Making the case for knocking down marketing pyramids

If your newsfeed is anything like mine, you don’t have to do more than a thumb swipe to find a friend posting about some product or service that is CHANGING MY LIFE, Y’ALL. In the 50s, you had Tupperware. The 60s, Mary Kay. But what was once contained to our living rooms has now inundated our social media worlds. Multi-level marketing (MLM), or network marketing, is the practice of recruiting an army of associates to sell products – nowadays, primarily on Facebook, Instagram and elsewhere, adding to already saturated social environments.

MLMers who take part in these network sales gigs are using tactics that we “traditional marketers” use all the time. Like us, they position products as problem-solvers, showcase success stories and target key demographic groups. But if they’re doing all the “right” things, tactically speaking, then why are so many of them seeing red (AARP found that about three-quarters of MLM associates lost or made no money)?

Truth be told, MLM marketers aren’t exactly mirroring our tactics on the marketing front. Here are three flaws to the MLMs strategy of letting associates do the marketing heavy lifting.

#1 Quality control

When you look at the corporate social channels for MLM companies, the quality of the images is pretty good. Most are clear, well-lit and with a panache of professionalism. But then, compare that approach to the often slip-shod way that those in the field are approaching their posts, and we find a huge discrepancy in image, quality and brand. This digression from professional to amateur – especially when the amateur version is such a departure from the professional – is enough to zap the product of credibility. 

Side-by-side comparison of an Advocare post and a post from an associate
Take Advocare’s well-lit photo highlighting its product line. Now compare it with some guy’s meal prep with a ripped-open product with an inexplicable filter.  It almost seems like a bait-and switch scheme, even though it’s more likely just an inability to maintain a brand image.

#2 Haphazard messaging

The taller and wider an MLM network gets, the more removed associates are from the top. It’s like the telephone game, where the message gets diluted as it moves farther away from the originator. Not only do MLMs lose control of the key messages down the line, but there is no control over the frequency of each message. Is the language the same? Are using emoiji’s on brand? It’s all over the place.

#3 Audience targeting

People may like to buy from people they know, but there’s something that feels a bit icky about an unsolicited pitch from a friend. MLM associates spend their time blasting their friends’ list (which are often full of people in their up- and down-lines) without any consideration to whether or not their friends are actually interested, qualified prospects.

Image from a MLM celebrating a new promotion status
I buy whatever skincare product is on sale the week I run out. And I usually have a coupon on top of that. I’m not spending $89 on a product that has a comparable amount of active ingredients, just so you can meet your quotas.

This post hits on some of the tactical mistakes we see in the marketing of MLMs, but if you want to get the download of why MLMs are wrong holistically as a business model, check out Jane Marie’s podcast, “The Dream.” In an interview with Vanity Fair, she boiled down her reporting with two sentences:

“I don’t want to say that everyone involved is a scammer or a con man or whatever, but I would say that the business model is unsustainable in the regular marketplace,” she says. “Legitimate companies don’t work this way for a reason.”

Do you know what legitimate companies do? Hire professional communicators and marketers to sell product. My point of view may not align with everyone’s, and that’s okay. But I recommend listening to “The Dream” and watching “Betting on Zero” before @-ing me. If you need a little humor, John Oliver also did an episode that might be up your alley.

Casey Prentice

A self-proclaimed organizational junkie and data geek who confesses to a secret desire to be a professional organizer, Casey enjoys account management, writing, editing and digital content strategy. Her agency work has helped clients like Virginia’s Community Colleges, VCUarts and Swedish Match.

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