Network marketing is one of the fastest-growing business models of the past few decades. According to the Direct Selling Association, in the decade from 1993 to 2003, total direct selling revenues grew by 7.1 percent annually—dramatically above the growth rate of the overall economy and of total retail sales.

In 2003, U.S. total direct selling sales exceeded $29 billion—almost 1 percent of the $3,397 billion for total U.S. retail sales (U.S. Census Bureau).

Any business model that has achieved this kind of success probably has lessons that all business people can learn from.

We recently interviewed some of the profession’s top experts and found seven lessons that all sales and marketing professionals can use to be more effective, regardless of their industry:

1) Every Business Is a Relationship-Based Business

So says John Milton Fogg, founding editor of Networking Times and author of The Greatest Networker in the World, and one of the most successful teachers of network marketing. You cannot sell an inferior product with a superior relationship, but you need at least a functional relationship to sell your product. That is particularly apparent in network marketing, a business built around belly-to-belly sales.

2) Think Analytically about Your Network

Shaul Gabbay, in his book Social Capital in the Creation of Financial Capital: The Case of Network Marketing, reports that the fastest-rising group of entrepreneurs (among the direct selling representatives whom he studied) were those who had initial weak ties to dense networks. In other words, successful salespeople penetrate an untouched market, and then work to gain a high market share in that market.

This is easier to do if that untouched market is highly dense: everyone in it knows all the players. Why? Because word of mouth in that type of network will spread more rapidly about the value of your product or service. This principle is particularly evident in network marketing, a profession where “networks go to work.” However, the same idea applies to almost any business.

3) Create a Community around Your Product

One of the great ironies of the software business is that not only do many software companies outsource their development offshore, but many also outsource their customer support to their own customers! When Best Software encourages you to visit their user forums to discuss your issues in using Act! software, that is a very cheap way for Best to support their product. Network marketing companies rely almost exclusively on their communities for sales, support, follow-up and recruiting.

4) Leverage the Unleveraged

In 2002, 79.9 percent of the direct selling sales force was female; 56 percent completed only a partial college education, technical or trade school, or had only a high school education.

This sales force looks very unlike the traditional American corporate sales force, which typically is much more male and has a higher level of education. However, the direct selling sales force looks just like their customers. People can be very effective salespeople when selling to their own community, because the common culture and interests create a foundation to build strong relationships more quickly.

5) Build a Relationship First

“Internet marketers and network marketers share a common, terminal disease,” says Fogg. “If you think of the whole process like dating, we bring someone to our Web site and then ask them to have sex immediately. But there has to be some courtship first!”

One of the delicate aspects of network marketing is that people leverage their personal relationships to sell a product. Although that leverage makes some people queasy, the success of the network marketing model shows that many people do comfortably build multiplex relationships: their friends are their customers, and vice versa. With delicacy, you can do the same thing.

6) Not Everyone Is a Prospect

One mistake some network marketers make (as do many other salespeople and marketers) is thinking of everyone they meet as a prospect. In network marketing this is known as the “Three-Foot Rule,” i.e., “anyone within three feet of you is a prospect.”

But top network marketers don’t do this. Max Steingart, creator of the “Success Online” training course for network marketers, says that it’s not just about figuring out when to make your pitch, but even whether to make your pitch.

“You just build relationships with a lot of people,” says Steingart. “Some will become prospects and some won’t. There’s no timetable. If the time is right, you’ll know.”

7) Use Online Networks

The network marketing profession is a particularly good one for leveraging online networks. Steingart teaches people how to “make the world your warm market,” specifi-cally by using online networks. He reports that when he instant-messages someone to start a conversation about potentially joining his distribution network, 50 percent of the people he contacts will respond to the conversation. More and more sales and marketing professionals will use online networks to accelerate their sales.

SCOTT ALLEN and DAVID TETEN are coauthors of
The Virtual Handshake; Allen was also the subject of our
lead story last issue. This article is adapted from a piece that
originally appeared in Fast Company.