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How Sticking to Their Principles Helped Zappos and Tom’s of Maine Step Ahead of Their Competition

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October 18, 2020 7 min read

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

Capturing market share in a competitive industry is a matter of differentiation. When Tesla saw that its rivals favored function over form, it positioned itself as a sleek alternative to more prosaic vehicles like the Toyota Prius or the Chevy Volt. marketed itself as a fresh, authentic alternative to . Uber became the alternative to Lyft. 

That’s standard branding practice. But what about using principles to position your business? Can making character be part of your company’s signature to make you distinctive without seeming gimmicky? 

While there are potential pitfalls to a character-based approach, two enterprises have found surprising success: and Tom’s of Maine. Here’s what they can teach entrepreneurs:

1. Go to extremes for customers

A quirky startup with a funny name, Zappos is no longer a joke. From a modest launch in 1999 to its Amazon acquisition only a decade later for just under a billion dollars, the online shoe store has become Exhibit A for how forging a unique identity can reap dividends.  

Related: 840 Million Reasons to Celebrate

What Zappos did was to make its greatest liability into an asset. The shoe retailer turned its call centers from cost sinks into brand differentiators.

Originally, call centers were a minor part of Zappos’ business plan. After all, only 5 percent of its sales came from phone operators. But even if these reps weren’t moving much merchandise, they were getting lots of contacts. People kept them busy asking all kinds of questions about the shoes they were scrutinizing online. The service they were getting from impatient Zappos employees wasn’t always very good. 

Zappos’ leadership saw an opportunity to shift its culture and brand identity. If customers wanted contact with real people before making online purchases, Zappos would go to extremes to keep its callers satisfied.

That required some changes: It implemented a 365-day return service, for one. Even more impressively, it’s been known to stay on the phone with clients for up to six hours. When word about its strategy of relentless service started spreading, the trajectory was set. The rest is history.

Related: Follow These 9 Steps to Copy Zappos’ Exceptional Customer Service Strategy

2. Go back to nature

Where Zappos built its reputation out of a strategic pivot toward customer service, Tom’s of Maine was stamped from the start with the principles of sustainability and

When Kate and Tom Chappell relocated from Philadelphia to Maine in 1968, they decided to raise their children in a healthier, simpler way. They traded the concrete jungles of Pennsylvania for the wilds of Maine to live closer to nature. Soon, however, they found that there were few personal care products free from artificial colors, flavors or preservatives. Supported by a $5,000 loan from a sympathetic investor, they started a business to fill that void. 

Three values guided Tom’s business development: developing natural products, growing the business sustainably and making the operations responsible to the larger world community. The Chappells adhered to strict principles of natural product development, minimized their company’s carbon footprint and encouraged employees to spend up to 12 paid days giving back to causes that mattered to them. 

At the time, that strategy seemed more aspirational than geared toward market growth. But over time, the Chappells have proven their critics wrong. Customers who sought out natural alternatives also appreciated the brand’s social conscience. Its reach grew. By 2006, Tom’s had grown from a boutique brand to an industry player, selling to industry giant Colgate Palmolive for $100 million.

Related: Toothpaste Magnate finds an Eco-Friendly Encore

3. Be authentic

The remarkable success of companies like Zappos and Tom’s of Maine has inspired others to follow their lead of using corporate values to position their brands. But trumpeting your principles won’t necessarily differentiate your organization. For it to work, those principles must be genuine. 

Attentive customers can spot a gimmick a mile away. What they’re looking for is consistent follow-through, not a cynical strategy. Tom’s was built on principles of well-being and environmental concern, so its social initiatives were seen as serious. Zappos didn’t just tout itself as customer-oriented and hire friendlier representatives; it overhauled its whole call center culture. 

Related: Why Authenticity is a Key Ingredient to Entrepreneurial Success

Donations can help demonstrate authenticity, but they’re not enough. Patagonia, which crafts apparel for serious outdoorsmen and women, backs up its commitments not just with money, but also with socially and ecologically conscious corporate practices. 

Will your initiatives be read as expressions of principle or stunts? Analysts suggest asking these questions:

  • Is this an isolated one-off project or an ongoing commitment?

  • Is the goal to elicit good feelings or create self-sustaining, long-term impacts?

  • Would the company be doing this, even if it didn’t directly generate profits? 

