Turn an Audience Into a Cult: 10 Steps

Editorial note: I’m writing about building cults on YouTube, and doing so with authority since I’m a marketing author who has been seen more than 200 million times on YouTube alone. More importantly, I’ve read The Secret, and I’ve placed my “order to the universe” that you’ll read this, share it, and refer to it as “brilliant.”

So I sat recently in a crowd of 500 people, and listened to an author speak about the similarities between cults and brands. Yeah it creeped me out a bit.

I had some moral problems with this, and involuntarily pictured the Kool Aid man running through Jonestown with Manson. I think I’ll avoid Photoshopping that, so do your own mental work.

But use your audience cult-ivation skills carefully

Now before we use “cult” and “audience” in the same blog post, let’s be clear about connotations. Then back to how you can apply this to your relationship with viewers. We end with 10 steps on turning viewers into a cult army.

The word “cultivate” (which seems to have mostly positive connotations) originates from the Latin “cultīv” (care for). But according to Wikipedia (so you know it’s somewhat true), the concept of “cult” was introduced into sociological classification in 1932 by American sociologist Howard P. Becker as an expansion of German theologian Ernst Troeltsch‘s church-sect typology.

So let’s focus on the 1.0 connotation of “cult” here:

  • Cult 1.0: Becker created four categories out of Troeltsch’s first two by splitting church into “ecclesia” and “denomination“, and sect into “sect” and “cult.”
  • Cult 2.0: In the early 1970s, a secular opposition movement to “cult” groups had taken shape. The organizations that formed the secular “Anti-cult movement” (ACM) often acted on behalf of relatives of “cult” converts who did not believe their loved ones could have altered their lives so drastically by their own free will. In the mass media, and among average citizens, “cult” gained an increasingly negative connotation, becoming associated with things like kidnappingbrainwashingpsychological abusesexual abuseand other criminal activity, and mass suicide.

“Cult marketing” and “cult brand” has taken such a positive connotation that one company claimed the phrase as its name. And there’s a whole Wiki on “cult brand” with no sources.

Now: Cult Marketing & YouTube Applied

Bring your devotees together in person to permit them to touch your sleeve

10 Easy Steps to Building a Cult on YouTube…

  1. The first step is to refer not to yourself, dear YouTube creator. Focus on the collective group. It’s not “I” and “me” it’s WE.
  2. Name your collective. The Vlog Brothers have Nerdfighters. Shaycarl has Shaytards. Olgakay has the Moosh Army. And Zack Scott has “my babies.” As Michael Buckley once told me, never refer to your audience as fans. They’re viewers, but not necessarily all of them qualify as “fans” just because they subscribed..
  3. Introduce an icon. A giant fist punching an eagle is a good place to start, but a monkey with shades shows commitment.

    My own thumbnail is represented here with an eye closeup, which is strangely hypnotic
  4. Create a theme song. The music can be hypnotic, and will create a sense of belonging. For example, I have mysteryguitarman’s classic “Nalts/Waltz” theme, as well as “Nalts Makes a Video Every Time You Poop.”
  5. Distribute wardrobe. Start with t-shirts like Ray William Johnson’s =3 collection. Then step it up with “Moosh-shoes” or “Mythical Shoes” ala Rhett and Link. Finally, introduce something that allows a viewer to express extreme devotion. Try a Cult Snuggie (see video).
  6. Transform yourself. You can get a hair transplant, or disfigure yourself in other ways. Invite your devotees to follow suit.
  7. Tell people how to live. Make up rules of humanity and cultivate a sense of group “right” and “wrong.” Tell them how NOT to live, and find an enemy. Find examples of “rule breakers” outside the cult, and chastise them in the style of McCarthyism or Salem Witch Trials.
  8. Make them laugh. They’re much less likely to think for themselves if they’re laughing. It increases their vulnerability better than sleep deprivation and chocolate milk.
  9. Let your cult followers fight your battles. They’ll not just do the fighting for you, they’ll want to. It’s a reward for all of your effort and smarts.
  10. Go a little nutso. Stop shaving, and make 7 minute rants on YouTube. Put a pot on your head, insert fake teeth and call the suicide prevention hotline (see Mr. Pregnant). Next, reduce visibility. Vanish suddenly to create intrigue. It’s called “pulling a Mr. Safety.” Don’t worry- you’ll be back in the limelight soon. If you’re so inclined, you may wish to make a“Heaven’s Gate” video and let your peeps know how it’s going down in the after life.

Now they’re your stone-faced zombies, so feel free to encourage them to buy stuff, donate their life savings to you, or takeover a country. If things go sour, just hide in plain site. But put up 18-feet walls around you and don’t use the Internet. That may be difficult, but who said leading a cult is supposed to be easy?



