7 marketing lessons from "The True Believer" (a book about mass movements)

"The True Believer" is a book about mass movements that also happens to be a very useful blueprint for your marketing.

Written by Eric Hoffer and originally published in 1951, "The True Believer" makes a convincing case for the existence of "mass movements" - what they are, how they work, how they form, and their destructive capability, etc.

I can't speak to its applicability in a political capacity, but viewed through a behavioral psychology lens - e.g. why people do what they do - this book provides some useful insights into effective marketing. Specifically:

  1. What drives desire? Can it be manipulated?
  2. Why do people follow others? What creates trust and builds loyalty? Can it be influenced?
  3. How does the act of consumption spread? Is there a virality to consumer behavior? Can it be engineered?

From this lens, "The True Believer" is a useful handbook for the modern marketer to better understand what motivates people to take action.

Below, I have extracted what I consider the most compelling marketing ideas from "The True Believer," and how you can apply these insights to your own marketing and sales efforts.

Obviously, my ideas are my own and not necessarily what the author intended. With that disclaimer out of the way, enjoy:

The True Believer: 7 Marketing Lessons to Increase Your Reach, Revenue, and Impact

For even more insights into The True Believe and how it can improve your marketing, watch my video breakdown, where I analyze each marketing lesson in-depth:

And if you're more of a reader, here's a brief overview of the 7 marketing lessons from "The True Believer."

Obviously, the video goes way more in depth, but this should give you a good overview if you're in a hurry.

(sidenote: please leave a comment and share this article...I know, a strange interruption to the flow...but seriously, would love to hear from you, and sharing makes the world a better place. Thanks in advance!)

#1. Market to the Frustrated

"There is in us a tendency to locate the shaping forces of our existence outside ourselves. Success and failure are unavoidably related in our minds with the state of things around us. Hence it is that people with a sense of fulfillment think it a good world and would like to conserve it as it is, while the frustrated favor radical change.”

Hoffer, Eric. The True Believer (Perennial Classics) (p. 6). HarperCollins e-books. Kindle Edition

If you're marketing to people who are content, to people who like the world as it is and want to keep it the same, you're fighting a losing battle.

That's because a marketers role is not to change minds, but to influence the buying decision by creating and relieving tension (see Tip #4. "Demonstrate Irresistible Power" for more on this).

Your customers, and those who are about to buy from you, are frustrated.

They are seeking change and your promise of a solution is worth their investment.

They buy from you because you're helping them go from frustrated to content, and not the other way around.

But the only way this works is if you start from the right place:

Market to the frustrated, because they are the ones ready and willing to make a change (by buying your product, investing in your solution, etc).

#2. Aggravate One Pain

"Our frustration is greater when we have much and want more than when we have nothing and want some. We are less dissatisfied when we lack many things than when we seem to lack but one thing."

Hoffer, Eric. The True Believer (Perennial Classics) (pp. 29-30). HarperCollins e-books. Kindle Edition

"The Invisible Gorilla" is a study (and book by the same name) on visual perception.

You may have heard of this study because it did make the rounds on the internets at one point, but in summary:

A group of people were asked to watch this video and count how many times the basketball was passed between the passers in white shirts:

The majority of people undergoing this experiment counted the correct number of passes.

Only half saw the gorilla.

This is an experiment about "selective attention."

The gist of it is this: if you focus on something, you may miss information in the periphery.

But when you play it through, it becomes much more significant than this:

We humans can only see the things we're looking for. The rest is invisible to us.

There are a million problems we need solved.

A million jobs we need done, things to change or improve for the better.

But humans act hierarchically.

When you're dehydrated and dying of thirst, water is all you care about. Anything that is not water (or leading you to water) is either not seen or processed and quickly discarded. Water, therefore, is all you see.

But as we meet our basic hierarchy of needs (food, water, shelter)…then what?

What is the most pressing, most urgent problem your customer has right now?

There might be 100 problems...what takes priority number 1?

Focus on this.