4. Go against the grain

If everyone’s doing it, it doesn’t differentiate anyone, right? 

Zappos worked because the lengths it went to keep customers happy and entertained were without rivals in the online marketplace. What made Tom’s stand out in the aisle was its novelty as a natural alternative; it was way ahead of the curve when it came to social and environmental responsibility. 

Consider just how powerful values can be in a space that isn’t known for them. Keyser, a commercial real estate brokerage, is building its identity as a purveyor of selfless service rather than an instigator of cutthroat rivalry. 

Instead of perpetuating the common practice of making the best deals for the brokers themselves, Keyser’s brokerage focuses on what’s best for clients by following through on commitments and outworking all expectations. In a dog-eat-dog industry like commercial real estate, it’s no surprise Keyser’s alternative strategy resonates. 

Related: 5 Odd Ways Top Entrepreneurs Found Success Going Against the Grain

5. Be relentlessly consistent

Until people experience your principles, it’s all rhetoric. But to really drive those principles home, you have to deliver that experience over and over again. 

Skeptics (including CEO ) thought an online shoe store would struggle — until they got on the phone with one of the famously dedicated Zappos reps. Tom’s, too, seemed destined for co-op stores manned by patchouli-scented staff, but its values eventually became mainstream enough to stand out in supermarkets everywhere. When Starbucks began providing healthcare plans to part-time baristas, it spoke volumes more than a lecture about corporate responsibility would have.  

What do these different companies share? Broadly speaking, integrity. They’re aware of their impacts on their workers and clients, the market, the environment and the larger community, and they showcase that fact over and over again in everything they do. 

Related: 3 Proven Ways to Stay Consisent, Meet Your Goals and Realize Your Dreams

Integrity means following through. Zappos, Tom’s of Maine and Patagonia have been operating this way for years, reflecting a depth of commitment. When they point to their principles, people believe them — and more importantly, they believe in the brand. There’s a lot for aspiring entrepreneurs to learn from these companies about defining your principles and sticking to them no matter what as your business grows.

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How to survive the crisis by making a Personal Business Plan

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October 24, 2020 6 min read

This article was translated from our Spanish edition using AI technologies. Errors may exist due to this process.

2020 has been a more complicated year than usual due to the COVID-19 pandemic . However, it was not the first crisis we have faced in the last 20 years.

12 years ago, Sofía Macías faced a difficult economic moment when her ideal job in a newspaper became so complicated that she had to resign and rethink her entire life plan.

“Crises are usually the moments in which we make changes that we have postponed for convenience,” said Sofía during her participation in the Money Fest , the interactive festival of personal finance in Mexico by the Interactive Museum of Economy ( MIDE ).

Thanks to this crisis, Sofía took part-time jobs, got as many scholarships as she could, and began to study to prepare herself to be the best economic specialist and thus help with financial education in Latin America.

While studying for the master’s degree, a professor asked Sofia to make a Personal Business Plan , that is, a roadmap on how she imagined herself in five to 10 years. In other words, a map for your life, but with the vision that you would put into a business.

That academic exercise became her life map and today Sofía Macías is the author of one of the best-known personal finance books in Latin America: Little Capitalist Pig .

“Crises come to show the state of your finances and what you have postponed. But it is the best time to carry out your personal Business Plan ”, said the author.

Image: Money Fest 2020

How to make your own Personal Business Plan to survive the crisis

“Has it ever happened to you that in the face of an economic crisis the most primitive side has come out?” “This happens more commonly than we think. For example, when we attack the supermarket shelves because we believe that there will be a shortage of toilet paper or not open our statement for fear of seeing what we already owe ”.

How can we control that instinct to flee to take concrete actions to face a crisis and start building our Personal Business Plan? Macías gave us a five-step mini guide to get started.

1. Take perspective

Crises are usually the moments in which we make changes that we have postponed for convenience, says Macias. So this opportunity that the pandemic offers us is important to dare to set new goals.

It is at this point where you should start to set your goals and start setting realistic deadlines.

“Timeless goals are nothing more than good intentions,” Macías warns.

2. Executive summary

Try to put on paper where you are currently “standing” and what it is that you would really like to do.

“Your life is the most important company you are going to build. If you do it for other businesses, why not for your life? ”, Says the expert.

Describe your career goals, the future you want for your career, and what you would really love to be.

