How to recognize when you’re in an online marketing cult

Photo by Tony Rojas on Unsplash

Up until June of 2017 I was an unwitting member of an online marketing cult.

I joined that cult in October 2016, when I took part in a free 5 day challenge series that was designed to walk me through the process of how to acquire leads online. What I didn’t realize, at the time, was that the free challenge was also indoctrinating me to become a cult member of the cult of personality that the online marketer had built around himself.

I remember taking the free 5 day challenge. I was excited at the possibility of cracking the code of online lead generation and the challenge was free. I promised myself, the first few days, that I wouldn't buy whatever this person was offering. I’d focus on taking what he offered for free and implementing it.

That promise didn’t last beyond the end of the webinar the followed the 5 day challenge. And the 5 day challenge primed me to want to not only go to that webinar, but also sign up for the class that would have the real goods. I got sucked into buying an expensive class that I was sure would solve my lead generation problems, little realizing that in fact it would do anything but.

The 5 day challenge itself didn’t have a lot of useful information. It introduced the basic concepts of this online marketer’s program and provided a lot of theory about how it could work, but not much in way of implementation. Of course this was done by design. The idea was to give you enough of a taste that you’d want more, and you’d sign up for the class. Incidentally, this is pretty much how every online marketer does their schtick…they give you a taste and build up a relationship, with the idea being to close you.

And yea, yea, that is part of how sales works, but they aren’t selling a product (even if it seems like they are). They’re selling their personalities. They’re selling access (sort of) to those personalities and inviting you to become members of their cult.

I know that probably sounds incredibly cynical, but even though I bought classes, mostly what I got was a talking head that seemed incredibly taken with itself, offering out occasional dollops of advice that might work, but not really delivering anything substantial.

I faithfully followed the advice, implemented what I learned, but far from transforming my business, it actually just helped sound the death knell for it. I alienated my clients and audience, while becoming obsessed with trying to reach the specific results promised by the online marketer.

But in looking back at that time what’s fascinating to me is how much I got caught up in the marketing around the personality of the online marketer. Even after I signed up for classes, I attended the online webinars, like a groupie, hoping to catch a shred of attention or a useful piece of information.

I also tried to model my personality after the online marketers, trying to create my own cult of personality. I didn’t really like it, but I thought maybe that was how the business would become successful. Yet this really didn’t work. I insulted my audience, drove them away and in the process felt more miserable because nothing I was doing was working and I was losing out on real intimacy and connection I’d previously had with my audience.

I finally started to leave the cult of the online marketer in June, when I began to realize that none of the classes were working and that attending the online webinars was a waste of time. However I wouldn’t really see that I was in a cult until September and October of 2017, when I had several people reach out and tell me how much my changed behavior had alienated them. Hearing what they had to share really opened my eyes to how toxic I’d become because of the online marketing cults I’d joined and how it had set up a disconnect between myself and my audience that hadn’t been previously there.

In the time since that realization, I’ve been slowly coming back to my core values and sense of self, shedding the toxic lessons I learned, and becoming perhaps a bit wiser through what I learned. I stopped trying to be like the online marketers I learned from, because I recognized that creating a business around personality wasn’t truly serving my audience or clients, but would only serve my vanity and ego, creating a narcissitic business as opposed to genuine service that truly created change and transformation in the lives of the people I want to serve.

What I want to share with you now is how you can recognize if you’re part of an online marketing cult.

How to recognize when you’ve joined an online marketing cult

1. Everything is focused on the personality of the marketer, as opposed to the actual content that is supposed to be taught.

When all of the content offered by the marketer is focused on the marketer and includes a lot of images and videos of the marketer talking but none of the content offered is specifically helpful and comes across as vague, with lots of promises off making 6 or 7 figures, that’s a red flag that is online marketer is trying to create a cult of personality around themselves.

If the free content you get is mostly theoretical, with no actions offered, and a lot of the focus is on getting you to pt into something else that’s also a red flag. The online marketer doesn’t care about providing helpful information. They care about getting you on their list so they can convert you on their products, while also making you part of their cult.

2. The content that is taught in the class is really basic and more theoretical than practical. It may also be outdated.

When you pay the outrageously expensive price for the class and what you get is content that is poorly designed and organized, while also being mostly focused on theory as opposed to implementation, get a refund stat!

Seriously, if most of the content of the class is similar to the free content and doesn’t seem to work when you implement it, its another red flag that this marketer hasn’t figured out what works. And if you get “help” from their team and that help is a one size fits all solution, instead of tailored to your specific business, chances are you’re working with a formula as opposed to actual content that can help you.

Also if the content is outdated and you aren’t given free upgrades for what you’ve paid, then recognize they are still trying to get you to pay more money and go deeper into the cult, instead of providing services that can help you with your business.

4. The marketer uses NLP and other techniques to create false intimacy, but doesn’t actually work with you.

When the online marketer uses NLP and other related techniques they are focused on manipulating you, as opposed to helping you. They are creating false intimacy of building a genuine relationship and make no mistake they aren’t interested in having a relationship with you, so much as getting whatever they can from you.