While it may seem counter-intuitive, effective marketing requires amplifying the single, most aggravating pain of the customer, rather than trying to inflame all their various problems (because your customers literally can't see those problems until they've taken care of that which is most pressing).

#3. Cultivate Extravagant Hope

"Where power is not joined with faith in the future, it is used mainly to ward off the new and preserve the status quo. On the other hand, extravagant hope, even when not backed by actual power, is likely to generate a most reckless daring…Those who would transform a nation or the world cannot do so by breeding and captaining discontent or by demonstrating the reasonableness and desirability of the intended changes or by coercing people into a new way of life. They must know how to kindle and fan an extravagant hope."

Hoffer, Eric. The True Believer (Perennial Classics) (p. 9). HarperCollins e-books. Kindle Edition


Certainty of a better future.

This is what gets people to move, to engage, and to make difficult changes.

Are you painting the picture of the better future, the BEST future, for your clients and customers?

Are you kindling and fanning a sense of extravagant hope for the future? Not only that your customers and clients CAN have what they want, but that they WILL have what they want?

Not just "maybe," but with certainty?

Here's the thing:

People will only believe you if you believe in yourself, if you're confident in the value you bring, and if you're certain of the results that will be achieved when someone invests in your solution.

So the first challenge is internal: do you believe in what you do?

Once you get to "yes" the next step is simple: tell the truth about what you do and why you do it.

No need to embellish or hyperbolize; just call it like you see it. Your passion and certainty will naturally seep into your message, which in turn will attract the right customers to you.

#4. Demonstrate Irresistible Power

"For men to plunge headlong into an undertaking of vast change, they must be intensely discontented yet not destitute, and they must have the feeling that by the possession of some potent doctrine, infallible leader or some new technique they have access to a source of irresistible power."

Hoffer, Eric. The True Believer (Perennial Classics) (p. 11). HarperCollins e-books. Kindle Edition

Seth Godin in "This is Marketing" says that marketers create and relieve tension.

They do this by contrasting what is with what could be. Once this tension is created, the only way to relieve it is by bridging the gap between the two points, which is exactly what your solution should do.

Here's how to create tension:

Step 1. Transcribe the potentially negative future into the present, with words and ideas that your readers, customers, and clients believe and understand.

Step 2. Tell the story of what COULD be, if a change were made…a specific change...an obvious change...a change that needs to be made now.

Step 3. Provide the painless path forward to bridge the gap, which should be by investing in your solution (aka: buy this and the best possible future is yours).

The most effective way to get from step 2 to step 3 is by demonstrating that you (and only you) possess the solution to their problems.

Or, as Hoffer puts it, that you have some "irresistible power" that only your customers can tap into.

To figure out your irresistible power, ask yourself:

  • Why is your way the only way? Are there viable alternatives?
  • Why is your solution the only solution? Where do others fall short?
  • Why are you in possession of this 'key' (aka: irresistible power): How'd you get it? Why are you sharing it with others now?

#5. Define a Common Enemy

"Hatred is the most accessible and comprehensive of all unifying agents. It pulls and whirls the individual away from his own self, makes him oblivious of his weal and future, frees him of jealousies and self-seeking. He becomes an anonymous particle quivering with a craving to fuse and coalesce with his like into one flaming mass."

Hoffer, Eric. The True Believer (Perennial Classics) (p. 91). HarperCollins e-books. Kindle Edition

Okay, so a little on the extreme side, but there is a lesson here:

Hate - extreme dislike or distaste - is a powerful motivator.

By establishing a common enemy, you can unite your customers, fans, and followers.

The quintessential marketing example of this is the Mac vs. PC ads of the early 2000's.

For reference, here's every single ad Apple ran in that series:

As you can see, identifying a common enemy doesn't require you to be angry or aggressive. It can be fun and lighthearted, while still allowing you to draw a line in the sand to unify your base (or tribe, or peeps, or gang, or whatever you want to call it).

And this is the primary benefit of creating a common enemy:

It helps people connect with others who are like them because they both "get it," which in turn builds community and brand loyalty.

