Leveraging Audience Tribes For Growth

Seth Godin codified the concept of ‘tribes’ in his instrumental 2008 book of the same name. Technology – and specifically the internet – has bred huge societal change as communities have scaled from local to global, whilst simultaneously becoming more fluid and diverse. These communities have coalesced as audience tribes, brought together by the basic human needs for connection and support. Tribes can be ethnic, religious, political, social, or behavioural in nature; where benefits are derived from discussion, consensus, and strength in numbers. Audience tribes are getting bigger, especially in the new digital age where interactions occur over vast space and time through the media, internet, and global communications. But before we consider what tribes are, and more directly how they relate to defining our Target Audience, we must first understand their precursor, crowds.

"A tribe is a group of people connected to one another, connected to a leader, and connected to an idea.”
Seth Godin

What are crowds?

Dictionary.com defines a crowd as “a large number of people or things gathered or considered together…with something in common, responding to a common stimulus, or engaging in any of various forms of collective behaviour.” Often brands and businesses adopt the approach of marketing to the crowd, of communicating to the larger collective. The logic of ‘bigger is better’ certainly appeals, yet it’s simply not an effective strategy if your objective is to stimulate change…real change that wins big markets. With the plethora of communications and media channels that we’re constantly being bombarded by today, we can easily become distracted from where real value lies. For instance, consider the crowd that attends a major sporting event; here you’ll find a variety of constituents – young, old, families, teenagers, workers, professionals, and so on. All are members of the same crowd, but each has vastly different characteristics, needs, and wants. Now would you assume that they’ll each listen and respond to the same message? Crowds are bound by a common location, stimuli or interest, but they lack direction and leadership. They aren’t driven by a central cause…which is where we come to tribes.

What are audience tribes?

Godin defines a crowd as a “tribe without a leader”.[1] The corollary to the crowd is therefore the tribe: a group of people that are connected to one another, an idea, and a leader. Fundamentally, the distinction is that a tribe has a leader who creates a sense of purpose. That leader can be an individual (Martin Luther King or Elvis Presley), an organisation (The Democrat or Republican Parties), or a brand (Nike or Apple). Godin extolls that tribes are better than crowds because they are longer lasting and more powerful. Members connectedness with each other is at least as strong as their connectedness to the leader. Writer Jeff Goins suggests a tribe is small enough to feel personal but large enough to make a difference.” [2] Tribes are good at spreading ideas, motivating people to follow a defined path, and sharing passion.[3]

Gaia Online
Originally founded as ‘go-gaia’ in 2003 by college roommates Derek Liu, Long Vo, and Josh Gainsbrugh, Gaia Online has grown into one of the biggest forum communities in the world with 2,339,703,579 articles posted and 29,701,818 registered users (known as Gaians) as of February 2017.[4] Gaia formed and leads the tribe for English-speaking fans of all things anime and manga. It started out as a small project to create an anime link list with a small community, but Gaia has seen phenomenal growth over the last 13 years through its mixture of customization, role-playing and gamification; all delivered with a team of only 25 employees! Gaia’s success is in providing a platform for the tribe to express their identities and passions; share and discuss their common interests; and learn and discover news and information.

Human evolution has been defined by our precondition to form and exist as tribes. For thousands of years since we emerged from caves, created farms, formed communities, and built cities, we have thrived when we’ve connected and engaged in tribes. They facilitate our basic need for interconnectedness with other human beings; where relationships can offer utility, provide support, help guide you through life, and simply make you happy. Dr. Marie Taillard, L’Oreal Professor of Creativity Marketing at ESCP Europe Business School observes, “A lot of my training is in evolutionary psychology and our forefathers needed to learn from each other in order to survive; in order to find food; in order to protect themselves against dangerous risks in the environment. That is what we are doing now basically – we are learning from each other - where is the best place to find the right food, the right goods? What is going to make us feel warm and protected? And so on.” [5]

As a tribe grows, factions appear and may splinter away to alienate themselves or join new tribes. It’s down to the leader to set the direction and then facilitate ways for the tribe to connect and move forward together. They may lean in or back off, but they do so to support the tribe, to gain and sustain momentum.

