Because I'm both a writer and the owner of a marketing agency, people often ask me to recommend business books to them. They usually expect me to point them to a how-to about social media marketing, a leadership "classic", or, at the very least, the latest bestseller by a Shark Tank panelist. So when I send them links to biographies of religious cult leaders, they are almost always surprised and a little confused.

They shouldn't be. Think about it like this: If you want to learn how to build a dedicated following, who better to study than marginal figures with outlandish ideas who somehow get thousands of people to do anything they tell them to.

Why You Should Study Cult Leaders

As always, the best way to prove a point is to tell a story. So that's what I'll do now.

Founded in the 1930s, the Nation of Islam had almost nothing do with the Middle Eastern faith that gave it its name. The basic teaching of the N.O.I. is that an evil scientist named Yakub genetically engineered white people. These pale-skinned beings were, quite literally, devils whose sole purpose was destroy the utopia created by the original dark-skinned human beings.

When the new religion emerged from Detroit, Michigan, most African Americans had never heard of Islam. Yet in time, the Nation of Islam's following would soar, with a membership including Malcolm X and Muhammed Ali.

How did this happen?

Fard knew that if he approached people directly, they would immediately reject him. So instead, he posed as a traveling salesman. But there would be no Fuller brushes or encyclopedias for him. Wallace Fard traded in fine silks. His colorful exotic product would entice people to let them into their homes.

Once inside, the conversation would inevitably lead to Fard's unusual dietary habits, which included the elimination of fatty pork products and alcohol. As in so many poor communities, the Detroit slums were characterized by poor health and the new diet seemed worth a try. Without fail, his customers' weight would drop and their energy would increase. It was only then that Fard would emphasize that these teachings came from his religion.

Two months after his arrival in Detroit, he was regularly filling basements with excited people who wanted to hear him preach about his unique take on Islam.

Cults Leaders Understand Sales

However you might feel about the contents of Fard's message, there is no denying that his underlying strategy works. And it is effective for anything from traditional sales to Internet marketing.

Attract people's attention. Solve their problems. And only then, make your offer.

It's that simple.

One Last Thing

One of my favorite things about being able to write for a publication like Inc. is that it gives me an opportunity to draw attention to great authors and thinkers. In this case, my examples all came from the fantastic book The Messenger: The Rise and Fall of Elijah Muhammed by Karl Evanzz.    

And of course, if you'd like me to send you recommendations of other books that will give you unconventional strategies for building a dedicated following for your business, email me. It would be my pleasure.