How MLM reps are taught to “hunt” for victims online by marketing professors

Ever wonder why so many MLM reps use the same, tired tactics to recruit and sell? Find out why they’re taught to “hunt” online by university professors.

In January 2021, The USA Direct Selling Association (DSA) published the first issue of Direct Selling Journal. Inside this publication is a discussion between three women on “Direct Selling in the New Normal”.

The contributors to this discussion are Connie Tang, Former Princess House CEO & DSEF Board Member, Dr. Sandy Jap, Emory University, and Kathy Korman Frey, George Washington University School of Business.

Worryingly to us, given her contribution here to a discussion on MLM, Kathy Korman Frey is, “…a professor at the George Washington University School of Business, where she teaches Women’s Entrepreneurial Leadership. She is also the founder of the Hot Mommas Project, the world’s largest women’s case study library providing access to diverse, teachable, scalable role models and mentors.”

Given that, according to research published by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), an average of 99.6% of participants in an MLM will lose money once business expenses are deducted, and according to the UK Direct Selling Association, the vast majority (90%) of MLM reps are women, we personally do not understand how anyone who supports the empowerment of women through entrepreneurship can wish to be seen endorsing the MLM industry through contributing to a discussion on its success.

So what does this article recommend for female MLM reps? Sadly, it appears to be the same tired, old techniques that have been trotted out for years, particularly on social media. Techniques that lead to these many, many MLM tricks and lies. Here’s a taster of the advice offered in the article.

“The most successful sellers start with a practice we call “hunting””

Nice. So the first tip from Dr Sandy Jap, an award-winning marketing professor and holder of the Sarah Beth Brown Endowed professorship at Emory University, is to “hunt” for customers and recruits (or as we prefer to call them, ‘victims’). Here’s her explanation:

“The most successful sellers start with a practice we call “hunting,” which is scouring the internet. They will follow certain people on Facebook or on Instagram and they will try to relate and become a friend of those individuals. Or they might do hashtags, search on LinkedIn, and look for keywords. The practice of hunting is trying to find people who either have a common problem or are interested in issues that you are interested in as well.”

Yes it’s advice like this you can hold partly accountable for all those insincere and unwelcome intrusions from ‘friends’ in your social media inboxes. Like we discuss here.

The behaviour this advice seems to endorse is, in our opinion, not only incredibly cynical, insincere and an abuse of the true purpose of social media, but it’s a blatant attempt to commercialise relationships. The only reason MLM reps who follow advice like this connect with others (and there are thousands who desperately do) is to either sell to them or make money off them by recruiting them.

They literally have no other interest in the people they attempt to ‘befriend’. What a miserable, empty world you must live in if you only attempt to initiate ‘friendships’ with others because at some point you are going to try to make money out of them.

This behaviour is so common to the MLM industry that it even has a term to describe it: Hunzoning. The definition of hunzoning is to “lull a woman into a false sense of security by engaging in friendship communication norms and behaviors that lead to an attempt to advertise products or recruit that woman to join an MLM”.

Naomi Yanike, in her thesis “Hunzoning: A Qualitative Study of Women’s Expectancy Violations Surrounding Multi-Level Marketing Message Strategies on Facebook“, explores the effect of hunzoning on female relationships, and concludes:

“While women described hunzoning’s use of aggression as evidenced by an “unwillingness to accept no” and the “constant flood of messages,” the participants repeatedly mentioned their concerns for women who were trying to make an income – possibly even out of“desperate begging.””

She also describes the kind of messages that women send out when trying to build unsolicited relationships with strangers as “Love bombing” – a tactic commonly used in abusive relationships and cults:

“Communication patterns revealed hunzoning messages that used excessive compliments, emojis, exclamation points, and hearts were in alignment with the practice of ❤love-bombing❤. MLM sellers in this study showered prospective recruits with warm welcome messages and excitement, saying how wonderful they are or what an exciting opportunity MLM is – evidenced by language, emojis, and exclamation points.

“It is almost as if the women are being seduced ― they feel special, important, and get to uncover a precious secret. However, participants viewed this affection as deceitful.”

And the women who were subjected to hunzoning, described the messages they received as: “unwanted, insincere, fake, excessive, predatory, sad, frustrating, annoying, excessive, and crossing boundaries.” Yanike notes that, “Not a single participant perceived the experience of being hunzoned as positive due to this message deception…”

She also observes that, “The most repeated keyword in this study was “sad.”” Which seems a fitting summary of the attempt to build relationships simply to monetise them.

“Hey, can your lipstick do what this does?”

You would have thought that a piece in an industry publication like the Direct Selling Journal would have more insightful marketing advice than ‘Isn’t my lipstick great?’ But in the second of three “key practices that are different from what direct sellers might have done face-to-face or in personal networks in the past”, Dr Sandy Jap recommends:

“The second important practice is something that we call “casting.” We call it casting because it is like casting a wide net. The idea is that you might put out some engaging videos or you might have some live Facebook events that anybody has access to where you are featuring products. And you might say something like, “Hey, can your lipstick do what this does?” Then you talk about the product(s).

“You are really trying to cast the net to pull people in and to have them follow you. More importantly, the goal of this is to get customers to potentially join the closed private Facebook group. It is in those closed private groups that you can do all the things that direct sellers do best – educate, demonstrate, engage, and create gatherings.”