How crowds become tribes

There are two conditions that enable a crowd to develop into a tribe:

  • A shared interest
  • A way to communicate

Tribes grow and develop through communication. It provides the connection between members that ultimately determines the strength and effectiveness of the tribe. The greater the member-to-member communication, the tighter the tribe. Godin explains that tribe communication can happen in four directions:

  • Leader to tribe
  • Tribe to leader
  • Tribe member to tribe member
  • Tribe member to outsider

These communications provide the nexus for the exchange of ideas and value throughout the tribe, and ultimately outside to push the boundaries and extend it. Members are expected to actively participate; to initiate and facilitate the communication. In a tribe, it’s difficult to hide in the background and be inactive. A key function for the role of the leader is therefore to provide the mechanisms and tools to facilitate communication between and throughout the tribe. In this way, they tighten cohesion and increase effectiveness of the whole.

audience tribes park run

At 8.45am on October 2nd, 2004, 13 amateur runners congregated in Bushy Park in South-West London to form a tribe and start a revolution. They may not have known it at the time, but the Bushy Park Time Trial would develop into parkrun, a series of free to enter running events organized by volunteers that take place every Saturday morning in fourteen countries worldwide, across five continents.[6] That initial event was organized by Zimbabwean Paul Sinton-Hewitt, an IT worker who ran for the South London Harriers athletics club, who decided to set up a different kind of event after tripping and falling during a run while representing his club that left him with a hernia and torn hamstring, as he recollects, “All of a sudden, you're the person who comes to the club to see your friends while everyone else goes running – and the last thing I wanted to do was sit in the clubhouse, waiting to socialize. I'd been the recipient of lots of people's goodwill, and decided it was time to give back. With parkrun, I could get my mates to come and see me every Saturday, which was selfish – but I could also give something back to the community.” [7] Sinton-Hewitt continues to lead the parkrun tribe and be the driving force behind making parkrun the global phenomenon that it has become. The movement grew from that first event in Bushy Park to a small collection of events called the UK Time Trials and then into parkrun in 2010. Events now take place every week in Australia, Denmark, Ireland, New Zealand, Poland, Russia, South Africa, the United Kingdom, Singapore, the Czech Republic, the United States, Italy and France; parkruns have previously been operated in Zimbabwe and Iceland, and there was also formerly a parkrun at Camp Bastion in Afghanistan operated by parkrun UK. All of this has been facilitated by the parkrun organization who provide the means for runners to discover and enter events; organize the army of volunteers who set-up and marshal each one; and provide the platform for timings and recording every entrant’s results on a weekly basis. parkrun has changed the running landscape for good, drawing in people from way outside traditional athletic groups and providing a good reason for millions to get out of bed on a Saturday morning. According to Sinton-Hewiit, “I think it’s liberating for a lot of people. I started this parkrun because I wanted to do something for my community. For every one of the next 542 events, there has been at least one person who has wanted to do the same – they wanted to do something for their community so they came forward and volunteered. Of course, we make it easy for them, but ostensibly, their actions are the same as mine and what happens is, people identify with that and they want to join in.” The strength of the parkrun tribe doesn’t show any sign of slowing; as of February 2017, there have been over 140 thousand parkrun events with 2,056,609 runners, organized by some 244,638 volunteers in 1,070 parks across the globe.[8]

Developing a movement

Leaders are also able to grow the tribe’s efficacy by transforming the shared interest into a commanding goal and consequent drive for change - to create a movement. In a movement people have the ability to interact up, down and sideways; members step up into leadership roles and drive impact where the whole is greater than the sum of the separate parts. According to former US Senator and NBA Hall of Famer Bill Bradley (quoted in Seth Godin's Tribes), a movement has three defining components:

  • A connection between and among the leader and the tribe
  • A narrative that tells a story about who we are and the future we seek to build
  • Something to do

Too often, organizations fail to do any of these but the final component. A movement starts with the ability of the leader to form a bond with and between the tribe members where they feel vested and mobilised to achieve change. The nature of this change is defined by the narrative, the story of the tribe and the vision that they collectively seek. This is then realised through their actions, what they do.

