So what are digital or business tribes? Is a tribe even a thing?
Well, yes. Chuck Aikens has stated that “[b]rands who want to really establish a hold in their industry or niche know they need to tap into the power of tribes”. In his article What is a tribe and why does it matter for digital marketing? the author states that companies are spending a lot of time, money, and effort building tribes of loyal tribe members, alluding to the fact that the concept of the tribe is starting to emerge into the mainstream.
As for what a tribe is, the eminent Seth Goden defines a tribe as “… a group of people connected to one another, connected to a leader, and connected to an idea. For millions of years, human beings have been part of one tribe or another. A group needs only two things to be a tribe: a shared interest and a way to communicate.”
On Wikipedia, a (digital) tribe is defined as “… unofficial community or organization of people who share a common interest, and usually who are loosely affiliated with each other through social media or other Internet mechanisms”.
The Components of a Tribe
According to the abovementioned definitions, a tribe requires three things;
- mutual connections
- a leader
- an idea
Sounds good. So, let’s explore each a little more in-depth.
Tribe Requirement 1: A Mutual Connection
In both definitions of a tribe, the idea of a community or group that shares a common interest comes to the fore. the commonality shared by the tribe members engenders a sense of belonging and gives them an affinity with others in their group – even if they have never met them. This apparent paradox can be illustrated through the affinity many feel towards others from their hometown or our alma mater, even if they never knew who they were.
I, like many people, list my school, university, and military unit on (some of) my social profiles precisely because they were communities or oganizations that I belonged to during different times in my life. And if someone who belonged to any of those was to reach out to me, I would be more receptive to them than I would to a complete stranger – even though I know nothing about them.
Objectively, they are as unfamiliar to me as a random person I pass on the street and all I know about them is that for a time we followed the same rules, walked the same corridors, or wore the same uniform. But that is enough to change my perception so that I feel we shared an experience.
However, although these communities exhibit a strong sense of belonging that encourages mutual connection, I wouldn’t call them a tribe, as they lack a leader around which the tribe is centered.
In the Internet age, the mutual connection becomes crucial to the existence of a tribe. This connection is almost always online nowadays.
Tribes tend to have their own “campfire” – an online platform such as Twitter or Facebook – where they meet and interact with one another, encouraging one or more of the following tribal activities;
Tribe Requirement 2: A Leader
According to Seth Godin, a tribe has a leader, a person who draws followed towards them as a result of their achievements and exploits and whose presence at the head of the tribe is fundamental to its existence. They “are” the tribe. A tribe requires a tribe leader, as this – as well as the ability of the tribe members to communicate with one another – is what sets a tribe apart from a crowd.
All we have to do is look back through history to see how every successful tribe was led by a strong and wise king or chieftain. On that score, not much has changed. Most people feel a desire to be led and a tribe usually forms around a person – initially, at least.
A tribe leader is usually a charismatic person who is good at getting things done. They are confident, knowledgable, and perhaps a little manic. The rest of the tribe follow the leader because they are confident in the latter’s ability to inspire and guide them. They feel that their following the tribe leader will result is some benefit for themselves.
Modern tribes have sprung up around a host of thought leaders and celebrities. Large scale success in the public domain is pretty much dependent on building a tribe of followers, and most popular social media platforms have at their cores the ability for people to follow trendsetters and influencers in order to help them build their following.
While Seth Godin stresses the importance of the tribe leaders, others maintain that this is not so. Chuck Aikens maintains that a tribe can be built around a brand, doing away with the need for a leader. Others also maintain that a tribe leader is not essential for the formation of a tribe. So, can a tribe exist without a leader?
Yes. Take Apple, for example. Sure, it was originally a Godin-esque tribe when led by Steve Jobs, but since his passing, brand loyalty remains strong even in the absence of a recognizable tribe leader. Is it still a tribe? Yes, because of brand ambassadors.
Ambassadors advocate for the brand and have enough social capital that others will follow them. As such, they become the leader(s) of the tribe, even if they are not fulfilling the role of tribe leader in the traditional sense. In the case of Apple, we see brand ambassadors everywhere – on social media, in the press, and in entertainment. Many of them are unconsciously acting as brand ambassadors.
These brand ambassadors, as a group, are surrogates for a single tribe leader, but have a similar effect. They provide someone that tribe members can follow. Seen this way, a brand with active brand ambassadors can indeed create an effective tribe.