The false intimacy is based around the narcissistic personality of the online marketer. Every interaction is designed to get you to become a follower that promotes the online marketer as opposed to actually helping you with your business needs.

In some cases the online marketer may try to justify this behavior by arguing they are creating an ethical cult, but what is an ethical cult? There is no such thing, and all it creates is a dysfunctional relationship with the online marketer treated as a guru who has followers who faithfully buy from and promote the online marketer.

5. The marketer promotes a message that part of your problem is that you aren’t positive enough.

When you start to express doubts about the “service” being provided, the online marketer will manipulatively tell you that your the problem and that your attitude and mindset isn’t positive enough, which is why the techniques you’re learning aren’t working.

The problem with this statement is that it creates a delusional mindset where you’re ignoring the evidence that things aren’t working and putting it on yourself for not being positive enough. You’re being shamed to conform to the cult, instead of being helped with the problems you’re having.

6. In webinars the marketer spends most of the time either talking about themselves or selling the class, as opposed to teaching anything (and you keep attending the classes hoping to get something).

If you attend enough webinars you start to see a pattern. The first half hour is focused on introducing the online marketer, talking up what s/he does and creating an image of authority and expertise. Then you get to the actual content, which is usually between a half hour and an hour long. The content is interspersed with case studies showing how the online marketer has helped their clients get 7 figures. Then the next half hour is a sales pitch with a Q an A, which is usually just focused on getting you to say yes. Typically an online timer is used to create scarcity in order to put pressure on you to get the sale.

It works. But if you pay close attention you’ll find that most of the content is fairly vague, and continually throughout the presentation the focus is on convincing you that the online marketer is an expert who can solve your problem.

Another red flag is that the online marketer won’t always specify who should buy the services. That kind of vagueness is really about catching whoever they can, regardless of whether or not their service can help the person.

7. You’re encouraged to like, comment and share everything the online marketer posts, so that you can help them find more victims, err prospects.

Part of how online marketers spread their influence is through word of mouth referral and getting people to comment, like and share their messages. They will tell you that they want you to share their content and urge you to comment because it increases their organic traffic. and while they ma be using paid traffic, the more you interact with their content, the more they show up in your social media and the more their message gets spread to people around you.

You may also feel compelled to share their message because you want to please them or show that you’re a star student. Again note that its not about helping you but about supporting the image of authority and expertise and narcissism they’ve built around themselves. Everything you do in relationship to what they post is about validation of them and their cult.

8. You never really get any help and you’re told you aren’t working hard enough or putting in enough time or that in some other way you haven’t done enough.

Similar to what I shared in number 5, when you raise concerns or have issues, sometimes you’ll be told you aren’t working hard enough or putting in enough time. You’ll be told that being a true entrepreneur is hard and that you have to give up the friends and family that are concerned about you, as well as any activities that aren’t directed at growing the business.

What’s really happening is that you’re being isolated both in terms of people in your life and in terms of activities you do. This isolation can take a toll on you. And as you work hard to implement what you’re learning and you don’t see the results you expect, you start to blame yourself. there must, you think, be something wrong with you. This is cult think and its designed to keep you in your place, dependent on the online marketer and paying more money while not getting results.

I’ve shared how to recognize if you’re in an online marketing cult, but what do you do next?

If you’re reading this article and you recognize yourself as either belonging to an online marketing cult or being drawn into one or you recognize someone you know being in one, its important that you consider your next steps carefully.

First, don’t beat yourself up if you realize you’re in an online marketing cult. These people are really good at manipulating other people. You aren’t alone. What’s important is that you recognize it and start to take steps to get yourself out of the cult.

Second, reach out to other people and get their perspective. Don’t just talk to other people taking the same classes as you. They are also cult members for all intents and purposes and will more than likely defend the online marketer. You can raise your concerns to them and see what they think, but reach out to people in your life as well and ask them if they think you’ve changed and if so how. Reach out to your audience and ask them the same. Be prepared to hear some hard things.

Third, take a critical look at your business. Be honest with yourself. Has your business really improved as a result of working with the online marketer? If so how? If not, why not? And remember don’t blame yourself, but don’t make excuses for the online marketer either.

Fourth, start doing activities you enjoy again. If all you’ve been doing is working on your business, its time to take a break. Give yourself some time off and do something other than the business. This will be hard, but it will also give you perspective on yourself and your business. Most importantly it will help you start taking your life back.

If you know someone who you think has been brainwashed by an online marketer, don’t confront them and try to force them to your thinking. This will backfire on you. Instead bring your concerns up and ask them how they are doing. Listen to them and be there for them, but if they ask share how you feel they may have changed. And don’t expect instant realization.

It takes time to realize that you’ve joined an online marketing cult. And it will take time to get back to yourself and rediscover who you really are, while also freeing yourself of the online marketer’s influence. Most of all you will need to realize you can’t cut corners in business and there is no person who can give you a quick fix solution.

But you can do this…and you aren’t alone.

Taylor Ellwood teaches business owners how to grow their business with systems, processes, and boundaries. You can learn more at Eccentric Entrepreneurs. If you liked this article, could you give it some claps and share it?