The glitz, the glamour – and the annoyance – of the social-media sales pitch
Independent salespeople are taking to the Internet to promote and network, but if they don't do it right, unfriend is just a click away
A few years ago, a woman I was friendly with became a sales representative for Arbonne, a cosmetic and skincare company that is built on network sales, or rather friends selling to friends. "That's great!" I told her, though I thought to myself, "Oh no."
She began to send invites to parties, stressing that there was no obligation to buy: "Just come out and try!" E-mail invites became Facebook events, which I pretended not to see; I didn't want to feel obligated to buy something just because the salesperson was someone I knew. Over time, as a growing number of independent sales contractors – as my friend and her contemporaries are known – began crowding my social-media feeds, I deployed my "unfollow" function liberally. And I'm not the only one.
A key part of direct sales is tapping into and expanding one's network (the industry also goes by the term network sales). People buy into a company, investing in a starter package that costs anywhere from $100 to $700, and then get a cut of any sales they make. "We always say tap into four different social circles," says Heather Wilhelm, a sales rep with jewellery company Stella and Dot. Some firms also offer referral programs that pay out commissions on the sales made by the representatives a person has recruited into the company.
This is where direct salespeople differ from, say, someone in pharmaceutical sales. They're not just pushing their product, but also their lifestyle as a means of recruiting new salespeople, which makes it essential to deploy their social-media accounts – platforms designed to publicize that users are living their best lives in their Wallpaper* magazine-worthy homes and looking great while doing it (and by the way, that bracelet is available for purchase!).
Because their sales reps are part and parcel of the product being sold, direct sales companies are increasingly teaching the art of being social on social media. Everyone knows a deluge of selfies is annoying, but in the world of direct sales, it can also be bad for business.
"I have people on my Facebook that are with Arbonne and other companies that I unfollowed because I can't stand it," says Vanessa Ortali, a Toronto-based entrepreneur who runs four businesses, one of which is being a sales representative for Arbonne. On her own social-media channels, she relies on subtle publicity. "I don't want people to feel that I'm shoving Arbonne down their throat. My posts are very lifestyle based – last week I posted a recipe for my protein pancakes and showed some [Arbonne] product in the background."
Ortali likens her social-media sales efforts to online dating. "At the end of the day it's a numbers game – you're looking to expand your network, and if it works it works," she says.
"Once you join a network marketing company, people have had so many good or bad experiences they get really nervous of you. 'Oh … you're doing Arbonne? I can't talk to you.' It has nothing to do with me, it's something they've already dealt with."
The Direct Sellers Association of Canada estimates there are 800,000 Canadians involved in direct sales – 91 per cent of whom are women. Sales in Canada are worth more than $2-billion annually, the DSA reports, while the global industry is worth $182.8-billion (U.S.). Arbonne and companies similar to it – and there are more than you can imagine, in all types of industries: food (Epicure), accessories (Stella and Dot), health supplements (Herbalife), cleaning products (Norwex), even cannabis lifestyle products – take their cues from similar companies before them, such as Avon, Mary Kay and Tupperware. The idea: Help women earn an income by selling to other women via a social party-like setting in the comfort of their homes.
With the advent of the influencer and the often paid promotion of "lifestyles" via social media, one would think that people would be accepting of sales pitches infiltrating their Facebook, Twitter and Instagram feeds. But that's not the case, says Jennifer Fong, a New York area business consultant for the direct-sales industry.
"I think some of it has to do with the fact that probably everyone has had a bad experience with an untrained or unethical direct seller, or knows someone who has. Because the barrier to entry in a direct selling business is so low, there are so many people who have tried it, and not everyone is good at it," Fong says. "When direct sellers try to share on social media, there is an inherent bias that people face that isn't there for influencers who already have respect because of something else. This bias can be overcome through integrity and service, but it takes time and patience."
Lorie Tokola, Canadian vice-president of sales for Park Lane Jewelry, has been in direct sales since the mid-1990s, first with Weekenders, a women's clothing line, and Silpada Designs, another jewellery company. "When I first started, cellphones were just coming out in the late nineties. Back then, it was very much the telephone on a cord. I find nowadays people just don't answer their phone – you have to get people's permission now to have successful contact on the telephone," she says from her Niagara-region home in Sherkston, Ont.
Tokola asks prospective clients if she can friend them on Facebook and other social-media platforms before sending them a message about Park Lane. She'll ask if they want to be alerted about sales and specials and if they say yes, she invites them to a "VIP" group page, where she posts company, product and show information. "I've always been of the school that you don't blast on your personal account about business. That's a good way to have people unfriend or unfollow you," she says. "No one told me to do that; I just think it's polite."
Tokola oversees all of Park Lane's reps in Canada and advises them to communicate with potential and existing customers in the same way.
Epicure, a grocery and cookware company, now teaches social media best practices to its representatives. When Carmen Locke started working as an Epicure direct sales rep 11 years ago, she took it upon herself to learn how best to use Facebook and the like to promote sales. But recently, she attended a session led by Jennifer Fong.
"I used to have a business page on Facebook, but it wasn't getting that much traction, so I created a group so that people could opt in to get the info," Locke says. "In the class, they taught you that you want people to opt in because if they're just added in that annoys people and they want to get you off their page completely."
Locke posts about Epicure on her personal page only on occasion to avoid the perils of oversharing. "I do see a lot of other businesses and other Epicure consultants who haven't picked up on that and it's sad because they're just pushing it down your throat," she says. "I've unfollowed people. I would rather be in their business group. Yes, I use Arbonne products, I try to support others that are in direct sales, but if we're friends I don't want to see that all the time."
The risk of overselling on social media is losing friendships. Says Fong: "I advise direct sellers to respect the 80/20 rule on their personal profiles: Talk about your personal life 80 per cent of the time, and only talk about your business – as it relates to you personally! – 20 per cent of the time. Direct sellers have to be careful not to jump to the close while missing the 'social' aspect of social media … or they will lose friends and be the one that others avoid."
When dealing with rejection, Fong recommends accepting that no means no. "If someone pushes back, let them know you've heard them and respect those boundaries," she says.
Stella and Dot's Wilhelm, who's based in Hamilton, recounts one such instance. "I had a woman, not too long ago, contact me through Facebook Messenger, saying, 'I appreciate you reaching out but I'm going through a divorce and this isn't something I can deal with right now.'"
Wilhelm removed the woman from her distribution list immediately. She says the company has policies about how reps should govern themselves online. "They give ideas about great words to say, great imaging, ways to boost things. People might think I react negatively [to a request to stop pitching], but it's all about learning a balance."
Asking permission, subtly promoting, fostering friendships – as the way we communicate evolves, so must the sales pitch. Still, when every new contact is a possible lead, the charm offensive never ends.
While researching this story, two interview subjects sent me Facebook friend requests and another offered to send me product samples. I have made promises to neither.