Game of Cults: Leveraging Emotional Marketing for Sustainable Growth

The role of emotion in marketing

You’re in the emotion business.

This is a good thing.

For a marketer, the holy grail is to trigger a prospect’s unconscious emotions and desires and then help them use logic to associate that feeling with the purchase of their product.

Marketing can take this to an extreme, whipping up your emotions and creating a mental image of the desired results, all to make you push the buy button.

Then you get the product, and it’s not the results or the feeling you imagined.

Disappointment! 🙁

The seller doesn’t care because they have your money. They are shortsighted, only looking at the money grab now and not the long-term effect of not delivering on the promise.

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Why emotion gives content creators an edge

Content creators, particularly fiction writers, have an advantage in the products they bring to the market. It can create the desired effect.

We know that a well-written story will create an imagined experience for a reader, resulting in that reader having an emotional experience.

The connection between a reader and a character is intimate because the character manifests in the brain’s memory centers and is filled in with the reader’s associations. Furthermore, the reader imagines the events from the character’s point of view.

What’s strange about story is that we can have an unconscious connection with the character while logically understanding that the character doesn’t exist and that the story didn’t happen.

The story world, characters, and plot have a lasting impact on the reader. All of this is irrational.

Rather than doubling down on the essence of story and what we know hooks people, we get dragged into what others tell us works.

Think about this…

Right now, there are more options for advertising books. More space is dedicated to advertising on Amazon sales pages, and more dollars are going towards advertising, but it hasn’t changed the winners and losers.

The obvious argument is that top authors advertise more, but that’s not the case. The authors I’ve worked with advertise far less than other authors.

Well, tell me how to do it, Joe!

Yellow Kid Weil was a famous conman in Chicago. I’ll share a few of his scams this season. He was the Leonardo DaVinci of flim-flam. Just about every con you’ve seen in a movie, including The Sting, is a version of Weil’s cons.

While there were many ways he fleeced a mark and hundreds of marks he took for millions, there was only one man he could not scam.

According to Weil, the reason is that everyone believes they deserve to get something for nothing. That worldview that each of us thinks we should get a special break, with a sprinkle of greed and a little trust, leaves us vulnerable to the likes of Weil. Weil could get some of the most astute businessmen to fall for too-good-to-be-true situations.

“The average person, in my estimation, is ninety-nine percent animal and one percent human. The ninety-nine percent that is animal causes very little trouble. The one percent that is human causes all our woes. When People learn—as I doubt they will—that they can’t get something for nothing, crime will diminish, and we shall all live in great harmony.” ~“Yellow Kid” Weil

I disagree with the Kid’s assessment. I’ll argue that the ninety-nine percent animal gets us into trouble—or at least, when we get the signals from our animal instincts confused.

Those primal instincts are powerful drivers, and when tripped and manipulated by others, they will get you to think their idea was yours.

If you think you’ll get an author career without doing the work or playing the game, then you’ll always be a sucker for the next quick fix.

A mark for those like the Yellow Kid.

I just attended the 20Booksto50k conference. I’ve been going since its inception. Some of the rising stars of prior conferences are gone. Far more authors are right where they were when I first met them, but three years have passed.

They wonder how my clients have grown their brands.

I wish I could take the credit and say it was all the work that Lisa and I did. We make them more efficient and helped with strategy. But their most considerable advantages were created all on their own by staying in their lane and producing products that fans desired.

Boo! I want the secret.

But I just gave it to you. The winners are those that produce a marketable product regularly. They take the time to make sure the product delivers the experience readers seek. They repeat this process regularly and have more opportunities to build brand loyalty and community at each launch.

Imagine that you play the game the same way for the next twelve months. Applying a marketing system that retains readership and supports releasing books on a regular schedule. A system that indoctrinates new readers into your brand cult—no disruptions to production, no genre changes, or attempts to apply the latest marketing hack.

Will this deliver better results than what you’ve been doing?

This is what most miss—the underlying solution created by consistency. Cumulative advantage compounds. In the beginning, the added readership is small, maybe unmeasurable, but if you keep them, they will give you a boost at the next launch, then the next. And the next.


(1.00)365 = 1.00

(1.01)365 = 37.7

A one percent improvement every day results in over thirty-seven times the initial result— that’s the math of consistency compounding.

When playing the game of cults, we always need to be focused on the illogical and emotional—it’s the glue that binds. It’s the fuel that feeds the fire, driving people to associate their personality with your brand.

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The individual reader who associates their identity with your character or story brand is the building block of cumulative advantage.

I believe the only reliable and repeatable method for building an author brand is to weave this spell through an emotional connection. The problem is it takes time, and we’re impatient.

Think about the irony.

Authors have a marketing Trojan horse in their product. The process takes a series of rounds to compound before we see results, so our fear, anxiety, and insecurity drive us to look for other strategies.

Digital marketers then use those emotions against you to see their product as the desired path. “Buy my course, and you will sell more books.”

We abandon the proven strategy of the Trojan horse in the hope that we can get something quicker and with less effort.

Something too good to be true.

So, are you telling me to dupe my readers?


We will not use the illogical to dupe people. We can use psychological influence to activate areas of their unconscious that will connect your story experience to meaning and identity.

As humans, we look for meaning everywhere. Apophenia is the bias to see patterns and meaning in random information—the elephant-shaped cloud, the potato chip that looks like Elvis. It’s our lizard brain unconsciously trying to identify energy sources, spot threats, and identify patterns that in the past resulted in danger.

We seek to change readers’ behavior and get them to buy our book instead of another author’s. Appealing to logic isn’t the way. Helping them find meaning and experience through your story will engage the unconscious, emotional part of their brain. If the emotion you trigger is favorable, they will repeat the behavior to reexperience the feeling.

One more thing…

“But it’s just genre fiction! It doesn’t have a meaning.”

Correct, some genres are just escapism—a way for readers to get out of their day-to-day. That doesn’t mean that you can’t give them meaningful experiences and have them connect with your characters like friends in that process.

​​​​​The meaning can be that your product delivers an experience without the politics and conflict they find in their real life. Your meaning is the promise of a safe retreat.

Whatever meaning and connection you plan to deliver, it must be consistent—that’s brand.

Read: What Game Are We Playing? Restructuring Your Business Strategy