Biggest and Most Organized Online-Video & YouTube Community Event

There are loads of social media events, and many YouTube “community gatherings,” meetups and online video events. But the “South By Southwest” of online-video and YouTube is indisputably VidCon. Organized by Hank and John Green (vlogbrothers), the event in 2010 drew hundreds of community members, top “YouTube Stars,” and Nerdfighters (the active people who rally to reduce the world of “suck”). It also included lots of on-stage entertainment that was shared widely online. VidCon 2011 is planned for July 28-30 in San Francisco, California. Early bird discount if you book before Jan. 10, and the hotel is Hyatt Regency Central Plaza.

Here are some highlights of 2010’s VidCon to give you a flavor. It’s focused on viewers and creators, but does attract industry folks and marketers (and has a special industry track). Unlike some popular YouTube love-festivals where “big YouTubers” are VIP, this one is quite egalitarian.

Grassroots Charity Effort Goes LIVE on YouTube

YouTube broadcast live yesterday with the “Project for Awesome,” a grassroots charity event spawned by John and Hank Green (see website).

Several hundred videos and millions of comments supported a collection of charities, and reminded viewers that the YouTube community remains alive. Check out the YouTube channel and Nice Peter’s Spanglish love song (the top-rated of dozens of videos). As of yesterday the raffles alone raised more than $90,000! Kittens are awesome.

Here’s my video, which explains the initiative a bit… and auctions off my “Beyond Viral In My Pants” book.

John and Hank Green with YouTube stars and "Nerdfighters"

Today is “Project for Awesome,” so Watch for Nerfighters Reducing “World Suck”

Today, December 17, is the third-annual “Project for Awesome,” where thousands of Nerdfighters will be using online-video to “reduce world suck.”

Even if you understood nothing in the headline or lead, I encourage you to keep reading because you’ll learn a lot about online-video through this story.

Project for awesome 2009 logo

John and Hank Green were brothers who lost contact over the years, and decided to change that through daily vlogs to each other (which they posted for the rest of the world as Vlogbrothers). I find myself increasingly frustrated with people in online video that don’t know their name… and give them the look of disgust you get from a sports enthusiast when you say “I hope Tiger Ruth helps the New Orleans Rangers make it to the Superbowl.”

Unlike other popular online video creators, the vlogbrothers put their loyal viewers, ideals, intellect and charity above themselves. This has created a genuine fan base of people (we call ourselves Nerdfighters), who would pretty much do whatever the Green brothers asked unless it involved hurting small animals. We’re bonded on the pursuit of increasing awesome and decreasing suck. After all a good planet is equal to awesome less suck (put mathematically, that’s GP=A-S). In my opinion, increasing awesome is easier that decreasing suck. It’s easier to bond around a cause than a complaint.

Today, like the two prior years, hundreds of video creators will make “Project for Awesome” videos to promote good causes (here’s mine, which is to promote awareness of autism). “We want to make the world a better place, and so we’re thanking people who have dedicated their lives to do that, and promoting their cause with our time and our money,” the brothers write on their website.

So here’s what to watch for today:

  • Hundreds of videos will be posted to YouTube with a specific thumbnail (icon).
  • Via Twitter (using hashtag #p4a), hundreds or thousands of people will be giving these videos “5 star” ratings, and commenting aggressively on them (to push them to most-discussed and most-viewed pages, which are as important as the homepage itself.
  • The team will be using a ProjectforAwesome Livestream to communicate as well.
  • As a result of this, many newer YouTube users will be perplexed, but then find themselves amused and perhaps compelled to participate.

Now let’s say your heart is made of ice, and you really don’t care about community or charity. What can you learn from this as a marketer? Well to keep it real, you’d unlikely be able to replicate this, because people tend not to rally around a brand or commercial effort like this.

But it does show the influence that a few people can have on a larger group (the YouTube “community” that is still vibrant), and in turn to a much wider audience of YouTube grazers (the rest of the world). Give people something to care about that’s bigger than your brand or you, and do something selfless (to help reduce world suck). That’s a noble cause, right? And maybe we’ll see major charities or brands tossing their hats in the ring this year or next.

Oprah: Get Hank and John on TV to Show the REAL YouTube

You know who you should have on your show, Oprah? Hank and John of Vlogbrothers, who became popular when they communicated for a year strictly through alternating “video blogs” (vlogs).


