UPDATE 18/10/2015: As per Udemy policy, reviews are no longer required to access the standalone toolkit offered as a complement to my course. (That’s the reference point of this piece.) This article, however, has been left untouched.

Ok, so this is one of those, “cross the bridge when you come to it” kind of things. It’s about a pretty contentious question which I hope to give some justice in this article.

Am I offering a Bribe?*

First of all, let’s get the elephant out of the room. I’m a teacher online, I sell a course, and I offer a product (membership to my site) in exchange for a review. Is that a bribe?

Well, yes, technically.

But I would argue that it’s not that simple, and I’m going to invite you to consider whether a distinction should be drawn between a range of (by definition) bribes which are used justly or unjustly depending on the context.

If you’re objective, in my opinion, the ‘bribe’ I offer is an ethical one. There is a clear exchange taking place. Ying for yang. And I’d qualify that with two questions: (1) Is it optional? And (2) are you receiving enough value for what you’re being asked to do? These answers reveal whether you gave consent for the exchange to take place, or whether you’re being extorted mafia-style.

Whether you believe these questions to be relevant or not, I ask you to consider the idea of whether there are good bribes, and bad – that there are ethical, market-driven bribes necessary to stay competitive and pay the proverbial bills. Perhaps, you might say, the most fear-inducing forms of bribery have blinded our ability to see them for their functional use in a market economy – a plea to attract some attention in a world increasingly deficit in the stuff.

So let’s continue here; it’s understood that my ‘bribe’ presents you with an incentive to leave a review in which your judgement has been clouded, and so you calibrate your expectations as you progress through the course. Further, you might see that I have an incentive to increase the number of reviews for my course and I’m doing that in a way that increases value. (More on that shortly.)

If you’re more cynical and conspiratorial, you might assume that I have an unsavory agenda. And the hell of it is – this doesn’t surprise me. Here’s why… From an evolutionary standpoint, it makes sense that we would assume the worst when pitted against doubt. I believe it was inevitable that I’d receive reviews along the following thread:

“In exchange for a bribe, the author asks us to give an HONEST review of this course. That said, I don’t like reviewing courses I have not completed.” – Gary B, Udemy.com

Gary B. who wrote the review, and I have since had an email conversation and have expressed our points of view more clearly. I will share portions of my replies in this article, and invite Gary to share his opinion in the comments if he wishes.

Before the Bribe was Introduced

If you watch the video I made before the new ‘bribe’ was introduced, you’ll see that I had nine 5 star reviews for the course up until that point – one review of which was wonderfully detailed. (That’s the review I highlight in the video.) So what’s the problem? I couldn’t ask for anything more, right? Well, let’s look at the numbers. I had 2245 students enrolled in my course at that point. Just 0.40% of all students had taken the time to leave their opinion. That’s depressingly low.

At this point, you might be wondering why would I want more reviews. What’s in it for me? Simply enough, more reviews informs Udemy’s course-ranking algorithms that my course is actually worth promoting. (More sales.) But more reviews also benefits new prospective students making a decision on whether to take my course. (Or any course for that matter.)

“Yes, that means 3 and 4 star reviews are great too!”

Less apparent here for new prospects, is that the more diverse the reviews, the better grasp they can get on whether they should enroll. Yes, that means 3 and 4 star reviews are great too! Try to think of the last time you saw a product that had flawless 5 star reviews. All of them, and there were a lot. Did you think, “hey, what an awesome product!”, or rather, did you think “hey, something smells off”. All 5 star reviews spark suspicion. (I really appreciate them every now and then though!) And 3 star reviews amongst a prevalence of 5 star reviews draw the most attention. They are read more keenly, their arguments judged with greater discernment, and opinion carefully separated from fact. The only concern is when 1 or 2 star reviews begin to crop up more than once in quick succession. One time in a pool of glowing reviews and you can probably attribute it to being more about them than you. Increasing frequency though and the value you’re offering should be called into question. (Or maybe you’ve just really pissed off a few people.) Reassuringly though for well-meaning instructors, the idea of the ‘wisdom of the crowds‘ seems to pull through in the end.

So how did I get those 9 reviews? The reality is I still had to work for those 9 reviews too, and this is where I invite you to question your definition of ‘bribe’. My journey to build some review cred began in the most ethical way possible; through talking to students and seeing if I could help them in any way. I was playing the hope game. Eventually, my goodwill would be reciprocated with a review, perhaps. As I said to Gary in our email conversation:

“I was trying to think how I might encourage more people to leave reviews, with the awareness that my course is quite long and, some might say, verbose ^^ (I think you’re right, I did go on a bit). So I first tried asking students if they needed help – ethical reciprocation.”

