What Cults Can Teach You About Building Community

I interviewed Douglas Atkin about what cults and cult-like brands can teach us about creating a passionate community. Douglas, author of The Culting of Brands, studied organizations that have cult-like followers to learn what it takes to build rabid customer loyalty. And today he’s the Chief Community Officer at Meetup.

Douglas Atkin

Douglas Atkin

Brand Strategist

Douglas Atkin is the author of The Culting of Brands, discussing the phenomenon of “cult branding” and how companies cultivate fanatical customer loyalty.

A few lessons from this program

Here are some ideas that will help you build a cult-like brand, and examples of companies who apply them online.

People–not ideas–will create converts

Douglas’s example: Douglas learned something startling about the Moonie recruitment process. New converts are drawn to people in the religion before they accept its ideology. People convert because of the community, not the beliefs. They accept the beliefs later.

Online example: The first time they used Twitter, most people found the experience a bit odd. It didn’t allow more than 140 characters per message and had limited features. But if their friends were on it, they tried out the site and often joined. Eventually, Twitter’s quirky, minimalist format grew on them.

Constant contact between members is critical

Douglas’s example: In her study of the the Mormon religion, A. Marie Cornwall found that members who had strong ties to other Mormons, tended to have stronger ties to the religion itself. The church even “established a rigorously applied program of contact, forcing ‘high content’ engagement among members,” says Douglas

Online example: Keith and Chemda, who started the online radio show Keith and the Girl, said in my interview that adding a simple online message board to their site so their fans could talk to each other, led to such rabid listener loyalty that people tattooed Keith and Chemda’s faces on their bodies.

Members need to help each other

Douglas’s example: Douglas told me that one of the reasons the early Christian church took off is that they took care of their sick, while pagans routinely abandoned their sick. The feeling of being taken care of strengthened members’ bond to each other and the faith.

Online example: When I owned a Treo smart phone, members of the TreoCentral message boards helped me through tech issues I had with the phone. When better phones were introduced, I refused to switch away from my Treo because the community meant so much to me.

The community needs to stand for something

Douglas’s example: A cult must have a meaning system. Douglas quotes a member of The Forum, explaining why he joined this self-improvement group, “I believe that life without some other meaning than the day to day routine isn’t worth it.”

Online example: When I interviewed Karel Baloun, one of the first hire’s at Facebook, he told me that from the early days, Facebook stood for communication. That was its mission. Facebook refused to allow users to decorate their profiles the way MySpace did, because all that self-expression interfered with their mission: to help people talk.

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