Tribe Requirement 3: Ideas
A tribe needs ideas to fuel it. Usually, a tribe leader would inspire their tribe through ideas – the more insightful, the more the tribe will grow. The ideas that power the tribe may be teachings or insights that help, inspire, and motivate the tribe members. The ideas are why the tribe members have joined the tribe. It is the knowledge they hope to glean from the tribe leader, the tips, tricks, and hacks that will give them an advantage in their own lives.
However, in the modern digital tribe each member is able to influence others in the tribe. Everyone has a voice and a platform and influential tribe members will rise up to take the place of ambassadors in brand tribes. Other tribe members will listen to their opinions and will follow them as well. Through blogs and video platforms like Youtube, tribal thought leaders can influence other members and become influential within their tribe. The following of each of these through leaders within the tribe, has been termed a “clan”.
An interesting phenomenon, revealed by Dr. John Bryden, is that some (larger and more active) digital tribes develop their own set of unique terms and, according to Professor Vincent Jansen from Royal Holloway, start spelling existing words in a unique way.
Tribes, Networks, Communities, and Fandoms; What’s the Difference
You may be thinking that a tribe is just like a society or an online community, so lets take a look at the difference between tribes and other types of associations.
- Tribe vs. Network – A network is a set of mutually beneficial relationships between a person and others for the purpose of helping one another to achieve success, whatever form that may take. Unlike a tribe that is orientated around a core idea or person, a network is a latticework of interconnected personal relationships.
- Tribe vs. Communities – A community (including groups, societies, and other types of association) is orientated around an interest, motivation, or aspiration common to all members. However, a community generally has no leader who endows the community with life and inspires and motivates those within it. Affinity with the tribe identity is also far stronger in tribe members than that found in communities.
- Tribe vs. Fandom – A fandom is a community of people who follow a particular celebrity. Unlike a tribe, however, there is nothing beyond the dedication to the person or group being followed. There is little mutual connection between followers or promulgation of ideas to help or inspire them, as there is in a tribe. Due to the fact that many people use the term “tribe” very loosely, fandoms are often referred to as tribes, even though there is a marked difference.
A tribe quite clearly occupies a unique place among the various types of affiliations, taking the best attributes from other associations and amalgamating them into an entity with a high degree of social stickiness through the idolization of the tribe leader or brand, the sense of community with fellow tribe members and the affinity with the tribe as an entity in itself. Tribes offer incredible benefits to anyone able to successfully start one.
The Benefits of Starting a Tribe
Starting a tribe can lead to tremendous benefits, both socially and financially. These can include the following;
- A captive market – Just ask thought leaders and icons like Gary Vaynerchuk, Joe Rogan, and BTS and you’ll see that having a tribe means you have the attention of a huge number of people who are willing to support you financially by buying whatever it is you have to offer.
- Influence – Being a tribe leader means that you are able to influence the opinions of your tribe, which can present you with a lot of potential power. This translates into having an impact upon the views and opinions of your followers, but just as importantly, being considered a thought leader and influencer by those outside your tribe.
- Access to opportunities – As a thought leader and celebrity, you will be offered opportunities beyond the reach of mere “mortals”. This will include business as well as social opportunities, including special deals on goods and services, introductions to other influencers, access to places off-limits to normal folk, and more.
- A new circle of friends – As a tribe leader, you will find yourself mixing more and more with other thought leaders and celebrities at events you are invited to, and at the places you will most probably start to frequent. It is inevitable that this may lead to new acquaintances and even friendships with some of your new peers as you take your place in their world.
Tribes and Branding
As stated, tribes can be a great way to establish or consolidate your brand. However, there is a right and wrong way to do this.
According to entrepreneur.com, your brand is “… your promise to your customer. It tells them what they can expect from your products and services, and it differentiates your offering from that of your competitors. Your brand is derived from who you are, who you want to be and who people perceive you to be.”
I mentioned above that as a tribe leader, you have the luxury of a “captive market”; potential customers and brand advocates in your tribe who want to learn more about what you do and what you offer.
Starting and Building a Tribe
Now that we know what a tribe is and what its components are, the big question is how can you build a tribe of your own?
