We have belonged to tribes since the beginning of time. Stories have been told and leaders created around the campfire, to provide one of man’s most basic needs: a sense of belonging, meaning and development. The foundation of the tribe has been a common interest and way of communicating with each other. Against this background, not so much has happened – our basic needs are the same as they were a thousand years ago. But the conditions have changed. As the American sociologist Robert Putnam has pointed out in his studies, tribes are no longer tied to geography, family, friends or neighbors.1 The way that we establish tribes has moved out onto the Internet and to social media, where anyone can create a movement and ride on the tribalization trend. In a digital tribe, like-minded people are brought together and create an affiliation that strengthens their identity and wellbeing.
A tribe is a group of people connected to one another, connected to a leader, and connected to an idea. | Seth Godin, American entrepreneur and writer
The marketing guru Seth Godin believes that there are now tribes everywhere, with members that all hunger to belong, for meaning and for change.2 They share a common passion for an issue, a product, a company, a vision or an area of interest. With the development of social media, this trend has grown at a tremendous pace. We see the emergence of different interest groups everywhere, that are connected to each other, share an idea and often have a shared leader. The groups in the digital world are more fluid, or actually temporary. They come and go, while some remain.
This trend has become evident at the workplace. Younger generations are no longer defined by their professions the way that previous generations were. Since the end of the 1980s, recreation has surpassed work as a source of meaning in life, and more and more people see their lifestyles as the foundation of their identities.3 A lifestyle can be expressed by, for example, our defining ourselves as mountain climbers, gamers, entrepreneurs, dog enthusiasts or globetrotters.
This may seem contradictory given that young people are often described as very “me” focused. Several studies have shown that the younger generation is extremely individualistic, where focus has moved from the group to the individual and collective values have been replaced by individual ones. But one must remember that individuality to a large degree is about external attributes. Sticking out is a way of belonging together. The young become, in this way, just as much “we” focused. They want to belong to a flock, even if the flocks today are new.
In an increasingly connected and complex world where we are flooded with information, we want to belong to communities that we can understand better and feel that we belong to. We create digital tribes with common interests, codes and expressions that connect us. And it is the tribe that we listen to. It can be represented by friends, bloggers, vloggers, celebrities, Internet friends and experts. Or colleagues, friends from the soccer team, or book-club members. In many cases the group is defined by the people that behave as role models and sponsors when we are about to make decisions and orient ourselves. The tribes can be comprised of people who know each other, but often it is just a common interest that connects group members.
On Facebook alone, there are thousands of interest groups, and anyone can create a group. Here we find tons of groups of geographically-dispersed people that share common interests: the same political views, raw-beef enthusiasts, soccer enthusiasts that love or hate Barcelona F.C., not to mention the 5.5 million Bruce Springsteen fans. If you are interested in shopping with Bitcoins you can of course join the group “Bitcoin users,” which has over 300,000 members. The interest groups are infinite and sometimes unimaginable. The British journalist and writer George Pendle was so fascinated by the quantity of different wall-to-wall carpets in airports that in 2009 he started a website for everyone who shared his special interest.4 After that, interest spread. The wall-to-wall carpeting in the Portland USA airport alone has 13,000 fans on Facebook. The explosion of niched sub-groups is enormous.
The tribalization trend has become so strong that it cannot be ignored today. For the interested, there are many possibilities to build your own tribe on the net, where potential customers, existing customers, suppliers and experts can get in touch and discuss a subject that interests them. Harley Davidson successfully connected all devoted motorcyclists under one digital platform long ago. The car manufacturer Tesla, the game manufacturer PlayStation, and the computer manufacturer Apple have all done the same. In this way they can maintain a close relationship to their fans while at the same time enabling members of the tribe to discuss common interests. These types of tribes can be built in all disciplines where there is an interest, regardless of whether you sell real estate, robots, IT solutions, consulting services, credit solutions or skilled services. In practice, creativity is the only thing limiting you.
Eventually we should count on this being a norm that we will have to follow when we establish the organizations of the future. The Canadian futurist Marchhall McLuhan’s expression, “the global village” is a fact today – digitalization makes the world shrink back to small villages again. To a large degree, the young build their own tribes in social media, with followers and subscribers – often with a global reach. In the new form of marketing and sales, it will not be about printing a message for different individuals or target groups, but about inspiring a given tribe. It will not be about making advertising for someone, but with someone. Eagerness to get attention has been replaced with capturing engagement. For a modern sales organization this means that we must understand which tribes we want to influence, who their leaders are, and which ideas and knowledge we want to promote.
1 Putnam, R. (2001) Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community. New York: Touchstone Books.
2 Seth Godin, Tribes – we need you to lead us, 2008.
3 Källa: FSI. Frågan började ställas 1982. År 1987 hade andelen som ansåg att fritiden är viktigare för att ge livet mening blivit större än andelen som anser att arbetet är viktigare. Skillnaden har sedan dess ökat och vid 2006 års mätning uppmättes den största skillnaden.