And that is a very powerful, unifying force.

#6. Keep 'em Active

"Imitation is often a shortcut to a solution. We copy when we lack the inclination, the ability or the time to work out an independent solution. People in a hurry will imitate more readily than people at leisure. Hustling thus tends to produce uniformity. And in the deliberate fusing of individuals into a compact group, incessant action will play a considerable role."

Hoffer, Eric. The True Believer (Perennial Classics) (p. 103). HarperCollins e-books. Kindle Edition

Couple thoughts on this one:

First, people imitate others because we're designed that way. While the author writes this with seeming disdain, there's nothing wrong with imitation itself. It is, in fact, how humans learn.

That's especially true if you're a coach, consultant, author, or educator - anyone packaging and selling information.

The most transformational programs often have some degree of modeling or imitation built in. That's because we learn by doing, and when you are doing something different from what you've done before, it helps to have a reference point (or even better: a guide who can show you the way).

Second thought:

If you're trying to grow a community or catalyze a group into action, get them to take small action, consistently.

These could be actions for them to take to implement your solution (e.g. post your homework to lesson 1 in the forum), or they could be actions to help spread the word to others (whether it's sharing an article, writing a review, referring a new potential customer or client, etc.).

Keeping your students, customers, clients, fans, or followers engaged with meaningful activity that moves them toward their goals is an effective way to build comradery and group cohesion.

#7. Sell What They Believe

"The truth seems to be that propaganda on its own cannot force its way into unwilling minds; neither can it inculcate something wholly new; nor can it keep people persuaded once they have ceased to believe. It penetrates only into minds already open, and rather than instill opinion it articulates and justifies opinions already present in the minds of its recipients. The gifted propagandist brings to a boil ideas and passions already simmering in the minds of his hearers. He echoes their innermost feelings. Where opinion is not coerced, people can be made to believe only in what they already 'know.'"

Hoffer, Eric. The True Believer (Perennial Classics) (p. 105). HarperCollins e-books. Kindle Edition

Propaganda reference aside, the truth is that the most persuasive marketing is that which supports and reinforces beliefs, not that which seeks to destroy and overwrite them.

The effective marketer focuses on the person who already knows he has a problem, because if he knows he has a problem, then he'll have a reason "why."

And you can use this "why" to amplify and relieve tension (see Tip #2. "Aggravate One Pain" above for more on this).

I call this marketing to people who get the joke.

When you market to people who get the joke, you don't have to waste time trying to make a case for why someone should listen to you.

They're already listening.

These are the people who will understand the pain you're describing, which builds trust (you're speaking their language).

And they're the people who are most likely to act because they understand their situation and they know it can be improved. This increases the likelihood of a purchase, because its much simpler to reinforce an existing belief and then lead into your offer, then it is to convince someone that what they believe is wrong (then, somehow, get them to buy your solution).

Finally, marketing to people who get the joke makes it much easier to write sales copy, to effectively showcase features and their benefits, and to introduce case studies and testimonials in a meaningful way.

And all of this taken together means more sales.


So those are my 7 marketing insights gleaned from "The True Believer."

Which marketing lesson was most surprising or useful to you? Share below!

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14 comments on “7 marketing lessons from "The True Believer" (a book about mass movements)”

  1. Thank you for this thought-provoking multi-layered interpretation of Eric Hoffer's classic. As always, you've given me much to think about with relation to the books I am working on and to consider for getting people engaged in making positive change in their own lives and through social activism. The latter has been a longstanding source of frustration for me (a pain point!) It also brings back memories from my childhood: In the 1960's my father worked at UC Berkeley's Physics Dept. as an engineer and designer of research equipment. He would come home on occasion and talk about his discussions with Eric Hoffer, who he would visit on his lunch breaks. How I now wish I had been old enough to have been able to talk about those topics with my dad!

    1. Sue, thanks for your feedback and appreciate the kind words. That's wild that your dad was able to connect with Hoffer in person over lunch. I'm sure those were some fascinating discussions.

