A Community Is Not a Tribe

Seth Godin popularized the term ‘tribe’ as a business analogy in his book, Tribes, we need you to lead us. In the book, he convinces us that in a progressively connected world one needs to find and cultivate a digital tribe, an army of followers. He says “a tribe is any group of people, large or small, who are connected to one another, a leader, and an idea.”

In 2008 he began talking about the importance of companies surrounding themselves with tribe members and building tribes to connect with their followers. He says having a tribe is a powerful way to start a digital movement.

I love Godin’s marketing work and teachings, but I feel he went for the wrong word. I started to create digital communities in 2009 and what he spoke about had quite a bit to do with community building. So was tribe building a synonym to community building? It seems that many marketers tend to believe so. In my opinion, they are not even remotely synonymous.

I was wondering if I was the only one convinced that he didn’t go for the right term until I accidentally ran into Alan Weiss’s comment that Godin had “painted himself into a corner” with the use of a wrong term. For those who don’t know, Alan Weiss is one of the most successful consultants worldwide. He has published more than fifty books and worked for some major brands, some of which I am not a fan of, but we have to give him the credit.

It was Michel Maffesoli who first started talking about consumer tribes. In the late 1980’s he published a book called: The Time of the Tribes: The Decline of Individualism in Mass Society. Yep, before the time of the World Wide Web. It should not surprise you, because we humans are social creatures. But, we are complex. It is easy for us to engage in acts of loyalty and cooperation primarily toward our inner circles, but we do so at the expense of people outside those circles. Our behavior is influenced by hormonal processes taking place in our brain. By nature, we seek a place of belonging. We could say that our primal instincts are tribal, but being primal doesn’t mean optimal. This is why I strongly believe there is a better way to build digital worlds, be it around a brand, hobby, interest, profession or a person.

Here is the difference…

Tribes are exclusionary, they have an us vs. them approach. Just try to get a Mac fan to get a PC. In tribes, the members of one side can often sound demeaning and condescending about the other tribe.

Building a digital tribe can bring great success to a brand. Apple is a good example of tribal marketing. But, building a tribe and a community require two very different approaches.

A tribe is focused on their ideal client. Brands who build a tribe craft a character that would appeal to their target audience. They have a very clear idea who fits in their group and who doesn’t. They are happy to have a transactional relationship with an outsider, but this is it. A flaw of creating an exclusionary tribe is that some of the leaders may go too far and push away a large segment of their target audience by over-focusing on exclusion rather than on attracting their perfect customer. A tribe environment is not ideal for social learning as it can often be limited to the beliefs of a single leader.

Communities are all about inclusion.

They are built around common interests, attitudes and goals. Their members can apply different approaches and tools, and are welcome to have opposing opinions. They are more dynamic and allow for experimenting and growth. Online communities are the ideal setup for a learning environment.

A perfect community building formula is a cross between both approaches. This doesn’t make them one and the same thing, it means that we can strategically take what works well from one and implement it into the other.

The fastest growing communities have a bit of us vs. them mentality while being open to new members. Having a highly targeted customer is a requirement for every business striving to deliver positive ROI.

The perfect digital environment is dynamic, and not a reflection of a single leader or brand. The best digital communities out there are shaped by the community members and grown organically. A community of practice is the ultimate way to surround yourself with like-minded people and to learn and progress in your personal or professional life. I apply a mix of tactics inspired by digital tribes, communities of practice and mastermind groups. A community is built by the people and for the people with the help of strategic digital leadership coming from one or more individuals.

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