Don't Preach to Teach If You Intend to Sell

I was reading a blog post earlier from a moderately well known social media company. The post, whilst framed as educational, was almost entirely dedicated to pedaling their wares and establishing the founder as a thought leader.

Editor’s note: this post is a bit ranty, and a departure from our regular programming. If the truth makes you uncomfortable, best to stop reading now.

I won’t name and shame the company here for two reasons. The first is that it’s not a very HelpDocs’y thing to do—we like to let people get on with their own shit, without too much direct judgement.

The second is that it’s so fucking prevalent in startups today. Product-pushing thinly veiled as educational content. It’s not the first article I’ve read like this. Hell, not even the first this week.

The thing is, those potential users you’re trying to subliminally influence can see right through your bullshit. 💩

Education matters

I’m probably biased, since I run a startup focused on customer education. In fact, we make really great customer education software your customers can use to help themselves, reducing your support ticket volume and empowering them to resolve issues instantly. You can check it out at I’ll wait.

See what I did there?

Jokes aside, on a very personal level education is important to me. I spend hours each week reading books, poring over blog posts on the internet, and generally trying to absorb as much information as I can.

I’m a staunch believer that education should be free and available to all. I had a privileged upbringing. I grew up in a very liberal area of the UK where it was totally fine to be who I wanted to be. My private primary and secondary schools were amongst the best in the country. I read Electrical Engineering a top 10 university and graduated with a Masters degree at a grade substantially higher than my effort warranted.

If anything, my inherent privilege is a large part of why I think education should be accessible and uniformly distributed. I’m not special. There’s no reason I should have had the opportunities I’ve had, that’ve led me to where I am today. There are likely hundreds of thousands of people that deserve it more than me.

Yeah, I’ve worked hard for what I have. But it was entirely out of choice, and certainly not as hard as other people have to work just to be recognized as pseudo-equals.

I really can’t, and won’t complain.

So when I read posts about how important other inherently privileged people are (themselves), how hard life is for them, and why I should care, it really grinds my gears.

Imagine if that time was spent writing content that actually helped others, without the self-aggrandizing edge. Maybe we could worry less about sourcing skilled diverse candidates, because we were paving the way for them to get access to the same opportunities we’ve squandered had ourselves.

And so does your opinion

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not hating on opinion pieces. I read Brexit commentary in The Guardian, and skim political stories in The New York Times.

There’s some truly beautiful editorial content out there. Opinion pieces that make you think, and don’t try to impose their own agenda on you.

They’re commentary on facts, or things written from the heart. They’re not dressed up as something they’re not.

You know what you’re getting up front. And you’re usually not disappointed.

In fact, if you’ve been following this blog at all recently you’ll have seen Matt writing about topics that barely reference knowledge bases at all. And that’s all we sell. Knowledge bases. Beautiful, brilliant, self-serve support software. But we barely mention them.

Too much? Ok I’m done now I swear. 😇

You can promote without lies

And you know what? Promoting your wares is also totally fine. But let’s just stop pretending your advertorial is editorial, and your shilling is educational.

Y’know those sales letters you see on old-school product pages? The ones where you scroll down for like 6 years and read testimonial after testimonial, page after page of how great the product is? I actually love them.

The same way I love marketing sites, and I love perfectly worded sales emails. I even appreciate getting on a demo call with a sales rep and having them tell me how much I just need their product.

I love them because they’re honest. You’re supposed to read the page and buy the product. Every sentence is leading you on that journey. You’re there because you want to be sold to. There’s an unwritten contract between you, the buyer, and them, the seller.

You want this. They’re just guiding you to the end goal. Holding your hand.

Set proper expectations and avoid all the drama

If you’ve read this far, I’m gonna assume you’re cool with some semi-solicited advice.

That advice is this: be clear with your audience what they can expect from each piece of content you put out.

You don’t have to label it “advertorial”, but if you’re going to sell make that clear. Don’t try and hide your intentions inside content that pretends to educate.

It’s not smart, it’s not funny, and your users are (possibly) both. Either way they’re probably not dumb, so you can stop treating them like they are.

By producing quality content you’ll build trust with your audience. Treating them like shit will just send them to your competitors. And there’s always one waiting to scoop them up.