  2. It was an amazing presentation. the spear unravelled the psychological aspects of human behaviour. I was trying to design such an online course and these revelations will certainly go in a big way to spearhead my method and approach. There are certain patterns in human behaviour and unless we recognise them, we can't hit the mark

  3. An unbelievably powerful and important training here, Tom - one of your best because it's easily understood and provides actionable context to the (savvy 'n smart) marketer who can grasp many of these concepts(which you so effectively and simply communicate). Bravo!

    This post and video from you is a great add-on to teachings that Jonathan Fields did 7 years ago with his amazing RevolutionU work in the study of movements and persuasion. Here are three of the best links I dug up inside my Evernote to share. It's time for refresher for me w/ this subject matter as it applies to some of client work presently.

    https://www.goodlifeproject.com/downloads/TheArtOfRevolutionManifesto.pdf (Jonathan Fields' deep dive) https://liveyourlegend.net/18-steps-launching-your-revolution/ (a great and substantial summary of Fields' work from the late Scott Dinsmore)
    https://www.cyrielkortleven.com/wds2014-jonathan-fields/ (a really solid brief summary of the work)

    For many years now, Tom - you continue to bring important, deep concepts of marketing distilled to digestible and actionable for all levels of small business owners. You're a great teacher and I look forward to everything you put out here in the public space to make us all more effective and bring value to our work. Why your videos don't have more views, I don't understand but you're doing important things, not driven by ego of so many others. I'll say it again, BRAVO!

    1. Thanks Bruce, glad it was helpful and really appreciate your feedback on this. I love the resources you shared. Will check them out.

      Always appreciate your insights and input Bruce, thank you!

      If I could go deeper into any topic, what would you like to see?

  4. I LOVE this article! Your interpretations of Hoffer's work triggered a lot of ideas on how to make my blurbs "sparkle".

  5. Another insightful and on-target post about good marketing habits. Remind them of the pain/problem so they are open-minded to your solution to alleviate and move past it. Persuasion, repetition of the message, and leading them to 'the good life' possible by choosing your offering are all a part of the plan. Thanks for all the good information you share Tom.

    1. Thanks a lot Virginia, glad it was helpful. Your comment also got me thinking that it's not so much about the pain itself, per se, as it is about the meaning behind the pain. If you know the meaning behind the pain, you can articulate the end state that is ultimately desirable for the customer. E.g. what is the *meaning* behind the pain of being overweight? That depends on the person, what he cares about, what matters to him, etc. So for the father of 4, maybe it's making it to your last child's wedding day...that's a strong impetus for change. And if the meaning behind that pain is universal enough where others in a similar position can relate, yet niche enough where you're not just throwing vague or obvious cliches at the wall, then you've found your target market and your messaging.... Anyway, just riffing. Hope it helps!

  6. Hey Tom - was just reading the comments and see that I replied when you ran this terrific piece before. You replied with a remark about checking on what causes 'the pain'. While I agree with the main concepts, I am leery of anyone who says they are or have the only solution for you. My built in skepticism. I also believe there are many people who feel good about themselves overall and still want to tweak and improve their talents, skills, thoughts, and beliefs. That's what I've based my series of eBooks on. It's often about giving ourselves permission to do more, be more, and then have more. I hope you move forward with your ecological approach mentioned in the post today. Perhaps the term holistic can be added to that.

    1. Love it. Great suggestions, thanks Virginia. Yeah, I didn't dive into how to reduce skepticism in relation to the true believer, because I don't think the book has anything of value on that front...but when you look at it ecologically, it's clear we "see" through a lense of trust or skepticism, and that has a lot to do with what I've written about in regards to marketing to people who 'get the joke' - because they are seeing things through the same lens. More to follow on this front as I work it out.

  7. Thank You. Excellently articulated. I have gone from being a luxury hotelier to an author on the experience culture and I can see some mistakes I have made. Kudos and keep them coming. You make a difference.