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There are some words in the English language that have huge fluctuations in positive and negative connotations depending on the context in which they're given. For instance, calling someone 'mental' can have a huge number of meanings and implications.
'Cult' is another of those paradoxical terms. To some it sparks visions of watching DVDs of Monk or Twin Peaks, to others it suggests communes, chanting and tall stories of aliens and an afterlife paradise.
But ultimately, building a cult following for your online content is something the majority of businesses are after, whether they explicitly state it in their mission statement or not. "Creating a pattern of ritual behaviour in connection with specific objects", that's what we're all really doing isn't it?
Boil any social, content, marketing, CRM or PR programme down to its bare bones and it has all the hallmarks of cultism, as all efforts point towards a desire to convince others that the message is one worth following.
Human beings are naturally inquisitive and mentally programmed to want to join groups due to the companionship and affiliation needs they fulfil.
With this in mind, getting an individual to join you should be a relatively simple thing to do. They want to be a part of what you're putting together, they just need a little coaxing.
Danny Wallace encapsulated this brilliantly in the book Join Me, the true story of a man who started a cult by accident.
Before you set out on your quest to grow your fanbase, there are four stages of cultism that you should factor into your plans:
1. Proclaim your vision
Nobody's going to follow you unless they know what you're all about. Being personal and enigmatic is essential here. Jim Jones, Jesus and José Mourinho (is there something about the letter 'J'?) are individuals who gained an utter devotion in their audience.
They spoke from the heart, promised a utopia, and people resonated with what was being communicated. Ask yourself, exactly why would someone want to become an active advocate of your company?
2. Define behaviour rules
So you want to be part of that vision? Here's what we're going to do.
You’ll join our Facebook group, you’ll want to contribute to discussions on the topics we put out there, and you’ll enter our competitions and spread our message to all your friends and family. That's generally what brand social channels are asking people to do, but they often skirt around the subject.
Be honest with your followers, but also respect and react to their input, and they'll be far more receptive to your demands - those who don't want to join in can pop off elsewhere...you don't need them anyway.
3. Ensure your followers want to stay around
It's obviously not just a one-way deal. The act of your followers’ meeting these demands is worthy of some kind of reward.
Let your group know that you value them, you love them, and that their continued attention is going to bring them recognition. The occasional voucher or discount code is a nice virtual hug; a way of saying “thanks for being there”.
This in turn will give your greater sway and influence over their actions. Many cults are built on fear and intimidation, but that's unlikely to transfer to the digital realm where anyone can unlike or unsubscribe at the click of a button.
4. Make the group rely on you
This is where your power as a content producer gives you an unrivalled advantage - bring people in by offering them an exclusive view on the thing they've shown interest in, then fuel that desire with an ever-evolving narrative that brings them in deeper to your brand bosom.
If you get the balance and the approach right, you'll get people beating down your virtual door, clamouring for their next content fix.
Where anyone outside the company would need to jump through hoops to get hold of the people and places associated with your business, you can instantly call people for comment, arrange behind the scenes access and dip into your archives, all with the intent of offering a view that only your followers will get to see.
Turning the camera around the other way is a sure-fire way of attracting eyeballs. This Is It was probably more interesting than the reality of a Michael Jackson tour ever would have been.
One of the things that marks out a cult, and often one of the things that makes followers want to be a part, is its detachment from the mainstream.
Undoubtedly the quickest way for a parent to steer their child away from a band or artist is to start bopping along with them when they come onto the stereo.
Some businesses tip over into full-blown religion. Customers of One Direction, Grand Theft Auto and Manchester United show avidity and devotion (not to mention a willingness to spend) that many companies, and probably many churches, are envious of.
But they could be classed as victims of their own success. Don't forget those who have been there with you from the beginning. Those who helped you when social follower numbers were in the double digits.
Your core cult following needs to be understood and nurtured, so involve them and respect them, and they will start to hold you in high esteem as their unrivalled patriarch…then you can make them drink the Kool-Aid.
T-shirt image credit: Threadless