Do today’s direct selling companies represent an outdated model of doing business, or a case study in how to adapt to engage and sell in the Digital Age?
Article Written By: Shama Hyder
Shama Hyder is CEO of Zen Media & a renowned keynote speaker.
Though organizations across industries are wondering how to stay relevant in the Digital Age, for the direct selling industry, there is an increased sense of urgency to adapt sooner rather than later. This increased urgency is due both to their business model’s dependence on social capital, such as reputation and positive sentiment, and to customer’s expectations and demands that they are met and engaged in the spaces in which they socialize, learn, share stories, and shop — social media platforms like Facebook, Reddit, LinkedIn, Instagram, Twitter, and many others.
The answer to whether direct sales companies will emerge as a leader in engaging their customers in the digital age, or struggle with new social media trends, depends primarily on how they’re able to capitalize on their strengths to reach a broader audience. Their inherently social model has the potential to make them uniquely suited to a marketplace in which trust, relatability, and a strong network are critical features of a competitive edge, but to fully leverage this affinity, they must invest in marketing to not only their sales force of consultants, but to the end consumer.
Historically, many direct sales companies have focused their marketing efforts on recruiting consultants, or representatives, who can then leverage their individual networks to attract customers to the brand. With the advent of online shopping and social media, this model requires an upgrade. Though consultants’ individual networks can still be leveraged, both through social media and face-to-face encounters, direct sales companies also need to refine their brand image in a larger public sphere and extend their focus to the end customer. In my experience both in working with direct sales companies as clients and as keynote speaker at the DSA’s annual conference, I can confirm that this isn’t only an external critique or forecast, but a goal that direct sales companies are actively pursuing as a collective.
In his 2017 speech at the annual Direct Sales Association (DSA) conference, Joseph Mariano, president of the DSA, spoke to this same need. Addressing the need to speak to not only what direct sales aren’t (pyramid schemes, high-pressure sales, get rich quick schemes), but to what they are — versatile, value-adding businesses that offer opportunity and access, he envisioned a new direction for direct sales’ relationship to the public, as well as for its internal system of regulations and ethics. By confronting negative opinions head on and asserting the significant contributions of direct sales businesses, he changed the conversation and created space for important distinctions to emerge: “Our zealous defense of the personal use of products by our salesforce should not blind us to the need to demonstrate product demand and viability among customers, including non-salespeople, and we should remember that a defense of reasonable consumption by our salesforce is not a defense of purchases (made) merely to earn higher levels of commission, or efforts to force inventory on people who cannot return the product and be made whole.”
With brands possessing digital platforms that are as, if not more, significant than their storefronts, they’re able to (and frankly required to) communicate directly to consumers about what they stand for and what differentiates them. And though a built-in loyal fan base can be a great asset, it isn’t sufficient on its own to propel a brand to household name status. To survive and thrive, direct sales companies will need to devise marketing strategies that endear their brand to end customers AND consultants. They must present as fabulous places to work, as well as to shop from and support. This point is particularly salient when it comes to reaching the millennial market.
When Elite Daily conducted its Millennial Consumer Study in 2015, one of the surprising insights was that millennials were, in fact, capable of intense brand loyalty, when they were engaged in a manner that was authentic, social, and attuned to an ethos of “giving back.” If direct sales companies can identify real social challenges their service model either solves or simplifies while presenting win-win value propositions, they can join the ranks of those socially-savvy companies, like Lyft, AirBnB and Tom’s, that speak “millennial” fluently.
We at s4ds have the perfect tools to evolve a strategy that speaks fluently millennial as well, we got the influencers models on which every consultant can have a supercharged replicated site, using their network of their social media to “sell” without selling.
Many direct sales companies are already learning this new language. Mary Kay’s broad and aggressive initiatives to end domestic violence and support survivors in their recovery and Beauty Counter’s campaign to partner with Environmental Working Group to utilize clean, ethical ingredients both qualify as steps in the right direction. When such conscientious efforts are paired with sensitive PR and creative storytelling, millennials pay attention and direct sales companies profit.
While millennials and their preferences may be the bold face of the current era, consumers of all demographics seem to have higher expectations for brands than in the past. A brand is no longer simply the name of a manufacturer. Rather, a brand is both a platform and a voice; it represents certain aesthetic and ethical interests. And thus, consumers ally with brands, not only because their products are convenient, or enjoyable, but because they identify with them and because brands provide a means of self-expression.
This connection between a brand and a consumer’s identity is what eludes direct sales companies who focus all their marketing efforts on cultivating relationships exclusively with their consultants. Though there is a shared sense of identity between the corporate hub, the consultants, and the consumers, the focus is on a group, rather than the individual. When a brand reaches out directly to the end consumer and presents them with an aspirational model of themselves, buy-in and a sense of loyalty are organic by-products.
Virgin Airlines is a great example of this. By allowing their guests to feel like celebrities and rock stars through everything from their tv-studded flights to their music video take on traditional pre-takeoff instructions, they’ve secured a relationship with the end consumer that has an attractive and clear value proposition — flying with Virgin enables travelers to feel hip, relevant, and esteemed. And as a result, fans of the brand show a clear preference for flying Virgin even when there are more convenient, or cost-effective, options.
Such buy-in and loyalty are the ultimate rewards for brands who are able to stand out in the marketplace and establish a direct connection with their customers. And direct sales companies are no exception. If anything, they stand to gain even more because they already have a core group of brand advocates in their consultants. If that core group is combined with a positive market image, the sky’s the limit.
Shama Hyder is a visionary strategist for the digital age. A web and TV personality, a bestselling author, and the award-winning CEO of Zen Media, she has aptly been dubbed the “Zen Master of Marketing” by Entrepreneur Magazine and the “Millennial Master of the Universe”
By : Shama Hyder is CEO of Zen Media, a leading marketing and new media consultancy, a best-selling author, and an internationally renowned keynote speaker.