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Tribes: From Shared Interest to Change


TribesSeth Godin is a marketer and a communicator. His stream of valuable ideas about 21st century marketing is something we’ve written about before. And we’ve featured his idea of Permission Marketing in a previous Big Ideas article. But perhaps the most resonant of his ideas is that of Tribes. This is the idea that marketers need to lead change. And we do that by building a coalition of the willing: a tribe of like-minded people who share our vision.

What I like best about Godin’s idea of Tribes is that it works well on two totally different levels. And different managers in our readership will find greatest resonance in one or the other. The idea of tribes can be about:

  • leading change to build a better future
  • creating demand for a new product, idea, or service

So, Tribes is a big idea about change leadership or about marketing… or maybe about both.

Why Do We Have Tribes?

Here’s a simple, profound, and familiar fact. Human beings have a deep need to belong. You don’t need to be an acolyte of Maslow to know that relationships and belonging are a core motivator for us. The exceptions we sometimes meet strike us as strange in some way.

And much advertising since its earliest days plays on our desire to fit in. ‘Buy this product and fit in with the people you’d like us to associate you with.’

So, perhaps it’s not a big leap to start the marketing process with the coherent groups we might want to be part of. These are Tribes.

Tribes are groups of people that are connected to one another or to a leader, and are also connected to an idea the members all believe in.

Tribes need two things:

  1. A shared interest 
  2. A way to communicate

Why are Tribes Important Now?

Tribes have become particularly important now, for two reasons

1. Mass Marketing is Expensive

The old marketing paradigm of mass mailings doesn’t work as well as it used to. And blanket advertising on our televisions and radios reaches smaller numbers than ever before, thanks to the fragmentation of viewing and listening habits.

But the big problem is cost. Start-ups and niche businesses cannot afford to compete with global brands. So, how can they market their products?

They want to make a change. And the way they can do this is by leading. Instead of pushing an ‘average’ idea that is designed to have wide appeal, onto the masses of people who are not prepared to optimise their choice of product, insurgents need something new.

They articulate a niche idea and find the people for whom it resonates. They find a tribe that wants it and they lead a change.

2. Global is the new local

If a tribe shares an interest and can communicate easily amongst themselves, then it’s little wonder what tribes used to look like.

They used to be small and local. Often extended families that lived and traveled together. In early modern times, they could travel miles, tens of miles, or even further to gather. That took a huge commitment, but it was possible.

But the internet has changed everything here.

Now, communication via the internet allows for global communication and therefore, global tribes. A very narrow interest can be shared by hundreds of thousands globally. What may once have engaged 3 people in a village of 1,000, can engage tens of millions across the world.

The internet has allowed silos of narrow interest to thrive, by connecting huge tribes and making it easy to share their passion. We now have the tools that make it easier than ever to create a tribe

What are Tribes?

Anyone can start a movement. You can share an idea and encourage others to spread it. This can be marketing for a product or service, or it can be organisational or societal change. Just stand up and say ‘this is what I believe.’ Then, organise around your new, audacious, heretical, idea.

Tribes can create change

Once you engage a few more people who share your passion, they will want to connect with more people still, and thus spread your idea. They will do so, because they have faith in:

  • the idea, and 
  • their community

Definition of a Tribe

In his book, ‘Tribes: We Need You to Lead Us’ (US|UK), Seth Godin describes a Tribe as:

‘A tribe is a group of people connected to one another, connected to a leader, and connected to an idea.’

How to Build a Tribe

Tribes need a leader. The leader needs to:

  • lead: articulate their idea with passion
  • connect to other like-minded souls
  • create a marker of membership (a shibboleth)
  • commit to the cause and to the tribe they are building
  • challenge and upset the status quo, to stimulate change

And Godin asserts that a leader who is generous and authentic will always beat a selfish leader who is in it for their own reasons. His message is for marketers. Be generous, be authentic. But it’s equally true if you are leading organisational change. And, likewise, it’s true for political change leaders too.

Strengthening the Tribe

And a leader needs to keep striving to make their tribe more effective. They can do so by:

  • transforming the shared interest into a passionate goal and desire for change
  • providing tools that help members communicate better. A tribe thrives when it communicates better.
  • leveraging the tribe to allow it to connect, gain new members, and grow. Tribes grow when members recruit new members. And that’s how they spread ideas.

The Process Godin Advocates

Godin is strong on big ideas and sound bites. But he is light on practical advice. The closest he gets is a simple four step process:

  1. Tell a story
  2. Connect a tribe
  3. Lead a movement
  4. Make change

What is Your experience of Tribes?

We’d love to hear your experiences, ideas, and questions. Please leave them in the comments below.

To learn more…

Here’s Godin with a TED Talk about Tribes.

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