have concluded that the smart money sells ads and doesn’t buy them.

  • I have done email prospecting for years and always had GREAT
    success with it.  I happen to use one of those big respected names you may
    be referring to.  Just to clarify, the opt-in addresses from a
    “reputable” company are ones who agree to receive offers from not
    just the provider but their associates / partners as well, which is what keeps
    them in compliance with CAN-SPAM laws. 

    So long as the list owner removes an opt-out from their database completely and
    not just the individual campaign that will keep them in compliance.  That
    being said you must find a “reputable” company to ensure that you are
    within the guidelines.

    Without email prospecting many companies wouldn’t even be in business because
    for many it’s the only method of getting their own list started.  Even the
    DMA talks about email prospecting and has a review committee of the major
    players in the industry who work with Capitol Hill regularly.

    Not all opt-in email is bad providing you follow the rules and work with a
    “reputable” provider.  You must also consider B2C vs. B2B.  With a tested open rate, good opt-in and
    great conversion rate companies can not only grow their own lists and potentially generate a huge ROI.  Otherwise agree with everything else…
    Long time follower, first time commenter.

  • ConnorKeating

    Great business tips! Thank you very much for them. Sometimes we can’t imagine how our business could work without some things and at least any 3 or 4 of the ones mentioned here appear in our lists. My friend Yuri Mintskovsky used to say that if you want a successful business you need to take almost anything and pay for almost nothing.

  • Amy Putkonen

    A great list, John. I would hope this to be obvious, but a good reminder in case someone didn’t realize that it was cheesy to break the rule.

  • Agree with most of this – not sure about referrals though if you’re saying companies shouldn’t run Member get Member promotions. I.e. Introduce a friend, your friend gets a discount and you get a voucher or similar. In my experience these promotions flat out work. I certainly think the incentive should be kept small so it is an incentive for someone who already likes your service to recommend you, and I don’t think anyone who isn’t already a paying customer should be able to recommend you for reward via such a scheme. But I would advise any business to have an Member get Member promotion in place – it is normally one of the most cost effective marketing initiatives you will run.

    • Simon – big fan of what you are describing – what I’m really opposed to is the get $10 when you refer a friend or the score keeping between to strategic partners – creative incentives, even those that are really a financial reward are great.

  • Thank you for this excellent article. Many new entrepreneurs attempting to brand their business online will appreciate this valuable infomation.

    Stacie Walker

  • Bonnie Sanders

    Thanks for all your great articles! Could you give an example of a “creative incentive” for a referral?

    • I have a remodeling contractor switch from giving $1,000 for a referral to giving a “carpenter for a day” to work on all those little fix its around the house – people loved it and it made complete sense and actually cost less, plus people would brag about getting the carpenter where the $1,000 felt a little wrong.

  • Some very good points mentioned here. Not sure if I agree with referrals being on the list…bearing in mind we have in the last week actually launched our own referral scheme! As you mention, incentives are great way in keeping referrals top of mind, and nothing works better than referral from an existing client. 

    • It’s the straight financial reward that I’m not a fan of – build something people are proud to refer and then make it easy for them to do so – much better long term approach for most.

      • Completely agree with you in regards to straight financial rewards, much better in a B2B environment to offer a service- as per your below comment (The remodelling contractor)

  • Great Points, It’s funny how people say don’t buy links because the search engines say not too, but you end up paying someone to “acquire” links. There is a very fine line there but essentially you are still paying money to get links, whether it’s buying them from someone or paying an employee to get them.

  • Good post. Definitely agree with you on the email lists.

  • Bostoncourier

    good post, definitely very true.