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Tribal Marketing

  |  October 16, 2008   |  Comments

Get familiar with the concept of "tribes" as they relate to online advertising. You're going to be hearing a lot about them for a while.

Like the tribes of like-minded people who pepper the history books, modern-day consumers are linked to one another by common interests and ideas. A tribe might be connected by a shared dedication to fitness -- like that which powered the Chicago Marathon this past weekend -- or by a devotion to a particular brand (Mac addicts, you know who you are). Online, tribes can be found on social networks, message boards, forums, and any other platform that facilitates conversation and communication surrounding a topic, product, pastime, lifestyle, or belief.

Tribes have been in the news of late, thanks in part to press surrounding MTV Networks' formation of a series of vertical ad networks, each of which -- you guessed it -- will be called a tribe. Networks will include established MTV sites, along with handpicked third-party publishers that focus on specific, audience-relevant content, such as music, movies, and gaming. In this case, MTV is using the tribe concept as a way to categorize content channels, along with the Internet users they attract.

This week, Active Marketing Group and fitness and sports community Active.com hosted a Chicago event called "The Tribe Phenomenon." It explored "the values and power of the modern day tribe leader" with regard to individual and team sports tribes and, most important, how marketers can leverage this peer-to-peer influence with brand programs and innovative campaigns.

This month also marks the release of Seth Godin's newest tome, "Tribes: We Need You to Lead Us." According to Godin's blog, one of his views on Internet tribes is that they're exclusive. He even launched an online effort to form a private social network for marketers and other "leaders" to prove his point.

Whatever your take on tribes, they're an intriguing concept for media strategists, buyers, and planners. Our mandate is always to locate and connect with consumer groups online, whether our search is based on demographic, geographic, and psychographic data; behavior; or content interests. But tribes are about more than just targeting. At their core is a powerful passion for something -- a passion that every brand marketer wishes could be effectively transferred to his or her own products.

With an understanding of how tribes work, it can be.

Show Some Respect

When viewed as groups of like-minded people, tribes don't differ much from the audience segments we've all dealt with in the past, particularly those that demonstrate a high propensity to promote their interests and beliefs among their peers through word of mouth. Every segment, like every tribe, has its key influencers who can potentially make or break your brand by manipulating CGM (define) in their favor.

Dealing with tribes, then, is similar to dealing with the target audience of a viral marketing campaign. Give them the freedom to express themselves about your product or brand within the confines of your microsite, blog, game, or video contest. While it involves taking a risk, doing so demonstrates an authentic interest in what the leaders of your target tribe have to say and allows you at least some control over where and how they publicly say it.

A Private Practice

Godin has a point about tribes being exclusive, but they don't all congregate in invitation-only social networks (unless you're looking to reach diplomats and millionaire globetrotters, in which case head directly to Asmallworld). Exclusivity is as much about perception as it is tangible privacy.

Tribes and their leaders like to feel as though they know something others don't. This can manifest itself in an evolved language, like "dd" and "dh" being used on message boards for moms to denote "darling daughter" and "darling husband", or in a deep expertise of their object of affection, like that displayed on HBO's "Entourage" Wiki. Effectively connecting with the consumers that constitute these tribes means understanding how they perceive their exclusivity and translating your marketing message into terms they can relate to.

Call "tribe" the buzzword of the moment, but the concept relates directly to any social and viral marketing campaigns you have coming down the pipe. Indulging it can foster a deeper connection with your target audience and infuse your campaign with greater tribal meaning.

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Tessa Wegert

Tessa Wegert is a business reporter and former media strategist specializing in digital. In addition to writing for ClickZ since 2002, she has contributed to such publications as USA Today, Marketing Magazine, Mashable, and The Globe and Mail. Tessa manages marketing and communications for Enlighten, one of the first full-service digital marketing strategy agencies servicing such brands as Bioré, Food Network, illy, and Hunter Douglas. She has been working in online media since 1999.

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