A QUESTIONABLE NEW TREND
Fee-for-service Self-Help Sites
John M. Grohol, Psy.D.
June 11, 1998
In the past week, I have received e-mail from two separate individuals who wanted me to come and take a look at their Web sites. Both Web sites were self-help resources online, and both were in various stages of construction. I won't name them here, because I don't want to give them any more free marketing than they already get. We'll just call them Site X and Site Y.
Site X was very slick, very corporate, very nice. It was an alcohol recovery Web site, marketed toward those in recovery and the family members of someone in recovery. You could either take a free guided tour of the site, which described the various resources made available to you, or you could register to become a "member" of the site. No information about alcoholism or recovery was made available until you became a member. Membership was free for the first 21 days, after which you paid $6.95 a month to use the Web site. What do you get for your money? A bookstore (everyone has one online nowadays!), daily inspirational quotes, a discussion forum, daily news, and some online screening tests. How much of this is already available online elsewhere at no charge? All of it.
Site Y is a similar subscription-based service, except that it is meant to help you as an adjunct to your regular, ongoing psychotherapy. This site was not nearly as slick or as corporate, and wasn't anywhere near as complete as Site X. It was, therefore, more difficult to tell whether this site is going to be a better value than Site X. Site Y looks like it will basically attempt to keep an ongoing diary for you, online (in some anonymous, unknown database somewhere), and help you track your progress and thoughts as you move through your therapy. This is an interesting idea, but again, it seems a bit pricey at $10 a month (first month free!). You can track your own thoughts and progress with a piece of paper and some quiet reflection for a few minutes after every therapy session on your own. You don't need a Web site to do this.
Self-help sites like these are going to become more and more common. The problem is, though, what value do they add to the information already freely available to you at $83 or $120 a year? Is it nice to come to a Web site which offers you a different inspirational quote every day? Sure it is. Is it worth $6.95 a month? I can't help but think it's not. Essays, resources, quotes, news, and so much more is already available online at no charge. Someone has come along and re-packaged all this free content into a single, seamless Web site and is trying to re-sell it to you. If you can afford it, the convenience of having all of this information available to you in one Web site may be worth the cost. But for most people, this kind of re-packaging with its associated costs seems unnecessary. The whole point of the Web is that you can link to other Web sites, and do so without charge. When people start seeing dollar signs in congregating or offering personalized content, it makes me a little scared.
Is there a market for these kinds of sites? I think there is. But I also think you should get more information up front and understand that a lot of what these kinds of emerging sites have to offer is available elsewhere online at no charge. In Site Y's case, the ability to help track your progress in psychotherapy and write down your thoughts can already be done in consultation with your therapist as a part of the fee you're already paying. To do so also online, in yet another database of information, seems like overkill. But again, for some people, this kind of service may make sense. If your therapist is uncooperative, for instance, in helping you track your progress in therapy, this site may be for you. If you have a difficult time examining your thoughts about what you've said in therapy, or what was meant, or how you are feeling, this may be an appropriate use of a Web site like this. But it is even more appropriate to talk to your therapist about these difficulties in expressing your thoughts, or questions you had about something said in therapy. While a piece of paper or a Web site can help you organize your thoughts, a good therapist can also greatly help in this process.
The other disturbing aspect to this new breed of self-help sites is their catch -- you get 21 or 30 days free, and then you have to start paying. That entices you to become dependent upon these services, to find the value in them while you're in an emotionally or psychologically vulnerable place in your life. Some professions, like psychology, acknowledge that when people are in this state or in a trying time in their lives, it is inappropriate to use traditional marketing ploys, such as offering the first psychotherapy session free. These sites should be more sensitive to the ethics of this kind of behavior and seek to minimize taking advantage of people who may be more vulnerable. You can give people an idea of what the site offers via a scaled-down version of the site at no charge. You should not offer them full, free access for 30 days and then present them with a bill for continued services.
Be on the lookout for more of these kinds of sites as more and more savvy professionals get online looking to leverage their skills and knowledge into a business. There is nothing inherently wrong with this business model, as long as the services offered are valuable, relevant, and don't use questionable marketing tactics. Safe surfing!
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Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 27 Jan 2007
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