Have Something to Say
You have to have something to say, something that others want to hear. Perhaps you have a lot of knowledge and/or experience about a particular topic or you have thought-provoking insights worthy of sharing. You will notice that most of the larger and most active tribes follow a person, group, or company with a distinctive message.
Give Your Tribe an Identity
Successful tribes have an identity. BTS (the K-Pop dance group) have named their tribe “A.R.M.Y” and have engendered the loyalty of millions of (particularly) young women around the globe that goes beyond fandom.
Other brands like Harley-Davidson leverage their relationships with the members of HOG (Harley Owners’ Group) and engage with them regularly at events they host.
The Star Trek phenomenon is another great example of a vibrant tribe that reaches beyond the limitations of fandom or community. Their followers, called “Trekkies”, are able to share their passion for the longstanding movie and television franchise with a loyalty that has stood the test of time.
Find Brand Ambassadors
I have already alluded to the power of advocacy through brand ambassadors in reference to the article by Chuck Aikens, above. Finding passionate brand ambassadors can be a challenge, and you may need to make promoting your brand “worth their while”, but each brand ambassador will have their own following, a following that should have a substantial interest in your tribe, and which should be introduced to and encouraged to join your tribe.
You must stay in front of your tribe by regularly posting useful online content through various channels. This may involve a substantial investment of time and effort initially but once you have established a routine, you should be able to manage it – especially with affordable and modern scheduling tools.
More than just posting content, it’s important to engage with your tribe in a personal, one-on-one, face-to-face manner. This does not mean meeting every tribe member in person but it may involve setting up events and meetups so that those who are interested can meet you in person.
A tribe leader must stay relevant by both demonstrating that you are attuned to events that are transpiring while also embracing technological trends to maximize your reach. You can do this through your engagements (introduced in the previous point). This does not mean regurgitating whatever is in the news, but rather illustrating that you understand how developments in politics and the economy may impact the lives of your tribe.
Events like the spread of COVID-19 and the resulting downturn in the economy would be the kind of thing that should color your interactions with your tribe. You want to address the fears and concerns your tribe members may have through the lens of such world-shaking events. However, if your tribe is dedicated to online marketing, for example, you needn’t get bogged down in the events that led up to the Syrian War.
This is a personal choice, but one caveat I have is to keep religion and religion out out of your conversations with your tribe – unless you lead a tribe dedicated to onw or both of those topics. Both of these issues have become exceedingly divisive and bringing them up could alienate a large portion of your tribe.
Think Outside the Box
It’s essential to dedicate some time to looking around for new and interesting ways to engage and challenge your tribe. This will enhance their loyalty and make you more “shareable”. After all, your followers are there for the experience of following you. This means not just doing the same old tired thing. You should change things up and refresh your image from time-to-time.
Just think of Sir Richard Branson and the risks he took to ensure that he built a following for his brand. In an age before social media and tribes, people supported the Virgin corporation because they had heard about Sir Richard’s exploits. Yes, loyal Virgin customers would not be considered a tribe, per se, but they were part of the antecedent to the modern tribe.
Curious about some ways to keep your relationship with your tribe fresh? Here are a few ideas;
- You can give something away through a contest.
- You could interview people who your tribe would find interesting and who would offer insights they might not be able to gain from you. Modern live streaming platforms make this really easy and fun – and you get immediate feedback from your audience.
- Ask your followers to send you questions and answer them on a live stream or on video. This is a great way to show you as a flesh-and-blood person.
- Create short videos that you shoot during the day to give insights into your life.
- Allow your tribe to make a choice you are faced with. Make sure this is relevant to the tribe and isn’t going to impact you or your tribe in a significant way if it goes awry. Don’t be like the British agency that allowed people on the Internet to choose the name of a brand new polar exploration ship, which then had to be christened “Boaty Mcboatface” because that was the name that got the most votes online.
- Talk to your tribe and find out what ideas they have for making the tribe better.
Engagement is key to building a tribe effectively. The members must feel that they are part of the tribe for it to be a cohesive, vibrant community.
Tribes are similar to association and fandoms, requiring a mutual connection between members and a flow of ideas to exist. They are also usually orientated around a person or brand, although this is not essential. Tribes can be powerful vehicles that increase brand loyalty if the members of the tribe feel that they are part of the community and have a stake in it. However, although many companies have tried to create their own tribes, few have found success.