3. Mission and Vision

“Where is your value to society? Do you do what you love? Why or why not? ”, Says the Little Capitalist Pig blog. It is doing an analysis of where you are and what you really want.

It is identifying the legacy you would leave the world if you could and how you must act to achieve it.

How to do it? Sit in front of a notebook and write two business plans.

  • One where you write how and where you would like to be in 5 to 10 years.
  • Another where you write how and where you would like to be in 5 to 10 years in your best version, that is, if you had all the resources you need.

4. Identify your SWOT

A SWOT or SWOT analysis is a test to know the strengths, opportunities, weaknesses and threats.

Think about how you are as a “product”, who you are, what are your characteristics, what needs improvement and what to prepare for.

5. Identify key resources

What is the team you have to achieve your goal? They can be friends, family, contacts, mentors, in short, anyone who helps you grow.

What do you need to start working towards your goal? That is, identify the most important expenses you must make to achieve your goal and which assets you have to start moving forward during the next 90 days.

Finally, Sofia has a message for those who are anxious about the pandemic: “There is good news and bad news. A good one is that no matter how long this crisis is, it will end. The bad news is that another will come. You can only prepare if you know how to take perspective ”.

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How to Increase the Lifetime Value of Your Online-Course Students

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Three pieces of advice that will help increase retention rate and generate worth that exceeds your customer-acquisition cost. 

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October 24, 2020 5 min read

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

Most course creators put the majority of their focus on a course’s successful launch. Who can blame them? “The Launch” has a considerable amount of expectation behind it. However, when crunching the numbers, something surprising emerges: The launch is not actually the primary determining factor of a course’s success. Rather, it’s its lifetime value. Statistics from FieldBoom show that the cost of finding and onboarding a new customer can be up to five times as much as re-selling to an existing customer, eaning that if you want to keep profit high, nurturing your current customer base (or, in this case, student base) is the way to go. 

Nurturing an existing customer base should comprise more than half of a course creator’s focus when developing and continuing an online course, or set of courses. But how to do this? While every course and customer base is different, the following pieces of advice will help to keep your current students in the loop and focused, thus increasing retention rate and creating a lifetime value that exceeds your customer-acquisition cost. 

Related: 10 Online Courses Under $11 to Make You a Faster, Smarter Entrepreneur

 

1. Prioritize user experience

There’s one major issue that can ruin your course even after a student has already purchased: attention deficit. It’s one thing to purchase a course excited about results. It’s quite another to sit through an online course on your own time. Michal Kyselica is the founder of the FORLOGIS, a custom membership platform that assists authors, coaches and course creators in increasing the lifetime value of their product through emphasizing user experience. “People aren’t paying for information,” Kyselica explains. “There’s a bountiful amount of any type of information they need on the internet. What they’re paying for is results, and their user experience feeds directly into their capacity to receive results from your course.” 

Their process is research-based, and they found that one of the factors that determines the quality of a user’s experience is ease in navigation. For example, if a student begins a course, then gets distracted and returns to it the next week, how easy will it be for the student to pick up where they left off? These little details add up to big results. The easier it is for a student to complete the course and secure results, the higher their lifetime value.

2.Create a natural evolution of products

To support your customer’s journey and encourage them to purchase from you again, create products in alignment with their journey. For example, perhaps your flagship course is “ Influence 101.” What is a natural evolution from that first course that could keep students engaged? Maybe a second course in this case could be “How to Monetize Your Social Media Influence.” If they learned plenty and began to see results from the first course, they’re more likely to buy the second, the third, the fourth, and so on, because they now trust you.

You can capture the first batch of students through using email sequences. Power Digital Marketing calls this type of email sequencing the win-back Sequence. “Win-back series are used to encourage lapsed customers to re-engage,” they advise. “You’ll know the timeframe that works best for your audience, but unless your product is seasonal, you will most likely want to reach out to customers who have not engaged in the last four-to-six months.” 

This should be a proper timeframe to assume that they’ve completed the first course, but also see how closely you can track who’s finishing and who isn’t. These email sequences can also be used to “bump” students who haven’t reached the finish line yet. 