So the latest advice to women, from a marketing professor, is to talk about the wonderful attributes of a lipstick and lure people into a private Facebook group where you can sell to them.

Sadly for users of social media, this advice really isn’t new at all. For years we’ve seen desperate MLM reps wax lyrical about the supposed miraculous properties of their (usually overpriced and run-of-the-mill, and sometimes even dangerous) products and attempt to pull disinterested people into Facebook groups.

Surely modern women can come up with more imaginative and interesting strategies for promoting products online than, “Hey, can your lipstick do what this does?”

“It is especially important to not feature products”

Ever wonder why MLM reps never mention their products? And if anyone asks what the products, or even the brand they are alluding to are, they simply say they’ll DM them? Again, it’s advice like this you have to partially blame:

“The third practice is what we call “cultivating curiosity.” The difference between cultivating curiosity and casting is that in casting, you might feature your products and you might be clear that you are selling something. In cultivating curiosity, it is especially important to not feature products, to not feature brands, and just talk about who you are and what topic you are interested in, such as weight loss or body toning.

“The goal in cultivating curiosity is to get people to say, “Hey, I’ve been following you for a while, and why is it that your skin glows?” or “What is it that you’re using that is helping with your hair?” You are trying to get people to reach out and to connect with you. At that point, you invite them into your closed group in Facebook.”

Once again, this is not new advice… MLM reps have been pulling this trick on social media for years. It’s this kind of secretive sales pitch that irritates so many people, hence the dozens of screenshot posts shared in anti-MLM Facebook groups every week.

“[Funnel] customers into that closed Facebook group, where the sales can really happen”

Dr Sandy Jap concludes her advice by saying you need to combine all three tips and funnel your victims into your closed Facebook group to sell to them:

“The key to being successful selling online is managing what I call micro interactions. Hunting, casting, and creating curiosity, and funneling customers into that closed Facebook group, where the sales can really happen.” 

Unfortunately, we’ve seen many, many reps follow advice like this over the years, often with poor results. Their Facebook groups frequently have very few members, despite the effort that continually goes into ‘funnelling’ people into them, and there’s virtually no interaction in them.

So no, for most MLM reps, the closed Facebook group is not where “the sales can really happen”. And anyone who has observed MLMs for a period of time, or who works within them knows this well. They know that the vast majority of MLM reps will not be able to build a big enough personal brand (the “secret sauce”) to get flourishing retail sales from a private Facebook group.

Anyone who works in marketing also knows that average conversion rates are as low as 1-2%. So for every 100 people in your Facebook group, you can expect one or two sales. That’s hardly going to make a dent in your monthly sales requirement, is it? Especially when you need to make so many sales in MLM to earn much money.

We once decided to investigate whether it was even possible to make money selling MLM products, and discovered it was not. For example, if you are a White Presenter with Younique, we calculated that you would need to sell £2,500 of products every month to earn £500 a month in commission.

Just think: how many people would you need to ‘funnel’ into a closed Facebook group to make £2,500 of makeup sales every month? Especially with a 1-2% conversion rate.

So no, this is not an achievable nor viable way of making a success of MLM for the vast majority of reps, in our opinion. And the “secret sauce” of “cultivat[ing] a strong personal brand” is just not possible, or realistically within the skillset for the bulk of MLM recruits.

If a marketing professor can’t come up with innovative marketing for MLM reps, who can?

It’s not really Dr Sandy Jap’s fault that the advice in the Direct Selling Journal article is, in our opinion, boring and hackneyed, because from all the research we have conducted over the past four years, we have concluded that there IS no successful way to sell MLM products.

Dr Jap is clearly a very respected and successful academic and author, with a specialism in B2B. But as we explain here, MLM reps are not business owners. They have no control over products or branding, and, to a significant degree, pricing and marketing.

So if even an experienced and well-respected marketing professor can’t come up with any new and exciting marketing strategies for selling MLM products, you have to ask: can anyone?

There’s no successful way to sell MLM because MLM DOESN’T WORK

We believe that there IS no successful way to sell MLM products – at least to make a living from retailing them – because MLM itself doesn’t work.

Research shows that only the top 0.4% of MLM reps and the MLM companies themselves make money. And the reps who do reach the top make their money from their downlines, not their retail sales, as this interview with a former Younique Black Presenter revealed.

This is probably why all the signs (even the DSA’s own data) seem to point to the MLM industry dying out.

So MLM reps can try to hunt, captivate with their lipstick and create curiosity all they like, but research shows that they won’t shift their (probably) overpriced products to an increasingly MLM-aware and cynical marketplace. Instead they’ll just be left buying products themselves each month to remain active, as often happens… and getting even deeper into debt.

It’s a shame, in our opinion, that academics like Dr Sandy Jap and Kathy Korman Frey perpetuate the myth that the MLM industry is a viable business opportunity for anyone, least of all women, by participating in and sharing articles like this.

Even just the smallest amount of critical research, especially today, calls into question the viability and ethics of the MLM industry. And to align yourself with it, and lend the industry your professional approval by virtue of association, simply hurts more women, we believe.

Interested in learning more about the MLM industry from legal, consumer protection and academic experts, as well as industry commentators, journalists, psychologists and even cult specialists? Book your free ticket to the world’s first online MLM conference here.

Photo by Artur Nasyrov