leveraging tribes and network effects to build businesses

Richard Parker
Richard Parker
July 28 . 2min read

We’ve been thinking a fair bit recently about how to recruit new customers to a brand. Not maintaining or marginally increasing market share for established players, but genuinely launching (or relaunching) a business to a new group of consumers to drive long-term brand growth. And doing it without the media budget that perceived wisdom says is necessary to do such a thing.

There are obviously a number of playbooks in place for this kind of thing. But the thing that we’ve really been playing with is the idea of launching a business by leveraging community growth networks. AKA Tribes.

This thinking is not new. As long ago as the early noughties, this paper in the European Journal of Marketing put forward the theory that ‘proximate communities are more effective and influential on people’s behaviour than marketing institutions’. In 2008, Seth Godin’s book ‘Tribes’ conflated this view with the power of the internet to enable formation of tribes across distance. But it was a study published in 2014 that really grabbed us.

Trendwatching – an organisation dedicated to monitoring consumer-driven trends and interpreting them to help drive innovation – published a study on ‘Post-demographic consumerism’.

The basic premise is that tribes come about when people identify as a group based on common collective behaviours and interests rather than demographics. And that as a result demographic targeting isn’t really the best way to market to consumers – that in fact we may be better off addressing tribes rather than ‘segments’.

The basic premise is that tribes come about when people identify as a group based on common collective behaviours and interests rather than demographics. And that as a result demographic targeting isn’t really the best way to market to consumers.

This might all sound like the kind of marketing mumbo-jumbo that the likes of Ritson and Sharp pooh-pooh, but when you need to build a business fast; need to balance your customer acquisition cost (CAC) vs their lifetime value to the business (LTV); and you don’t have massive marketing budgets it starts to warrant deeper investigation.

And deeper investigation unearths the simple fact that tribes are in fact networks.

There are a couple of things common to networks. One is that networks like to share within the network. The second is that networks cluster and overlap.

So, if you can identify core truths about your brand/product/business, and you can identify the tribes that will value those truths, you have a ready made system for the distribution of brand stories. If you then go out of your way to contribute to that tribe – to give them something they need – you create the story for them to distribute. And if you do this across multiple overlapping networks you create scale. The network effect.

Of course this doesn’t mean you don’t need media spend. It doesn’t mean you don’t advertise. It’s not an either/or, black/white situation. But it does mean you might need to spend a little less.

One of the best examples of this is Patagonia, a brand that has tapped into multiple overlapping outdoors/adventure sports tribes as well as the gigantic overlapping sustainable living tribe to build a brand that appeals with authenticity both within its core audience and well beyond it. It’s a brand that gives something to the tribes it serves, in terms of lobbying and financial support, entertainment, and the products themselves.

So maybe next time you’re planning a campaign designed to recruit new consumers to your brand, instead of starting with demographics and addressable audiences, you should think first about tribes and network effects. The result might be transformational.

Image credit: @kimsondoan

Richard Parker

Richard Parker
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