Harnessing social media to foster curiosity, engagement and authenticity
By: Jenna Lang Warford
“The currency of social media is conversations.” — Scott Kramer, CEO, MultiBrain
This is Part 2 of our conversation about digital best practices that was first featured in the March 2023 Special Report. In that piece, contributor Jenna Lang Warford discussed “Digital Marketing’s Baseline for Growth.” Now, she will share more insights from channel executives about using social media to build community with distributors and customers.
Creating community on social media is a more complicated endeavor than creating brand recognition through savvy product placement and endorsements. Direct selling companies that crack the community code are using multiple platforms, incorporating comp plan tweaks and providing the field with strategic new training.
“After $2.35B in sales in 2021, we grew by 23% in 2022. This year, our recruiting is up 89%, January over January,” says Gordon Hester, PM International’s general manager of sales for the U.S. and Canada.
“When a company’s sales go backwards, there’s a tendency to say, ‘Whoa, we need to figure this out.’ No, you need to figure out how to get your field engaged. You’re seeing more companies that say, ‘We’re going to control (customer engagement).’ And the reality is, that’s the complete opposite of what you should do.”
PM International is growing while other companies in the channel are struggling, and Hester believes there are several reasons.
“That PM is a great company and has a great story helps. But at the end of the day it’s because all our focus is on, ‘How do we help the field be more successful?’ When you get them to believe and engage and get results, then things grow.”
Conversely, Hester believes if companies attempt strategies that are common but not distributor-focused, they can begin a downward spiral from which it can be difficult to recover. “If your answer is to take over, and you start talking about omnichannel and those types of solutions, what you’re telling the field is, ‘We’re looking at other options,’ and then they get nervous. They don’t want to work because they don’t trust it’s in their best interest to work.”
Then, Hester says, what ends up happening is that a company then experiences a pretty steep decline. “In my eight years on the operations side doing change management consulting, what I recognize is when you lose trust with the field, that is the hardest obstacle to overcome. And that’s pretty much the standard I’m seeing in the channel right now.”
One of the strongest ways to grow is by helping the field identify and execute on effective social media strategy.
Efficacy in social media has been a moving target over the past three years, but Dana Fortune, vice president of marketing and sales initiatives at 4Life Research, believes there are several best practices that can get the results companies are looking for.
“Oftentimes we see companies focusing on making their Distributors learn to become influencers,” Fortune says.
“And this really intimidates our distributors because if you take a look at their demographic, it’s women ages 45 to 55. They take a look at their following of about 300 followers and think, ‘I can never do this business.’
“The mistake is that we’re not capitalizing on and really emphasizing that you don’t need tens of thousands of followers in order to be successful in direct sales,” she adds.
“You just have to take the 300 followers that you have, and develop relationships with them so much so that they feel comfortable coming to you because they genuinely want the product that you’re passionate about.”
Getting Engagement on Social Media
Fortune believes it is key to observe what’s going on with platforms that have sparked a following. “If there’s one thing that BeReal has taught us, it’s that Gen Z—a highly sought-after demographic in this direct sales channel—truly appreciates authenticity. They no longer crave perfectly curated content and filters. They genuinely want realness.
“To deliver that, we need to stop putting on a front that we’re all perfect on social media, showcasing only a specific side of your lifestyle. If we’re looking to focus our attention on this younger generation, we need to adapt and adopt what they’re doing in order to really speak to them.”
Doing that means taking more of an editorial approach, according to MultiBrain’s CEO, Scott Kramer. “Direct selling companies need to start thinking like journalists on the editorial side of the business, not the advertising and marketing side,” Kramer says.
“We need to create more editorial content for social media, not commercial content, not product and price. Companies have to stop thinking that social media’s about putting out a bunch of ads with links. (To get engagement) you have to make content create conversation and create storytelling.”
According to the Direct Selling Association’s last consumer survey, 46% of Americans would welcome contact from direct sellers regarding a business opportunity on social media.
Kramer believes that figure would be higher if companies showed distributors how to do editorial content better.
“You can’t just throw stuff against the wall. You have to share some stories, share some commonalities, create a relationship. That’s where you find the opportunity.”
Fortune adamantly agrees. “Being too sales-y on social media is a big no-no.” To create the authenticity audiences are hungry for, she says, “It’s crucial to take your followers throughout your day and experiences with you, all while sprinkling in how your followers can use your company’s products on a daily basis or how you use your products on a daily basis.
“There’s no need to make claims on social media when posts curate curiosity—perhaps the Distributor showing themselves drinking an energy drink the company sells or stating that ‘It’s my go-to drink right now,’ or ‘It’s my mommy-go juice.’ Or perhaps showing themselves taking the company’s collagen with them when they travel,” she adds.
“This allows followers to reach out to ask what the Distributor is taking; a much stronger position than the Distributor saying, ‘Oh, buy this; I have the best collagen on the market right now. Purchase this right now!,’ Fortune says.
“Instead, the scenario becomes, ‘I’m traveling next month. Can you send me a link to your collagen since it’s easily packable?’ Then the Distributor can possibly private message back with a discount code that comes with their account.
“Because curiosity was generated, and the relationship was there, and now the promo code has been shared, it has become a win-win,” she continues. “Best of all, there’s no compliance involved, there’s no being too sales-y. It’s really refreshing to see sales come through on these digital platforms by using that strategy.”
