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How to Build an Online ‘Cult’ of Constituents

Speaking at Inc.’s 2013 GrowCo conference in New Orleans, Baratunde Thurston shared tips on how businesses can use personal stories online to attract customers, motivate friends and customers, and ultimately drive business results. The comedian, founder of social media consultancy Cultivated Wit, and author of the best-selling bookHow to Be Black,” used examples from his own youth, his time running the digital arm of satirical news website The Onion, and from his efforts to sell and promote his book online using everything from Twitter and Facebook to live broadcasts of his open word processor as he wrote it.

Baratunde Thurston at ROFLCon II

Baratunde Thurston

“Tell your story. For any new business, that story is a big part of how customers will find themselves connected to you”

Here are highlights from his talk:

Use the entire animal. Don’t be afraid to multipurpose things you already have created. After he wrote his book, for example, Thurston created a spreadsheet of its funniest sentences, and then edited each one down to a Twitter-length message. “Don’t be afraid to recycle,” he said. “I wrote 60,000 words, you think I need to write new tweets? They’re already in the book.”

Piggyback on a bigger story. The most efficient way to gain visibility for your product or service is to find a conversation that’s already happening online, and join it. “There is very little value in going totally against the grain, creating extra work,” said Thurston. “How to Be Black,” for example, was published during Black History Month. “It just made sense.”

Start a cult. Or an army. To promote his book, Thurston sought help from friends, family, even “the people who used to rob me.” In one promotional activity he sent out advance copies of the book, asking the recipient to discuss the book over Thanksgiving dinner, and then report back on the book’s Facebook page. The promotion didn’t drive a lot of sales—but it did result in many 5-star reviews on Amazon.com.

Ask for help. “Specifically, make it easy for people to help,” Thurston said. “You already know them, you went to school with them, you worked with them…they are already invested. They really care.” Even if they don’t have money, there’s probably something else they can do, Thurston said.

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