How to create a cult following on social media without selling your soul


Image: julia tim/shutterstock

Few things are as heretical in branding as saying No to the question of monetization. After all, moneys the point, right?

Well, yes and no.

Obviously, adopting a just-do-awesome-stuff-and-the-money-will-follow approach is dangerous. Equally dangerous, however, is the monetize-everything-you-and-your-business-do mentality. Why? Because people hate it, especially on social media.

In other words, with most brands theres a painful disconnect between the words social and social media. That disconnect is the reason a mere 5 percent of all branded content accounts for 90 percent of engagement. And its the same underlying reason that made Worlds Worst Person Decides to Go into Marketing one of The Onions most popular headlines.

Whats the solution?

Two tips: the first, theological, and the second, about an unlikely savior cookies.

Dont sell your soul

As humans, were all naturally self-centered. Biologically, its about survival. And in business, its the same. Thankfully, self-centeredness drives a host of wonderful outcomes like development, innovation, and success itself.

Unfortunately, theres a dark side. As The Guardian reported last year in I, narcissist vanity, social media, and the human condition:

Numerous studies claim to have made direct links between the increase in narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) and the ubiquity of social media. Behaviours such as attempting to attract more followers, wanting to tell followers about your life, and the need to project a positive image at all times have been described by researchers as examples of exhibiting narcissistic personality traits on social media.

This individual narcissism easily bleeds its way into business. On the marketing front, confirmation bias our predisposition to filter and interpret information in ways that confirm what we already believe leads to all kinds of me-centered pitfalls like imaginary audiences, ignoring evidence, and overgeneralizing best practices. On social media, commandments like Thou shalt not hog the conversation and Thou shalt not be indifferent to the voice of thy customer show just how prevalent the problem is.

The real issue, however, comes down understanding, separating, and prioritizing branded content from genuinely social content. The former, as Robert Rose describes it, centers on the value of your brand as the hero. Such content isnt bad and should, of course, be a part of your social-media mix. But only a part.

Genuinely social content is content that makes your audience the hero. It augments me-centered posts with content thats meant to delight, teach, celebrate, and entertain not sell.

One antidote to this dilemma is user-generated content (UGC). Pura Vida Bracelets, for instance as well as a host of other millennial brands have made UGC a cornerstone of their social media by actively seeking out and promoting their audiences own posts and shares:

Image: Aaron Orendorff

The bottom-line results of UGC are powerful. Yotpos The Future of User-Generated Content analyzed over 500 million online shoppers and found that people who viewed UGC on were 161 percent more likely to purchase than people who didnt.

Nonetheless, its a dangerous game. Even with the best of intentions, any of us can end up selling our social-media soul. We take what should be the social side the human, relational, people-centric side and making it overtly about us.

So how do we save ourselves? The answer comes from an unlikely source.

Dont sell cookies

Like most great ideas, Sol Orwell stumbled into #cookielife on accident.

As the founder of a nutritional research site with 2 million monthly visitors and a man whose claims to fame include chronicling the loss of 50 pounds in Mens Health, mentoring at two12 alongside 4-Hour Body author Tim Ferriss, and being a digital adviser to Arnold Schwarzenegger cookies dont sound like an obvious choice.

Its a weird story, Orwell told me after we connected, but it started at the end of 2015 when I told some friends I was gonna bring the best damn cookies theyd ever tasted in their lives to a meetup. That comment turned into a challenge, and the challenge into a social-media cult. Over the last year, Orwells received hundreds of unsolicited cookie gifts at conferences, events, and through the mail.

Image: Aaron orendorff

In many ways, #cookielife is an extension of the same non-soul-selling ethos that governs Orwells networking itself: It doesnt have a hidden agenda. Its just this ridiculous thing, and people remember ridiculousness.

But dont be fooled, ridiculous doesnt mean disorganized. To prove this, Orwell keeps an Evernote list of everyone whos sent or promised to send him cookies, which he works through every couple of weeks.

Sol Orwells cookie list contacts.

Image: Aaron Orendorff

In addition, over the last few months, #cookielife has been picked up by a host of news outlets: most notably, Inc., Entrepreneur, and BroBible (all results of Orwells intentional online connections). In January, the first annual Chocolate Chip Cookie Off was held. Afterwards, he dropped a 2,700-word blog post How I got 27 professional chefs & bakers to make cookies that outlined the research phase, social-media imagery, his email outreach and follow-up plan, as well as a postmortem detailing every little flaw or mistake we committed so that next time is 10x smoother:

Image: Sol Orwell/Facebook

In all of that, one point stands out: With #cookielife and my other food feasts, Ive resisted all recommendations to make a website, an Instagram account, or even an official brand. The #cookielife was never about any of that. It wasnt even about me. Its about people having fun. Selling cookies would kill everything.

Well stated. But the question remains: Can #cookielife be engineered by brands?

Orwell says absolutely.

Its not about getting emotional and oversharing; its more about allowing you and your business weird thing, your cause, your love, what makes you smile not despite but because of its ridiculousness to shine. Naturally, thats easier for personal brands. But large brands can create the same effect: think Lego, Harley Davidson, Apple, LaCroix, Dollar Shave Club, CrossFit, and more.

When it comes to social media, most businesses are quick to sell their souls in exchange for a few more clicks and short-term profitability. What unites Orwell and all the examples just list is not great products but great stories and a relentless focus to make it about the people they serve not themselves.

Thats how you build a cult. And thats how you save your soul.

Aaron Orendorff is the founder of iconiContent and a regular contributor at Entrepreneur, Lifehacker, Fast Company, Business Insider and more. Connect with him about content marketing (and bunnies) on Facebook or Twitter.

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