Kramer adds, “The currency of social media is conversations. I think the new strategy is for Distributors to use tools like Reels and to potentially get themselves out there in any non-commercial way, to new people. Then when it’s time to really connect with them, it’s done over on Facebook or what’s coming up next is WhatsApp, a platform that’s having a really big growth spurt with more to come.
“Younger demographics are creating their own smaller communities in WhatsApp. Everything seems to be cocooning into these smaller communities or subsets of communities for chats and conversations.”
Kevin Raulston, CEO of Global Direct Partners, says that engagement is crucial and adds that the type of platform is a pivotal component of how and whether engagement can be created. “Distributors can build a relationship or a following, and those are different things in my mind,” Raulston says.
“Facebook is more give and take, messaging back and forth. There’s some of that on Instagram. But for TikTok and the majority of Instagram, Distributors are posting up a picture, and if someone likes it, that’s cool. If they like the Reel, the Distributor appreciates it. But there’s not a reciprocal following-back when a post is liked; posters just continue with their day.“
Raulston believes the evolution of social media usage will quickly continue past what is currently common.
“I think social is going to be where we connect, but people will ultimately be reaching others through video tools. Because these have a way of breaking the ice with people that other tools don’t, especially when people don’t have time for long form writing and getting to know people. The process will probably go something like, ‘Hey, I see something from you and I really like it; I’m going to buy that and now I’m enrolled in your community unless I opt out.’ That’s not a bad way to grow.
“I think it will still be necessary to do outreach,” he adds. “Personally, I think the best social media tool out there is LinkedIn. You can present yourself in the way you want to; it doesn’t allow people to just bombard individuals. You can get to know them before you friend them or bring them into your group, and they have to tell you about themselves through their profile. There you can learn, ‘They went to school here and they did that.’ ”
Raulston says, “However the following is built, whether through LinkedIn, Facebook or others, the final key to creating a trusted community will be driving connections to the Distributor’s personal CRM. That could be the free WhatsApp, or even a white label system leaders resell.
“There’s a lot of opportunity in this arena, and we’ll find a way that works optimally; I’m confident of that. Right now it’s best to be inventive, be open and don’t wait on the sidelines because if you’re not working on these solutions, you’ll probably be left behind.”
Exploring the Potential Sales Impact of Affiliates
Another arena of opportunity is having an affiliate level to compensation plans; these sellers don’t build, train or lead teams, but can generate significant sales through their social media following.
Fortune says, “I think that there will be a big shift in the way that we work and interact and purchase from influencers. I believe that people are becoming tired of seeing, #sponsored, #ad and collaboration posts with the header ‘paid partnership with insert brand name here.’
“Affiliate marketing is here to stay,” she adds. “That’s not to be confused with this influencer marketing. Affiliate marketing is marketing a product that you love and actually use, while influencers get paid a one-time fee or percentage for a limited time to promote a brand.
“It’s different when you are actually passionate about a product and not simply paid to represent it,” Fortune says. “I think that affiliate marketing has become a norm in people’s day-to-day lives. For example, someone is talking to their friend and says ‘I like your shirt.’ An affiliate’s response would be, ‘I have a promo code if you actually want to purchase this shirt. No pressure, but feel free to use it. The friend isn’t thinking, ‘Whoa, this lady works for an MLM.’ She’s thinking, ‘That’s really nice of her; sharing 20% off with me.’
She continues, “People are becoming more and more comfortable with the term affiliate marketing, and we’re seeing it in links and bios and Amazon storefronts. I think there’s a huge opportunity for direct sellers to jump on that train and start marketing their products that way as opposed to just the traditional MLM or direct selling way.”
Raulston agrees that there’s a huge opportunity within the affiliate realm. “It’s exciting to give people who are in the space a new way to build revenue without having to go and get individuals to buy a kit and figure out how to do a demonstration,” he says.
“These are just individuals who say, ‘I’m a walking billboard for your product. I might have a following on Instagram or another social media site such as YouTube. I may just have my friends from church. It doesn’t really matter when they ask me, I’m going to tell them because I want them to have the product, too, because I think the value’s great and I have a real belief that this direct sales company makes great products.
“Unfortunately a lot of people don’t choose to share the product because they get so distracted by the MLM aspect of sharing,” Raulston says. “And the Affiliate model is just a single level approach. There’s no recruiting, there’s no trying to build and train a team, it’s just sharing the product.”
He adds that although affiliate marketing won’t displace direct selling—it’s not going anywhere either. “Right now, 84% of consumer companies have affiliate programs in the U.S. That’s a lot, but many direct sales companies still don’t have them; I think because they’re concerned about conflict with their sales force. But there are companies who’ve shown that you can do it without creating conflict.”
Raulston says, “It’s time to allow individuals who don’t want to participate in the multiple-level aspect to reap the benefits of sharing the product with their friends and family. Affiliate marketing allows them to do that.”
Remaining current on best practices for social media involves more than sending the marketing team to an annual conference. It’s important to observe what’s working among the distinct segments of direct sales. That means creating community, evolving the connection between the Distributor and customer, and regularly attracting more customers and Distributors in an engaging way.
For some companies, that may require a team like Fortune leads, with an influencer strategist, an SEO strategist, an analytics strategist, and an email marketing strategist.
For other companies it will include, as Hester recommends, a team that has a good understanding of the social selling world and how technology is used in marketing, that continually adapts and adopts the most effective observable practices.
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