3. Offer discounts for loyal students

To further encourage students to continue their customer journey, consider combining the trust you’ve built with them with an irresistible offer. This could be something like, “Course Students Only: 50 Percent Off Course #2 for This Week Only.” This way, the student feels like they were part of something that gives them loyalty benefits, and the urgency of the discount deadline prompts immediate action. This also nurtures their lifetime value, because the more they purchase from you and the more they achieve because of you, the more likely they’ll be to continue purchasing from you in the future — even without a discount. 

Related: 4 Crucial Things To Consider Before Creating An Online Course

Get creative with how you nurture, but also reflect on the most important foundational need that will help the consumer establish trust with you: How you can deliver results. This is a direct reflection of the quality of the information you share, the action-items and deliverables that you suggest and the user experience that will keep them engaged enough to complete the course. It’s like : Once you have that first solid foundation of trust, you can continue to build and nurture for loyalty. This is not only preferable for your profit margins, but for your course’s reputation and the real-world impact that you’re affecting through your students. 

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How The Epoch Times Created a Giant Influence Machine

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For years, The Epoch Times was a small, low-budget newspaper with an anti-China slant that was handed out free on New York street corners. But in 2016 and 2017, the paper made two changes that transformed it into one of the country’s most powerful digital publishers.

The changes also paved the way for the publication, which is affiliated with the secretive and relatively obscure Chinese spiritual movement Falun Gong, to become a leading purveyor of right-wing misinformation.

First, it embraced President Trump, treating him as an ally in Falun Gong’s scorched-earth fight against China’s ruling Communist Party, which banned the group two decades ago and has persecuted its members ever since. Its relatively staid coverage of U.S. politics became more partisan, with more articles explicitly supporting Mr. Trump and criticizing his opponents.

Around the same time, The Epoch Times bet big on another powerful American institution: Facebook. The publication and its affiliates employed a novel strategy that involved creating dozens of Facebook pages, filling them with feel-good videos and viral clickbait, and using them to sell subscriptions and drive traffic back to its partisan news coverage.

In an April 2017 email to the staff obtained by The New York Times, the paper’s leadership envisioned that the Facebook strategy could help turn The Epoch Times into “the world’s largest and most authoritative media.” It could also introduce millions of people to the teachings of Falun Gong, fulfilling the group’s mission of “saving sentient beings.”

Today, The Epoch Times and its affiliates are a force in right-wing media, with tens of millions of social media followers spread across dozens of pages and an online audience that rivals those of The Daily Caller and Breitbart News, and with a similar willingness to feed the online fever swamps of the far right.

It also has growing influence in Mr. Trump’s inner circle. The president and his family have shared articles from the paper on social media, and Trump administration officials have sat for interviews with its reporters. In August, a reporter from The Epoch Times asked a question at a White House press briefing.

It is a remarkable success story for Falun Gong, which has long struggled to establish its bona fides against Beijing’s efforts to demonize it as an “evil cult,” partly because its strident accounts of persecution in China can sometimes be difficult to substantiate or veer into exaggeration. In 2006, an Epoch Times reporter disrupted a White House visit by the Chinese president by shouting, “Evil people will die early.”

Stephen K. Bannon, Mr. Trump’s former chief strategist and a former chairman of Breitbart, said in an interview in July that The Epoch Times’s fast growth had impressed him.

“They’ll be the top conservative news site in two years,” said Mr. Bannon, who was arrested on fraud charges in August. “They punch way above their weight, they have the readers, and they’re going to be a force to be reckoned with.”

ImageA 2018 gathering in Taiwan for practitioners of Falun Gong, which backs The Epoch Times.
Credit…David Chang/EPA, via Shutterstock

But the organization and its affiliates have grown, in part, by relying on sketchy social media tactics, pushing dangerous conspiracy theories and downplaying their connection to Falun Gong, an investigation by The Times has found. The investigation included interviews with more than a dozen former Epoch Times employees, as well as internal documents and tax filings. Many of these people spoke on the condition of anonymity because they feared retaliation, or still had family in Falun Gong.

Embracing Mr. Trump and Facebook has made The Epoch Times a partisan powerhouse. But it has also created a global-scale misinformation machine that has repeatedly pushed fringe narratives into the mainstream.

The publication has been one of the most prominent promoters of “Spygate,” a baseless conspiracy theory involving claims that Obama administration officials illegally spied on Mr. Trump’s 2016 campaign. Publications and shows linked to The Epoch Times have promoted the QAnon conspiracy theory and spread distorted claims about voter fraud and the Black Lives Matter movement. More recently, they have promoted the unfounded theory that the coronavirus — which the publication calls the “CCP Virus,” in an attempt to link it to the Chinese Communist Party — was created as a bioweapon in a Chinese military lab.

