The Atlantic just published this informative and thought provoking piece discussing the phenomenon of Multilevel Marketing (also known as Network Marketing or Direct Sales) and its stronghold on aspiring lifestyle entrepreneurs and others seeking an escape from the standard 9-to-5 job, particularly moms looking for work they can do from home. If you haven’t yet been exposed to the latest wave of MLM companies (It Works, LuLaRoe, and Young Living are just a few names that come to mind), surely you will recall old school beauty names Avon and Mary Kay, or Tupperware kitchen storage containers. Unlike the direct selling companies of the past, today’s MLMs owe a great deal if not all of their success to social media.
MLM is a controversial topic. Its supporters emphasize the ability of MLM consultants (essentially independent contractors) to make some much needed side income while meeting the demands of a hectic family life. Critics in turn highlight the fact that the majority of MLM sellers will actually lose money before the end of their direct selling career. Complicating the matter further is the social selling aspect of the industry, referring not just to the use of social media outlets, but to the ongoing recruitment of new sellers to work under the consultant, enabling her to receive a greater share of the profits by taking a percentage of her down-line’s revenue.
It’s definitely a double-edged sword. Consultants interviewed for the Atlantic piece were emphatic about the sense of community and sisterhood they found upon signing on with their respective companies. Given the emphasis on personal connection and team-building, MLM sellers are trained to approach their friends and acquaintances as sales and recruitment prospects, transforming their social contacts into money-making opportunities. But from the outside looking in, there’s an undeniable awkwardness in being approached in this manner for either a sale or a business opportunity, or both. As one critic explained in her interview for the Atlantic, “‘you don’t have a personal relationship with the store that will be impacted if you don’t like or repurchase the product.'”
Regardless of your opinion on the subject, almost all of us have been touched by MLM at one point or another. So how do you politely decline an invitation to buy/sell MLM while preserving your friendship with the consultant? I’m not talking about a casual acquaintance who messages you on Facebook, but rather, a close friend who is more likely to take it personally if you appear unsupportive of her new business venture. I think this situation is much more difficult, because while it may be easy enough to fib a bit to someone who doesn’t know you well (“Aw, sorry, I use a different mascara!”), we’re more likely to be brutally honest with the people we care most about (“That shit makes your lashes fall out!”).
I’ll admit that I haven’t had this exact problem. While MLM has a bad reputation, perhaps well deserved, for teaching its consultants to use pushy sales tactics, the consultants in my social circle have never pressured me to buy something or sign up to sell after my polite decline. I have observed, however, a new problem that I don’t see the media discussing yet: I think MLM drives a wedge between eager consultants and would-be close friends. I can recall a number of situations in which a friendly, approachable mom with a lot in common with myself casually approached me for what I thought was just a playdate, fitness group invite, or a house party, only to find out that her MLM product was at the heart of the social event. And while there is technically nothing wrong with that, I find myself “branding” that person as “the mom I met at a party who wants to hang out because she is hoping I buy something from her or join her downline.” I feel a bit guilty even articulating that thought — but haven’t we all experienced this? Even if she never asks me about it again, it’s a tough association to shake. And what’s worse, if that would-be friend falls off the radar after you politely decline her product or opportunity, you’re left with the feeling that you were viewed solely as a business prospect all along.
To be fair, this problem isn’t limited to the MLM scenario. It’s to a great extent a modern problem of our increasingly public online lives, and the way we view our friendships and greater community in the Internet age. I happen to have a side gig as a fashion reseller on a fast growing online marketplace called Poshmark. I’m not going to link to my store here because I’m so concerned about the problem inherent in social selling: the distaste I think we all share when someone sneaks a sales pitch into a social media or blog post. But even in the reseller world, where my counterparts and I tend to sell to complete strangers across the country, there’s an element of pressure to show your support for a friend by supporting her business. The most successful Poshmark and Ebay sellers I know are starting to branch out beyond the world of fashion reselling by offering courses, workshops, and speaking engagements on the subject. I think that’s great, and if at any time one of these products or services appeals to me, I won’t hesitate to jump in. But with the growing emphasis on Facebook selling groups, and Instagram tag and follow sweepstakes, and even crowdsourcing websites like Kickstarter and GoFundMe, we are making our businesses and livelihoods very, very personal in a way no one could have imagined before the era of social media.
MLM will undoubtedly continue to be a lightning rod for controversy and heavily opinionated discussion for a long time. In this little piece, I have only barely scratched the surface of the subject and the reasons why it continues to be a heavily debated and criticized business model — as well as a seemingly undying industry with a tenacious grip on its piece of the American economic pie.
Are you an MLM consultant with thoughts on the matter? Have you had a friend approach you with an MLM product or opportunity pitch? Drop a comment below!