It seemed like a great deal—at least, he did his best to make it look like one.
This February Austin McBroom, former college basketball star and patriarch of YouTube‘s ACE Family, launched an online social media course. “How I Became a Millionaire”—or HIBM—promised to reveal the tips and tricks that had earned McBroom—as well as his wife Catherine Paiz and their three children—19 million subscribers from 621 videos in five years.
‘How to Make Money from Social Media’ and ‘How to Grow Your Social Media Platforms’ weren’t tautologies but classes, priced at $50 per month.
“To have all these courses,” a sun-kissed McBroom declared from the steps of his cake-tin California home in a promotional video, “you must join now. You only have 24 hours.”
Problems appeared almost immediately. The HIBM website reportedly refused some applicants’ cards and crashed entirely for others. McBroom allegedly failed to show for webinars and private chats he’d promised as part of the course.
Several articles, like the link above, and YouTube videos accused McBroom of running a scam. At the time of writing, the How I Became a Millionaire website was not accepting any new members, and the Instagram post announcing the scheme had been deleted.
McBroom’s is a particularly egregious example of social media courses that are accused of being flops, or outright scams. Jake Paul’s “Financial Freedom Movement” ($20/month) has faced similar ridicule. But as social media and personal branding pervade an increasing number of roles and industries, getting a professional-level handle on social media has become table-stakes for many professionals, and the number of courses promising to teach them the secret to social seem to be multiplying.
According to analyst Markets and Markets, social media management will be a $41.6 billion market globally by 2026, while the whole of digital marketing will be worth around ten times more. Little wonder everyone from individuals like McBroom to institutions like UC Berkeley promise ways to master social media.
Sorting the good from the bad and the downright ugly can seem a daunting task. But for those looking to up their social media skills, there are ways to learn—and lots of red flags to look out for.
How to filter out social media scams
First, the ugly. These are the scams, the digital flimflam men and women peddling little more than cookie-cutter copy and Lamborghini dreams. Watch out for e-books that promise you’ll earn cash while you sleep. Almost nobody can simply be present on social media and watch the dollars roll in.
Social media management will be a $41.6 billion market globally by 2026, while the whole of digital marketing will be worth around ten times more.
“We just get bombarded by viral content constantly, which makes it seem very accessible, and very achievable,” says Andrea Jones, an Ontario-based social media strategist. “And it can be. But for a lot of business owners and content creators, we are going to spend time building up our audience slowly, for years and years, before we get close to a viral moment.”
“Some people do think they’re going to go into a course and be internet famous,” she adds. “That’s just not the case for most businesses.”
There are three common scams that consumers should watch out for:
1. The live fake-out
One of the seedier social media guru scams is the live fake-out. This is when the creator may offer a paid “live” webinar that is in fact pre-recorded and remote. Students believe they’re getting real-time knowledge, but instead, they’re receiving boilerplate advice, often delivered through the kind of cold-calling techniques employed by professional mediums.
For example, a presenter may begin the class by addressing the attendees as if they are live, and seemingly respond to questions in the comments. However, if you pay attention closely, the whole show is pre-recorded, and there’s no actual real-time interaction.
“Some people do think they’re going to go into a course and be internet famous. That’s just not the case for most businesses.”
Telltale signs could be an oddly-timed, “Hey guys, let’s learn how to make a boss Facebook post,” with no prompting from the attendees, or out-of-sync announcements like, “I’m glad you asked about Instagram.”
Make sure the teacher is responding to actual questions from the comments section. Other red flags include a creator warning repeatedly that spaces are selling out, or if sound quality shifts suddenly during a session.
2. The social fakes
Some instructors may not even have a substantial online following, or if they do, it consists of cheaply-bought bots instead of organic followers.
Bloated follower numbers give would-be teachers an extra level of clout, but if they’re all bots run out of a click farm, then the likelihood of learning anything useful diminishes rapidly. These tricksters may lack testimonials from course alumni, or feature quotes that are suspiciously over-the-top.
“It’s easy for people to buy a lot of followers and say, that’s why I’m doing the course,” explains Neal Schaffer, social media consultant and author of The Age of Influence. “If you’ve never heard of the person, you should look up that person, see what they’re about.”
3. The “get rich quick” promise
Anything that offers mastery in a short space of time, with little time or effort invested, “is generally a red flag,” says Niall Doherty, founder and lead editor at eBiz Facts, a website that rates courses and money-making plans. He recommends signing up for classes with money-back guarantees, and checking the reputation of the person behind them.
Jones also balks at courses priced into the high hundreds or thousands. “I do find that’s a little bit outside of the range of what I think is reasonable, especially if it’s a DIY course, and you’re not getting any mentorship on the program.”
While reporting this story I reached out to around a dozen higher education centers claiming to run successful social media courses. Having received a flurry of promotional phone calls, none agreed to speak when I stressed I was a journalist, not a prospective student.
Specificity is key
Assuming you avoid an outright scam, there are still plenty of pitfalls to avoid. Social media is a broad church: specificity is key. Jones advises that you make sure you know exactly what you want from a course before clicking “complete payment.”
“You want to go in hoping to get a specific social media strategy outline that works for you,” she adds. “You don’t necessarily want something that only works for others or a cookie cutter plan.”
Some industries, such as real estate, have laws governing social media marketing: Realtors can be held liable for comments on listings, for example, or fall foul of intellectual property law. Others, such as the finance industry, must comply to a host of regulations or face potentially huge penalties. Even without the regulators, one rogue tweet or Instagram post can wipe out millions or even billions of dollars.
Social media, by design, moves quickly. Courses should too. Be alert to any that offer seemingly outdated modules on, say, Twitter’s now-defunct Fleets video platform, or Facebook ad courses that lag way behind the company’s ever-changing algorithms. If somebody is telling you how to get big on Bebo, it’s probably best to avoid.
Degrees in social media: overkill?
Increasing numbers of universities offer entire two or three-year degrees in social media. Schaffer, who teaches at Rutgers Business School, thinks this is overkill. Instead, study social media as an aspect of a broader topic, such as corporate communications or digital marketing.
If somebody is telling you how to get big on Bebo, it’s probably best to avoid.
“It’s like having a university degree on email,” he says. “Social media by itself won’t make a difference in the world, and won’t have an impact on your business… It’s just one tool of many in your toolbox.
Anybody can create a social media class. The challenge is filtering out the bad actors.
“Anyone thinks they can create a course, just like everyone thinks they can write a book—and they can’t,” says Schaffer. “And just because your book’s on Amazon, and it’s digitally self-published on Kindle, anybody can do that. It takes a certain kind of attitude to be able to read through and vet who these people are.
“But I would argue that the same ability to vet is what’s important when analyzing people on social media,” he adds. “It’s an important skill that every modern professional should have, and perhaps the best way to start it is by looking at all the course instructors, and seeing who you can trust and who you can’t.”
Anybody can create a social media class. The challenge is filtering out the bad actors.
Ultimately, the most popular social media content is new, creative, and not something you can do overnight. While social media may look like a great way to make a quick buck, it isn’t — despite the promises made by YouTube stars.