The Epoch Times says it is independent and nonpartisan, and it rejects the suggestion that it is officially affiliated with Falun Gong.

Like Falun Gong itself, the newspaper — which publishes in dozens of countries — is decentralized and operates as a cluster of regional chapters, each organized as a separate nonprofit. It is also extraordinarily secretive. Editors at The Epoch Times turned down multiple requests for interviews, and a reporter’s unannounced visit to the outlet’s Manhattan headquarters this year was met with a threat from a lawyer.

Representatives for Li Hongzhi, the leader of Falun Gong, did not respond to requests for comment. Neither did other residents of Dragon Springs, the compound in upstate New York that serves as Falun Gong’s spiritual headquarters.

Many employees and Falun Gong practitioners contacted by The Times said they were instructed not to divulge details of the outlet’s inner workings. They said they had been told that speaking negatively about The Epoch Times would be tantamount to disobeying Mr. Li, who is known by his disciples as “Master.”

Credit…Julie Jacobson/Associated Press

The Epoch Times provided only partial answers to a long list of questions sent to its media office, and declined to answer questions about its finances and editorial strategy. In an email, which was not signed, the outlet accused The Times of “defaming and diminishing a competitor” and displaying “a subtle form of religious intimidation if not bigotry” by linking the publication to Falun Gong.

“The Epoch Times will not be intimidated and will not be silenced,” the outlet added, “and based on the number of falsehoods and inaccuracies included in the New York Times questions we will consider all legal options in response.”

Falun Gong, which Mr. Li introduced in China in 1992, revolves around a series of five meditation exercises and a process of moral self-improvement that is meant to lead to spiritual enlightenment. Today, the group is known for the demonstrations it holds around the world to “clarify the truth” about the Chinese Communist Party, which it accuses of torturing Falun Gong practitioners and harvesting the organs of those executed. (Tens of thousands across China were sent to labor camps in the early years of the crackdown, and the group’s presence there is now much diminished.)

More recently, Falun Gong has come under scrutiny for what some former practitioners have characterized as an extreme belief system that forbids interracial marriage, condemns homosexuality and discourages the use of modern medicine, all allegations the group denies.

When The Epoch Times got its start in 2000, the goal was to counter Chinese propaganda and cover Falun Gong’s persecution by the Chinese government. It began as a Chinese-language newspaper run out of the Georgia basement of John Tang, a graduate student and Falun Gong practitioner.

By 2004, The Epoch Times had expanded into English. One of the paper’s early hires was Genevieve Belmaker, then a 27-year-old Falun Gong practitioner with little journalism experience. Ms. Belmaker, now 43, described the early Epoch Times as a cross between a scrappy media start-up and a zealous church bulletin, with a staff composed mostly of unpaid volunteers drawn from the local Falun Gong chapters.

“The mission-driven part of it was, let’s have a media outlet that not only tells the truth about Falun Gong but about everything,” Ms. Belmaker said.

Credit…Henry Abrams/Agence France-Presse, via Getty Images

Mr. Li, Falun Gong’s founder, also saw it that way. In speeches, he referred to The Epoch Times and other Falun Gong-linked outlets — including the New Tang Dynasty TV station, or NTD — as “our media,” and said they could help publicize Falun Gong’s story and values around the world.

Two former employees recalled that the paper’s top editors had traveled to Dragon Springs to meet with Mr. Li. One employee who attended a meeting said Mr. Li had weighed in on editorial and strategic decisions, acting as a kind of shadow publisher. The Epoch Times denied these accounts, saying in a statement, “There has been no such meeting.”

The line between The Epoch Times and Falun Gong is blurry at times. Two former Epoch Times reporters said they had been asked to write flattering profiles of foreign performers being recruited into Shen Yun, the heavily advertised dance performance series that Falun Gong backs, because it would strengthen those performers’ visa applications. Another former Epoch Times reporter recalled being assigned to write critical articles about politicians including John Liu, a Taiwanese-American former New York City councilman whom the group viewed as soft on China and hostile to Falun Gong.

These articles helped Falun Gong advance its goals, but they lured few subscribers.

