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May 02, 2011

Cover Story

Is Technology Changing Direct Selling? App-solutely!



Mobile Smartphones Bring on Golden Age in Social Media

by Michel Bayan

New technologies have never been more exciting for the direct selling industry. Since the very first days of selling goods from the back of a horse carriage, successful direct sellers have been mobile and social creatures. Because the power of technology is only now catching up to what the essence of direct selling is all about, many great minds in the industry are predicting a golden age on our horizon. Social media will be a huge factor here, but let’s zoom out for a second. Social media is only just entering its golden age because of one thing. And that thing is probably within two feet of you right now: a mobile smartphone.

Think mobile smartphones are just for the youngsters? Think again. A recent study by ComScore challenges conventional thought, showing that the generations are pretty well split in terms of smartphone adoption,  and that 37 percent of smartphone users are over the age of 45. “Nothing is going to grow faster in the business world in the next two to three years than mobile apps,” says Brad Doyle, an independent consultant.

Why is mobile gathering so much steam so quickly and jumping the generational divide? It’s simple. Really good mobile apps are incredibly easy and intuitive to use. You can be up and running in just a few minutes nowadays, and as soon as you pick up an iPhone or Droid X, for example, you’ll find there are no big learning curves like in the ’90s and ’00s, when every new piece of technology required painful hours of learning. With mobile apps we have finally arrived at a point where these devices (calling them phones is kind of silly, really—they are more like ultra-small computers) have become so powerful and easy to use that, in most cases, all one has to do is spend a few minutes playing with the right apps and all of a sudden the light bulb goes on, and POW!  Epiphany!

With more than 12 billion apps downloaded on the Apple app store alone (Android is right on their heels) and 1.7 billion mobile devices able to access the Internet worldwide, it’s clear that mobile apps are not only a massive, growing market, but here to stay. The time for action is now. With all of the excitement and billions in advertising dollars spent on marketing smartphone and mobile apps globally,  companies have the opportunity to capitalize on the excitement. And in direct sales, keeping the field excited is an ongoing goal.

From genealogy tools and mobile sign-ups to shopping carts and marketing videos, the possibilities for increasing both production and distributor retention are very real. Companies like XANGO, Amway,  Herbalife and lia sophia are already beginning to experiment with apps,  and their distributors are loving them.

One company that is leading the mobile charge is Nu Skin, headed by forward-thinking Vice President of Business Technology Andrea Hayhurst.  “Our group’s call to action is to remove technology as a barrier to doing the business. We are going to provide as much as possible to our distributors on the tech platforms that are used out in the world, and mobile is the hot one right now.”

One advantage Nu Skin sees in mobile apps is using them as a networking tool. Giving distributors an effective app is not only high-tech, but it’s also high-touch. The community aspect of apps is critical to their success.

“Anything that supports the story [of Nu Skin] is a strong ROI for us,” Hayhurst says. “These kinds of tools enable this mass of communicators [distributors] to tell our story. Everything we do is about feeding that story. It’s business essential to engage in this channel.” And what does their global salesforce in 50 countries think?  “They love it because it’s fresh, it’s hip, it’s now; it’s what people are doing. We are offering our distributors an opportunity that is easy for them to also share with other people.”

In terms of ROI, that’s just the beginning, especially for networking companies. How’s that? Well think of it this way: One of the biggest hurdles in the industry is to get all those distributors of yours to actually take more action, right? An app with the right design and interface could give your distributors the information, clarity and motivation they need to take just one or two more actions a day.  Multiply that by thousands, and you could be generating millions in additional revenue in no time—with the right app, of course. The industry is also well known for the massive disconnect between field and corporate. You’ll have to overcome that first so you can get into their heads and deliver a powerful and specific tool.

Ensuring Mobile Strategy Success

There are, of course, important pitfalls to avoid. The key to a successful mobile strategy is the right thinking. The Web and mobile arenas are not the same. Bring a website mindset to a mobile app and you are almost certainly bound for a big money pit with failure at the bottom. While lessons from Web experience will play a role, mobile is a whole new game. “Mobile apps put the power in the hands of the individual, and the direct seller is even more in need because they are constantly multitasking. Corporate has to cut through all the noise,”  Doyle says.

The most important factors for success in mobile:

The User Interface: Given a much smaller screen to navigate, successfully creating an effective mobile tool requires creative thinking that is very different from the Web. Your app simply must be intuitive to use. The very first time a person uses your app, they should know exactly what it does and how to use it, immediately. 

“The whole challenge in this industry is that the vast majority of your business comes from the newest people, and those people are the most challenged people,” says Jeff Olson, speaker, consultant and author of the distributor’s staple, The Slight Edge. “They have jobs, doubts and the least knowledge on how to do the business. So you better get where they are coming from. You have to have something easy for them to understand that can keep them plugged in with the tools they need on the go. And you also need to give their upline a quick and easy way to find them and stay in touch. You have to have people at the top who really get that, so the field can really be supported.” The app should simply guide distributors to the information they need to know, delivering the functionality they need in just a few touches of the screen.

Less Is More: “Keep it simple and know what to leave out,” Olson says. First and foremost,  if it can wait until they get to their home computer, then let it wait!  Don’t overwhelm them with tons of features they don’t need. Think mobile. If they are at Starbucks waiting for a latte and want to see who’s new to the team, for example, they should be on that screen in 2–5 seconds, having already processed the information they need to know about those new people without having to read much text. It has to be simple, quick, dynamic and interactive—all the essential qualities of a “sticky” app.

Make It Actionable: One of the big promises that bring a new person aboard direct sales is the promise of NET: No Extra Time. We promise them that they can fit their activity into their daily life, even if they are busy. “An app needs to not replace, but encourage smart interaction. It’s got to eliminate confusion and be a great tool for every level of distributor,” Olson says. “They’ve got to open it up and instantly know what they can do right now to move their business forward.” If the data delivered to them is instantly actionable, they can fit a ton of activity into moments where it wouldn’t have been so easy before: the unexpected traffic jam,  waiting for the kids at school and so forth. With instant, actionable information, a direct seller can squeeze a ton of activity into those otherwise dead moments of the day, where they’d be using their phone to check Facebook or Twitter instead. It’s the same thing—grabbing for stimulation during downtime. Only those apps don’t get them paid. Your smartly designed app will!

First Steps

Moving into mobile is a big deal, so it’s important to find the right professional team to help you navigate this brave new world.

“It’s really hard to keep up with mobile right now, with its growth curve being literally vertical,” Hayhurst says. Choose a partner who will be with you for the long haul and is committed to taking the time to get to know you, your leaders, your market and, most important, the field. Seeing from all perspectives is the key to a massively successful mobile strategy. “[Look for] experience with this and other technologies. A broad experience base and being able to work with the corporate IT department is vital,” she says. “You’ve got to pilot a few things.”

Another important thing to look for is a commitment to updates and upgrades. Once your first app gets out in to the field, ask for and welcome feedback. Listen to everyone’s perspective and make sure your partner is committed to frequent updates and upgrades. Keep it focused and keep it fresh.

Most important, remember that your distributors will be the power users here. Your mobile partner should have experience in the field.  “Your development partner must understand the field’s perspective,”  Olson says. “They are the ones who’ll be using it every day. Build it for them. They’ll love you for it and they’ll run with it.”


Michel Bayan is the Founder and CEO of Mingling Media, a digital marketing and development company with a custom mobile platform for direct selling companies.