You Want a Tribe

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According to Seth Godin, a tribe is a group of people that are connected to each other, an idea, and a leader. Tribes are supercharged communities. They are dense networks of people who bond over specific interests or goals. These interests range from the mundane to the most personal and exciting topics. No matter if you’re into a certain line of shampoos, love drag racing, or want to help the homeless, there will be a tribe of people dedicated to that activity somewhere.

What makes them so special? What makes tribes so incredibly attractive for bootstrapped businesses? To flourish, a tribe really only needs the means to communicate and a shared interest. Tribes leverage social media and networks to find a platform and allow their members to provide insights and distribute knowledge specific to their shared interests among the community.

Tribes and You

There are two ways of participating in a tribe. As a member of any tribe, you can be a follower or a leader. Both roles allow you to be involved and benefit from the interconnected nature of tribes in different ways.

To build a tribe around your business, you can step up as a leader, enabling your customers and those who could become customers to connect with each other, while centering it around your product. But even as a follower of the thought leaders inside a tribe, you will benefit from the knowledge and expertise you’ll accumulate. You will learn how people tick, what metaphorical language they speak, and what their needs and desires are. No matter if you lead or follow, being part of a tribe will give you valuable insights.

People have an innate need for connection on every level of their lives. As a business, you can tap into a few of those, but be careful never to exploit them. There is no faster way of losing your customers’ trust than to surprise them with actions that conflict with their understanding of belonging and connection. Don’t go for the quick win. People are extremely sensitive to interactions where they are at risk of being exploited. Even a harmless remark can cause them to be at high alert, and it will be impossible to make a case for whatever you’re selling if your prospect is skeptical of your honesty and reliability. Let people find your service; don’t force it on them. Leave traces by providing valuable content; don’t throw yourself at your niche audience with discounts and savings.

Tribal Network Effects

The network effects in tribal communities are powerful, as people share a large number of commonalities. When you reach out with a question, you can be sure that you will receive an avalanche of responses. They may be very different, as a tribe is not homogenous. But they will all be aimed at accomplishing a shared desire, a common goal. Setting that goal is the job of a leader. Transforming the shared interests of your tribe’s members into a common goal that your product can help accomplish is why marketing works so well in tribes.

A tribe is a grapevine. You will hear about little things quickly, as they cause ripples, which spread quickly through an engaged community. At FeedbackPanda, the teacher tribe would often relay rumors and insider information from within their employers’ internal workgroups and forums. That often allowed us to anticipate changes long before they were implemented. Often, we had weeks to build features and fixes to cope with new Chinese educational legislation that affected the schools where our teachers taught. We often had implemented and deployed our solution before the schools were done with their implementations, even though they typically had hundreds of developers.

The speed with which information travels in tribes served us well when our product experienced problems, either due to performance issues on our end or when our integrations broke. First, any sign of trouble resulted in a noticeable number of messages that showed up on our radar. When individual members started talking about things getting slow, others would chime in and state if they were affected, too. That way, we could quickly gauge if this was a problem that was caused by our systems or a slow internet connection. In any case, tribe members would try and help each other immediately, which decreased the load on our customer service desk.

Another great result of being a part of the online teacher tribe was that our most vocal evangelists were also among the most active members of that community. Whenever something happened, good or bad, they would amplify the message and color it in a way that would serve us. Something good happened, and they would tell their peers how we were constantly improving our product and their lives. Something bad happened, and they would tell their peers that it wouldn’t be a problem for long as we always strived to fix issues quickly and provide as much value as we possibly could. This way, any message that would make its way through the tribe would effectively be positive and shine a favorable light on our business without our involvement.

While there are many tribes already, you can also play a part in creating one. Find people who share the same interests but are disconnected. Facilitate them coming together and freely exchanging information without any coercion or expectations. A tribe evolves slowly, and by guiding people to build a community, you and your business can be an important pillar of a long-term association of like-minded people.

Building a Tribe

It takes time to build a tribe. People don’t trust easily, and they will be skeptical of business leaders engaging them in their communities. Many communities have experienced opportunistic advertisers coming in and trying to sell them their products. As a consequence, almost all of those communities have adopted policies that may look overprotective and overly cautious, but they are the hard-learned lessons of keeping the community from being spammed and falling into disarray.

That’s why it’s crucial to be a genuine contributor first. Don’t rush in, expecting that people will crown you as their leader within days. It often takes a long time to establish a reputation of a trusted and valued member of a tribe.

Play the long game here. Better yet, don’t play any game at all: be in it for the people, not for the money. Even if your business should fail, you will still be in an excellent spot to try something else as a leader of a tribe of passionate people centered around an idea.

A tribe is a commitment beyond your business. It’s a community of people who look beyond products and services. Even if you manage to sell your product to lots of tribe members, their overarching interest is still bigger than your product. Understand that you’re in this for a long time, and act accordingly. A good tribe will be a fertile ground for your ideas and offerings for a long time, so you may as well get comfortable and take part in growing and stabilizing your community.

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