“Perhaps if I offered help, a review might be returned later. No conditions, just faith. Nothing. I then sent out an announcement with some relatively unconditional value – I listed the business books that had really helped me, followed by a casual request for a review. Not much. (You can see the announcement on the course still.)”

This is a very subtle form of bribe, but one that most of us either consciously or not, dismiss as goodwill. Like when you take next door’s dog for a walk. (Subconscious interpretation: “Maybe they can look after our dog in 6 months.) Or when you drive a friend to the airport. There may not be any specific expectation of return but you can bet it’s registered in your memory.

Implicitly, we have assigned a value to that act which we expect – loosely – will be paid back at some point, not necessarily with money but with some degree of equal effort. I have heard this ethical bribery labelled before as building ‘social credit’. It’s also referenced in idioms like “what goes around, comes around” which epitomizes the idea of karma.

Social psychologist Steven Pinker, who I’m a big fan of, gave a talk discussing this idea in Language as a Window into Human Nature. He calls it a veiled bribe.

I continued with Gary, touching on the reason why I don’t believe playing the hope game is a sensible investment of time in business; to trust that people will eventually return the favour. Business is brutal. There’s no safety net. And to leave such a vital bloodline to chance seems irresponsible. I’d rather get the reality out in the open and just be cool about it. The email continues…

“A little defeated, I then accepted that we’re all too busy today which means writing reviews is often at the expense of something else worthwhile [and closer to home]. So getting back to basics, like Pavlov and his dog, I looked to incentives.”

You know, I would love to be able to simply live of off creating value, without expectation of money. I wouldn’t have to waste time scheming for opportunities to ‘manipulate’ Udemy’s algorithms which rank courses. I could instead focus on creating unconditional value – healthier and more fulfilling and without the distorting impact of having to make money to survive. (In my admittedly idealistic opinion.)

Although an important point here to put this in perspective for a moment; I worked hard on my course, and really hard on the new membership. I’m not peddling rubbish here. That’s why I’m comfortable making these pragmatic points.

“I offer an option, not a requirement.”

I’d like to think I wasn’t forcing anyone to write a review, and if that comes across, I invite you, the reader, to pass on my course and not subject yourself to any coercion. I offer an option, not a requirement. The cold hard truth is, I need to make a living. I can contribute towards that through teaching on Udemy, and increase the ROI by enrolling more students. (To enroll more students I need more exposure on the platform, and Udemy promotes courses on the platform which have the most reviews.) Although it’s also true that sales are limited by overall market demand, as I explained in the article on my Udemy Income Report.

If you’ve read to this point, you can see through the veil. Whether you believe my intentions are Machiavellian or admissible is your decision. If you decide to purchase my course, I thank you, and assume this debate didn’t factor into your purchase. If it did, however, I’ll ask that should you write a review please understand that I am completely forthcoming about what’s on the table here. The content of your review doesn’t matter to me so much from my perspective, but it does from the standpoint of prospective students in the future. So if I could make just one request, it would be to give your opinion from the standpoint of an outside person’s interest in animation and marketing.

Can I learn from this person? Is the course valuable? Did I get more out of it than was paid for by me – monetary or not?

What’s A Review Anyway?

Review content is all about new prospective students in my opinion, as I’ve said. If that means vilifying me then so be it. But with this in mind, I have introduced a flexible 200-character minimum on the reviews. Let me explain why with a demo scenario…

A review comes in, but it’s 160 characters – less than the minimum. But the content is engaging, factual, opinion-aware and insightful, albeit highly condensed. It might even be a little critical but the judgement is valid – nothing’s perfect. That’s what a prospective student wants to hear! The truth! But … would I allow this student into the membership?

You betcha.

There’s a point here I’m trying to make about short reviews, with this being the exception. Short reviews generally mean that the reviewer hasn’t taken any of the course and/or it means that they really didn’t care and just wanted the freebies. (In which case, not warranting that freebie with so much as a second sentence seems a little disrespectful to me. Maybe that’s just me though.)

So bottom line, if you send me a one-line review 19 minutes after purchasing the course and expect to gain membership to 3DMyBusiness.com, I reserve the right to refuse your entry to the platform.

And if that means that you revise your review to form a personal attack, then I will just hope that the wisdom of crowds normalizes the general opinion of my training’s quality. (Most people wouldn’t do this I know.) Thanks for reading, and if you like, let me know what you think below.

*  This idea of offering a gift for writing a review on Udemy wasn’t mine. The principle, of course, is as old as bartering. But more to the point, it’s a tactic employed by the number 1 selling instructor on Udemy, Rob Percival, whose courses have generated over $2.8 million in total earnings. Rob generously offers free web hosting with his Udemy course(s).