Here’s the pitch, Oprah producer (or someone who knows them and will forward this on). The two guys have a loyal following of “Nerdfighters” who use online-video to reduce world suck. They’re smart, talented, and nice guys… and are helping promote a new YouTube volunteer program. Their fans proudly wear the Nerdfighter badge, and rally the community in funny and life-enhancing ways. It’s not cats and skateboards. But it’s indicative of the power of social media (and video, its most visceral form) to influence masses… in positive ways.

If I was promoting an important cause, I can think of no greater honor online than having John and Hank lend their influential voice.

In fact the only thing they’re not good at promoting is themselves… because it’s not ABOUT Hank or John. It’s about improving the world.

And that’s why I’m pitching you for them, dear Oprah. I would like to be in the green room as they prepare to enter the stage. Because I’ll totally moon one of them before they join you on TV to help improve the world.

P.S. If you’re a nerd fighter, join the cause! Get Hank and John on Oprah, where they can maximize their reach beyond the inner YouTube community!

vlog brothers promote video volunteers on youtube

The Day YouTube Died

Lots of buzz in the YouTube community about recent changes toward professional content, but this is perhaps the most profound. Here’s the vlogbrothers, backed by dozens of backup singers. It’s a version of “American Pie,” and it reflects on the potential of YouTube going professional.

This is the 7th highest rated video of the day (despite the Scottish lady, who really has gone a bit overboard), and it has nearly 2,000 comments.

If Google was to battle the Nerdfighters (who are rallied by vlogbrothers, and are on a mission to reduce world suck), then I’d have to put my money on the latter.

This comment from WVFF back row’s Jan was worth scraping from below and adding here: “relax a bit, take a deep breath then get active. Do colab crap like this, promote each other, read Kevin’s book, get organized. That’s what social networking is all about, right?

Project for Awesomeness Helps End World Suck: YouTube Features Nerdfighters

Project Awesome gets recognized by YouTube editorsThe Vlogbrothers (Hank and John) helped orchestrate another “Project Awesome,” and I’m sad I missed participating. This thumbnail collection (right) is a collection of “Project 4 Awesome” videos, which are featured on YouTube’s homepage. Individual creators recognized a charity of their choice to help “end world suck.”

While I’m glad to see YouTube editors recognize this powerful grassroots movement, I’m far more struck by the image I saw 2 days ago. The most popular and highest-rated videos of December 18 were those created as part of this program. 

The brothers didn’t need to feature the already popular Julia Nunes (Jaaaaaaa), but her “P4A/Office/Lupus” video was one of my favorites. First, I’m a huge fan. Second, you can see her sincerity and humility about asking viewers to help the Lupus foundation, even though a family member has Lupus. Third, she opens with the theme for my favorite television show since 1893 when TVs were invented. She’s going to knit a hat for the highest bidder on eBay (I awakened this morning, and grabbed my laptop, coffee and credit card… but alas, the bidding at $800 is past the Nalts price range). 

John and Hank aren’t just interesting video creators, but very purposeful, intelligent and passionate. John’s an author, Hank a musician and more. And their viewers, who proudly call themselves “nerdfighters,” rally not just around the brothers, but around the values they share… ending world suck and all.

Folks, this is social media at its finest, and so far from self promotion known by many on YouTube (including myself). However it makes these creators and channels more appealing. For instance, I’ve seen the Elevator Show and met Woody, but his appeal for MS made me realize he’s not just funny- but he has a heart. It prompted me to watch about 10 episodes of his show that I hadn’t yet seen.

It will be interesting to see how the “grazers” of YouTube (those who surf specific videos or scan the homepage) will respond… will they roll their eyes and return to hot babes and cats? Or will they help the Nerdfighters grow the army of awesomeness? 

Two closing thoughts:

  1. There’s a lesson here. Sincerity is contagious as negativity. 
  2. Kudos to this group, and those who participated by making videos or helping rate them to the top for greater awareness! Sorry I was not among you this year. Seems Alan forgot to remind me. 😉



Brotherhood 2.0: Two Brothers Using Only Videos for One Year

Brotherhood 2.0It’s nearing the end of John and Hank Green’s experiment called Brotherhood 2.0. They’ve used video to communicate each day for the past year… each posting a video on alternative days, and communicating in no other way. And they’ve invited the world to watch…

The two recently helped initiate “Nerdfighter Power: ’07 Project for Awesome” takeover of YouTube. I’m not really sure how to explain it, so I’ll let John. Or maybe Hank should explain it.

I participated in it (to help reduce world suck), but didn’t quite know about this whole Brotherhood 2.0 thing at the time. How? I’m a friggin’ Viral Video Genius, and I am just finding out about this!?

Now I’m infatuated by it, even if they are ghosts of ZeFrank. Check out their FAQ.