Matthew K. Tullar, a former sales director for The Epoch Times’s Orange County edition in New York, wrote on his LinkedIn page that his team initially “printed 800 papers each week, had no subscribers, and utilized a ‘throw it in their driveway for free’ marketing strategy.” Mr. Tullar did not respond to requests for comment.

Ms. Belmaker, who left the paper in 2017, described it as a bare-bones operation that was always searching for new moneymaking ventures.

“It was very short-term thinking,” she said. “We weren’t looking more than three weeks down the road.”

By 2014, The Epoch Times was edging closer to Mr. Li’s vision of a respectable news outlet. Subscriptions were growing, the paper’s reporting was winning journalism awards, and its finances were stabilizing.

“There was all this optimism that things were going to level up,” Ms. Belmaker said.

But at a staff meeting in 2015, leadership announced that the publication was in trouble again, Ms. Belmaker recalled. Facebook had changed its algorithm for determining which articles appeared in users’ newsfeeds, and The Epoch Times’s traffic and ad revenue were suffering.

In response, the publication assigned reporters to churn out as many as five posts a day in a search for viral hits, often lowbrow fare with titles like “Grizzly Bear Does Belly Flop Into a Swimming Pool.”

“It was a competition for traffic,” Ms. Belmaker said.

Credit…Kyle Johnson for The New York Times

As the 2016 election neared, reporters noticed that the paper’s political coverage took on a more partisan tone.

Steve Klett, who covered the 2016 campaign for the paper, said his editors had encouraged favorable coverage about Mr. Trump after he won the Republican nomination.

“They seemed to have this almost messianic way of viewing Trump as the anti-Communist leader who would bring about the end of the Chinese Communist Party,” Mr. Klett said.

After Mr. Trump’s victory, The Epoch Times hired Brendan Steinhauser, a well-connected Tea Party strategist, to help make inroads with conservatives. Mr. Steinhauser said the organization’s goal, beyond raising its profile in Washington, had been to make Falun Gong’s persecution a Trump administration priority.

“They wanted more people in Washington to be aware of how the Chinese Communist Party operates, and what it has done to spiritual and ethnic minorities,” Mr. Steinhauser said.

Behind the scenes, The Epoch Times was also developing a secret weapon: a Facebook growth strategy that would ultimately help take its message to millions.

According to emails reviewed by The Times, the Facebook plan was developed by Trung Vu, the former head of The Epoch Times’s Vietnamese edition, known as Dai Ky Nguyen, or DKN.

In Vietnam, Mr. Trung’s strategy involved filling a network of Facebook pages with viral videos and pro-Trump propaganda, some of it lifted word for word from other sites, and using automated software, or bots, to generate fake likes and shares, a former DKN employee said. Employees used fake accounts to run the pages, a practice that violated Facebook’s rules but that Mr. Trung said was necessary to protect employees from Chinese surveillance, the former employee said.

Mr. Trung did not respond to requests for comment.

According to the 2017 email sent to Epoch Times workers in America, the Vietnamese experiment was a “remarkable success” that made DKN one of the largest publishers in Vietnam.

The outlet, the email claimed, was “having a profound impact on saving sentient beings in that country.”

The Vietnamese team was asked to help Epoch Media Group — the umbrella organization for Falun Gong’s biggest U.S. media properties — set up its own Facebook empire, according to that email. That year, dozens of new Facebook pages appeared, all linked to The Epoch Times and its affiliates. Some were explicitly partisan, others positioned themselves as sources of real and unbiased news, and a few, like a humor page called “Funniest Family Moments,” were disconnected from news entirely.

Perhaps the most audacious experiment was a new right-wing politics site called America Daily.

Today, the site, which has more than a million Facebook followers, peddles far-right misinformation. It has posted anti-vaccine screeds, an article falsely claiming that Bill Gates and other elites are “directing” the Covid-19 pandemic and allegations about a “Jewish mob” that controls the world.

Emails obtained by The Times show that John Nania, a longtime Epoch Times editor, was involved in starting America Daily, along with executives from Sound of Hope, a Falun Gong-affiliated radio network. Records on Facebook show that the page is operated by the Sound of Hope Network, and a pinned post on its Facebook page contains a promotional video for Falun Gong.

In a statement, The Epoch Times said it had “no business relationship” with America Daily.