Why > How > What.

audience tribes charity water

charity: water
In August 2004, Scott Harrison left the streets of New York for the shores of West Africa. He’d spent 10 years having the dream job as a nightclub and party promoter in Manhattan, throwing lavish parties for the likes of MTV, VH1, Bacardi and Elle. He describes this as a time when he was “chasing after models,” mingling with the New York City elite and indulging in illicit drugs including cocaine and ecstasy[9], “for the most part living selfishly and arrogantly.” [10] Desperately unhappy, Harrison had a “crisis of conscience” during a vacation in Uruguay at the age of 28.[11] He recalls “I was selling selfishness and decadence,” and felt like “the most selfish, sycophantic and miserable human being…the worst person I knew.” [12] So, faced with spiritual bankruptcy, he quit his job in August 2004 and asked, “what would the opposite of his life look like?” 11 He signed up for voluntary service aboard a floating hospital with a charity called Mercy Ships, a humanitarian organization that offered free medical care in the world’s poorest regions. For the next 13 months, he served as a photojournalist on the Mercy Ship Anastasis in West Africa, taking over 60,000 photos documenting life and human suffering, often through tears.[13] During his two years with Mercy Ships, Harrison was exposed to the harsh conditions of impoverished Liberia; he came to realize that 80% off all the diseases they encountered were attributable to unsafe water and poor sanitation. He therefore determined that the lack of clean water was the biggest obstacle facing the poor and committed to creating a movement to overcome it. On his 31st birthday, 7th September 2006, Harrison founded charity: water with that express aim. In lieu of receiving gifts, he charged his friends $20 each to attend his birthday party at the yet unopened Tenjune nightclub in New York, raising $15,000 which went towards fixing three wells and constructing three more at a refugee camp in Northern Uganda. The idea of donating your birthday has become a key aspect of charity: water’s fundraising, contributing over $9 Million per year with an average $770 raised per birthday campaign, enough to fund clean water for 38 people.[14] charity: water works to bring clean and safe water to people in developing nations by using donations to fund water projects such as building wells and sanitation facilities. They use technology and the internet to track each project and report on progress so that their tribe – their donators – can see exactly where and how the money given is being used. charity: water has funded 21,118 water projects to date providing clean water for 6.4 Million people in 24 countries across Africa, Asia, Central and South America. As of June 2016, Charity Navigator rates the organization among their highest-rated charities, with a full 4 out of 4 stars, and an overall rating of 92.54 out of 100.[15]

Leveraging audience tribes for growth

Godin suggests that the third method for leaders to increase the effectiveness of their tribe is through leveraging the tribe to grow and obtain new members. In fact, he argues that most organisations only concentrate on this goal to the exclusion of providing the tools for communication, or creating the desire for change. The appeal of bigger is better and striving for constant growth belies the fact that the other two goals of leadership are almost always more effective and generate greater impact. It’s up to the leader to know where to focus their, and the tribe’s efforts.

Defining your audience as a tribe

A tribe is the ultimate evolution of your audience. Creating, fostering and leading a tribe enables your brand to have meaning and thereby accomplish great change. It allows you to spread your story by harnessing the power and momentum of the tribe, allowing you to not only market your products and solutions, but to create advocates and evangelists who’ll do it for you. Tribes belong and exist outside of your direct sphere of influence, but their power to drive change is insatiable.


[1] Seth Godin – Tribes: We Need You to Lead Us (Oct 2008)

[2] Jeff Goins, goinswriter.com - 3 Truths About Tribes & Why We Need Them (Aug 2012)

[3] Seth Godin, sethgodin.typepad.com – Tribes Q&A

[4] Gaia Online Forum (Feb 2017)

[5] Neil Davey, MyCustomer.com - Tribal Marketing: How Do You Engage with Customer Tribes? (July 2009)

[6] Andy Waterman, Strava Blog - The parkrun Story – Paul Sinton-Hewitt (Nov 2014)

[7] Genevieve Roberts, The Independent - How parkrun Became a Global Phenomenon: The Free Activity That Has Changed Millions of People's Lives (Dec 2015)

[8] Welcome to parkrun, parkrun.com

[10] Scott Harrison (charity founder), Wikipedia.org

[11] Scott Harrison, charity: water Founders Story (retrieved Feb 2017)

[12] Seth Doane, CBS Evening News - Party Promoter's New Campaign: Clean Water (Aug 2009)

[13] Nicholas Kristoff, The New York Times Opinion Pages – Clean, Sexy, Water (July 2009)

[14] Scott Harrison, Mercy Blog (Nov 2006)

[15] Birthday Facts, charity: water (retrieved Feb 2017)

[16] Charity Navigator – charity: water