What pyramid schemers can teach us about blogging culture.
Enter the Pyramid Schemers
I used to work for the retail side of a tech company. Our goal was to demystify technology, to lower the entry barrier, to smooth out the learning curve. It didn’t matter if you’d purchased a device in our store, or if you received it as a gift, if you brought it in we’d teach you how to use it. Since no one worked on commission, we didn’t have to be selling, we spent most of our time informing.
When two giggling women walked in, with a tablet still in its shrink wrap, I was happy to get them going. Claire won her tablet as part of a work promotion, her sales numbers were the highest in her region. Diane was along to drool at her friend’s new toy.
Showcasing the dictation feature, I spoke into the microphone, “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.”
Tapping the screen, I highlighted the sentence, hit COPY and PASTE, replicating the line over and over again. “And this is how you recreate a scene from The Shining.”
I gave them the grand tour of their technology, from photo manipulation to location based notifications. Helping Claire setup her email, I learned she worked for Rodan + Fields selling ProActiv skincare products.
Looking out into the mall, Claire pointed to a kiosk I’d never noticed. Opening the YouTube app, she typed a search for an advertisement. She narrated, “A lot of men use ProActiv, see: Justin Bieber… P. Diddy…”
Diane caught me looking at my watch.
She tapped the screen, “Adam Levine uses it too.” Claire latched onto my bicep like a barnacle. “Oh, don’t you just love that song Moves Like Jagger?”
I shrugged, “Haven’t heard it, but I like Gimme Shelter.”
“Do you like to travel?” Claire changed the subject.
I tapped the map application, anticipating a question about directions.
Claire continued as if I’d already answered. “So do I. That’s why I’m working for a trip across Europe. That’s the great thing about ProActiv, you can work as much or as little as you want. It gives you that freedom. You’re just selling something that helps people at the same time.”
She was giving an essay answer to a question I hadn’t asked. Her lips smiled, but her eyes did not. I couldn’t help but notice that she’d changed from the first person to the second.
Diane tagged in, “The reason we bring this up is there’s a lot of opportunities for men in the company. Men want the product, they know it works, but they want to buy it from other men. An extroverted person, like yourself, would be leading your own team in no time.
Looking at my reflection in a monitor, I counted the zits framing my forehead. Still, these women were telling me I could be the face of their acne treatment.
Tapping the tablet, I realized I was the only one still interested in it. “Before I send you on your way, let’s just review what we’ve done here…”
The pair exchanged a look. Their smiles flickered into frowns. Their upbeat tone took on an undercurrent of desperation. They asked for my phone number, for my email address, and the name I went by on FaceBook. They offered to take me to dinner. When I said I had plans, they offered to buy me lunch the next day.
For someone with an expensive cutting edged piece of technology, Claire acted like she was struggling to earn enough to eat.
I was relieved when my manager called me in back.
These women weren’t interested in buying anything, they were scouting. They weren’t shoppers, they were headhunters. They took advantage of customer service specialists, because we were captive audiences. We had to be nice, we were taught not to use negative language.
These scouts went to retail establishments to push a sales pitch. Exuding positive vibes, they made themselves appear easy to work with. Smiling, they kept on with a steady stream of compliments. Cults refer to this technique as “flirty fishing,” or “love bombing.” Multi-level marketers call this “cold sponsoring.”
The Hard-Sell Shows up where it doesn’t belong
In America, we’re taught that hard work and perseverance always pay off, that with enough gumption anyone, no matter their circumstances, can pull themselves up by their own boot straps. We’re taught that if someone isn’t a success, it’s their fault for not putting in the effort.
This encounter with the ProActiv pushers shows that’s not always the case. Some systems limit upward mobility by design.
Multi-level marketers make very little off their sales. They give the biggest cut of their profits to whoever roped them into the project. That’s why they work so hard to recruit a team of sales people beneath them. Technically, this isn’t a pyramid scheme, but the cash flows in the same direction; to the people at the top.
This article isn’t going to focus on the quadrilateral shape of these scams, but the tactics used to sell them. When you’re exposed to these methods, you can spot them everywhere.
Working out of coffee shops, I’ve sat next to many multi level marketers, offering desperate people “exciting new careers.”
I hear them give the same pushy pitch, the hard sell, the all expenses paid guilt trip.
Shifting in their seat, the marketer says, “My personal philosophy is that you can have anything in life as long as you help other people get what they want.”
Sounds nice, but to quote Jagger, “You can’t always get what you want.”
The Myth of the Self-Made Blogger
Exalting the infallibility of the system, marketers blame the ones who can’t make it on their own. If you’re a blogger, some of this might already sound familiar.
The myth of the self-made person casts a long shadow over the internet. After all, this is the new frontier, where anyone can launch a self-publishing career.
There’s no shortage of social media gurus, echoing the sentiments of multi-level marketers. They talk like we live in a meritocracy, where talent and ability are always rewarded, setting the expectation that a good blogger will find success early on. You’ll go in thinking your cream will rise the top, your smart observations will corner the marketplace of ideas, and your merits will ensure you the best seat.
Putting in your best work, you’ll assume that an audience will magically discover it. The first person who lays eyes on your prose will share it with everyone they know. Now you’re watching the clock, expecting to become an overnight sensation.
The hard-sellers will tell you that blogging is a full time job, that you should post daily, that no matter what you’re writing you should give it all your energy. If you build it they should come, and if they don’t, it’s something you’re doing wrong.
The gambler’s fallacy has you believing that your loosing streak will turn, so you stay the course, doing the exact same thing, waiting for it to come out different.
I watch a lot of people lose heart, when their following stops growing. I’ve written about how this manifests in Twitter tantrums. I’ve watched people commit social media suicide, telling off their readers for not appreciating them more.
This is what happens when success is the assumption, you refuse to learn coping skills for when it doesn’t come. The short sighted saddle up and ride, assuming no one will ever buy what they have to sell.
Bloggers don’t just make themselves, they’re made by their community. Word of mouth doesn’t spread over night. Going viral isn’t a given, it’s a rarity. If at first you don’t succeed, you’re doing it wrong. Mix up your approach, come at it again.
Next time you see an article giving you the hard sell, examine the salesperson. Don’t just look at the volume of their followers, but their engagement. What I’ve learned, is that bloggers who say building a following takes years, usually have one.
Many bloggers promote themselves as a resource to authors looking to promote their work, authors who go on to write articles on promotion of their own. Spectators become mentors to other spectators. The cycle goes on, while less of us are actually writing. For a prospective author, social media has value, but a tight manuscript should matter more.
Don’t give someone else bad directions just because it’s the path you’re on. Don’t give someone the hard-sell to justify your buyer’s remorse. There’s more than one way to get to the top of the mountain, don’t say that yours is the surest when you’re still at base camp.
We all glorify do it yourself promotion because that’s the method we’re using, but it’s not the only one worth choosing. We all want to feel like entrepreneurs, but we shouldn’t close the door on traditional publishing either.
Blogging isn’t a full time job if there’s no profits. If you’re not making anything, you can afford to take a step back to perfect your craft. A massive following doesn’t mean automatic sales. It can help, but only if you’ve written something worthy of word of mouth. Hard work doesn’t guarantee success, but good work gives you a better shot at it.