Many of the Facebook pages operated by The Epoch Times and its affiliates followed a similar trajectory. They began by posting viral videos and uplifting news articles aggregated from other sites. They grew quickly, sometimes adding hundreds of thousands of followers a week. Then, they were used to steer people to buy Epoch Times subscriptions and promote more partisan content.

Several of the pages gained significant followings “seemingly overnight,” said Renee DiResta, a disinformation researcher with the Stanford Internet Observatory. Many posts were shared thousands of times but received almost no comments — a ratio, Ms. DiResta said, that is typical of pages that have been boosted by “click farms,” firms that generate fake traffic by paying people to click on certain links over and over again.

The Epoch Times denies using click farms or other illicit tactics to expand its pages. “The Epoch Times’s social media strategies were different from DKN, and used Facebook’s own promotional tools to gain an increased organic following,” the outlet said, adding that The Epoch Times cut ties with Mr. Trung in 2018.

But last year, The Epoch Times was barred from advertising on Facebook — where it had spent more than $1.5 million over seven months — after the social network announced that the outlet’s pages had evaded its transparency requirements by disguising its ad purchases.

This year, Facebook took down more than 500 pages and accounts linked to Truth Media, a network of anti-China pages that had been using fake accounts to amplify their messages. The Epoch Times denied any involvement, but Facebook’s investigators said Truth Media “showed some links to on-platform activity by Epoch Media Group and NTD.”

“We’ve taken enforcement actions against Epoch Media and related groups several times,” said a Facebook spokeswoman, who added that the social network would punish the outlet if it violated more rules in the future.

Since being barred from advertising on Facebook, The Epoch Times has moved much of its operation to YouTube, where it has spent more than $1.8 million on ads since May 2018, according to Google’s public database of political advertising.

Where the paper’s money comes from is something of a mystery. Former employees said they had been told that The Epoch Times was financed by a combination of subscriptions, ads and donations from wealthy Falun Gong practitioners. In 2018, the most recent year for which the organization’s tax returns are publicly available, The Epoch Times Association received several sizable donations, but none big enough to pay for a multimillion-dollar ad blitz.

Mr. Bannon is among those who have noticed The Epoch Times’s deep pockets. Last year, he produced a documentary about China with NTD. When he talked with the outlet about other projects, he said, money never seemed to be an issue.

“I’d give them a number,” Mr. Bannon said. “And they’d come back and say, ‘We’re good for that number.’”

The Epoch Times’s pro-Trump turn has upset some former employees, like Ms. Belmaker.

Ms. Belmaker, now a freelance writer and editor, still believes in many of Falun Gong’s teachings, she said. But she has grown disenchanted with The Epoch Times, which she sees as running contrary to Falun Gong’s core principles of truth, compassion and tolerance.

“The moral objective is gone,” she said. “They’re on the wrong side of history, and I don’t think they care.”

Recently, The Epoch Times has shifted its focus to the coronavirus. It pounced on China’s missteps in the early days of the pandemic, and its reporters wrote about misreported virus statistics and Chinese influence in the World Health Organization.

Some of these articles were true. But others pushed exaggerated or false claims, like the unproven theory that the virus was engineered in a lab as part of a Chinese biological warfare strategy.

Some of the claims were repeated in a documentary that both NTD and The Epoch Times posted on YouTube, where it has been viewed more than five million times. The documentary features the discredited virologist Judy Mikovits, who also starred in the viral “Plandemic” video, which Facebook, YouTube and other social platforms pulled this year for spreading false claims.

The Epoch Times said, “In our documentary we offered a range of evidence and viewpoints without drawing any conclusions.”

Ms. Belmaker, who still keeps a photo of Master Li on a shelf in her house, said she recoiled whenever an ad for The Epoch Times popped up on YouTube promoting some new partisan talking point.

One recent video, “Digging Beneath Narratives,” is a two-minute infomercial about China’s mishandling of the coronavirus. The ad’s host says The Epoch Times has an “underground network of sources” in China providing information about the government’s response to the virus.

It’s a plausible claim, but the video’s host makes no mention of The Epoch Times’s ties to Falun Gong, or its two-decade-long campaign against Chinese communism, saying only that the paper is “giving you an accurate picture of what’s happening in this world.”

“We tell it like it is,” he says.

Ben Smith contributed reporting. Jack Begg contributed research.

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