Tribes: It Depends

Following my article about paywalls, a reader raised a point about “Tribes”. I’m paraphrasing the ensuing conversation we had, but I think it could be summarised as:

You’re wrong! The way to succeed on the internet is to build a tribe! Give your content away to the tribe! Grow the tribe!

An internet tribe is “an unofficial community of people who share a common interest, and usually who are loosely affiliated with each other through social media or other internet mechanisms”.

The use of the term dates back to 2003. More recently, Seth Godin wrote a book on the topic. As did Patrick Hanlon. A tribe could be characterized as a special interest group, a demographic, or a group of people interested in the same thing - plus internet.

So, is cultivating a tribe by giving everything away for free a better approach than locking information behind a paywall? If we lock some information away behind a paywall, does that mean we can’t build a tribe? BTW: I'm not suggesting Seth or Patrick assert such things, these issues came out of the conversation I had with the reader.

Well, It Depends

People don't have to build a paywall in order to be successful. Or build a tribe in order to be successful. Either approach could be totally the wrong thing to do.

If anyone found the article on paywalls confusing, then hopefully I can clarify. The article about paywalls was an exploration. We looked at the merits, and pitfalls, involved.

Paywalls, like tribes, will not work for everyone. I suspect most people would agree that there is no “One True System” when it comes to internet marketing, which is why we write about a wide range of marketing ideas. Each idea is a tool people could use, depending on their goals and circumstances, but certainly not proposed as being one-size-fits all. In any case, having a paywall does not mean one cannot build a tribe. The two approaches aren't mutually exclusive.

People may also recall The Well, the mother of all internet tribes. This tribe didn't lead to profit for owners Salon. It was eventually sold it to it's own users for a song. Salon, the parent company, has never been profitable. They have also tried various paywall models and free content models, although I think some of the free content looks very eHow: Driven by Demand Media.

With that in mind, let’s take a look at tribes and how to decide if a certain marketing approach is right for you.

Cart Before The Horse

"Cultivating a tribe" is a strategy.

Will everyone win using this strategy?


Like any strategy, it should be justified by the business case. The idea behind tribes is that you form a group of people with similar interests, and then lead that group, and then, given appropriate and effective leadership, people help spread your message far and wide, grow the tribe, and eventually you will make money from them.

There is nothing wrong with this approach, and it works well for some businesses. However, like any marketing strategy, there is overhead involved. There is also an opportunity cost involved. And just like any marketing strategy, the success of the strategy should be measured in terms of return on investment. Is the cost of building, growing and maintaining a tribe lower than the return derived from it?

If not, then it fails.

How To Not Make Money From A Tribe

During the conversation I had with the reader, it was intimated that if someone can’t make money from a tribe, then it’s their own fault. After all, if someone can get a lot of people together by giving away their content, then money naturally follows, right?

The idea that profit is the natural result of building an audience resulted in the crash of 2000.

Many web companies at that time focused on building an audience first and worried about how it was all going to pay off later. Webvan,,, and many of the rest didn’t suffer from lack of awareness, but from a lack of a sound business case and from a failure to execute.

We’ve had digital tribes, in various forms, since the beginning of the internet. Actually, they predate the internet . One early example of a digital tribe was the BBSs, a dial-in community. These tribes were replaced by internet forums and places, such as The Well.

Many internet forums don’t make a great deal of money. Many are run for fun at break-even, or a loss. Some make a lot of money. Whether they make a loss, a little money or a lot of money depends not on the existence of the tribe that surrounds them, as they all have tribes, but on the underlying business model.

Does the tribe translate into enough business activity in order to be profitable? How much is a large tribe of social-media aficionados interested in “free stuff” worth? More than a small demographic of Facebook-challenged people interested in high margin services? Creating a tribe to help target the latter group might possibly work, but there are probably better approaches to take.

Does have a “tribe”? Should we always be looking to “grow the tribe”?

We don’t tend to characterize our approach in terms of tribes. At, we do a lot of things to maintain a particular focus. We tend to write long, in-depth pieces on topics we hope people find interesting as opposed to chasing keyword terms. We don’t run an endless series of posts on optimizing meta tags. We don’t cover every tiny bit of search news. We focus almost exclusively on the needs of the intermediate-to-expert search professional. We could do many things to “grow the tribe”, but that would run counter to our objectives. It would dilute the offering. We could have a "free trial" but the noise it would create in our member forums would lower the value of the forums to existing community members.

We do offer some free tools available to everyone, but when it comes to the paid parts of the site we leave it up to individuals to decide if they think they're a good fit for our community. If a person has issues with the site before becoming a paid member, we doubt they would ever becoming a long-lasting community member, so our customer service to people who have not yet become customers is effectively nil. In short, we don’t want to run the hamster treadmill of managing a huge tribe when it doesn’t support the business case.

The Good Things About Tribes

Tribes can help spread the word. People tell people something, and they tell people, and the audience grows and grows.

They’re great for political groups, movements, consultants, charities, and any endeavour with a strong social focus. They tend to suit sectors where the people in that sector spend a lot of time “living digitally”.

As a marketing approach, building tribes is well-suited to the charismatic, relentless self-promoter. A lot of tribes tend to orient around such individuals.

The Problems With Tribes

Not everyone can be a leader. Not everyone has got the time to be a relentless self-promoter and the time spent undertaking such activity can present a high opportunity cost if that’s not how your target market rolls. Perhaps a relentless focus on PPC, or SEO, or another channel will pay higher dividends.

There is also an ever-growing noise level in the social media channels, but the attention level remains relatively constant. The medium is forever being squeezed. Is blogging/facebooking/tweeting all day with the aim of building a tribe really a useful thing to be doing? Only metrics can tell us that, so make sure you monitor ‘em!

To build a big tribe in any competitive space takes serious work and it takes a long time. Many people will fail using that approach. Not only are some people not cut out to lead, the numbers don’t work if everyone used this method. If everyone who led a tribe also followed hundreds of other people leading their own tribes, then there simply aren’t enough hours in the day to get anything else done.

It will not be an efficient marketing approach for many.

Getting People To Follow Is Not The Goal Of Business

I know of a company that just got bought out for a few million.

Sounds great, right. However, I know they carry a lot of debt and their business model puts them on a downward trajectory. This site has a massive “tribe”. This site is number one in their niche. People tweet, Facebook, follow them, sing their praises, they engage up, down, left, right and center. They’ve got the internet tribe thing down pat, and their tribe buys their stuff.

One problem.

The business is based on low prices. The tribe is fixated on “getting a great price”. This business is vulnerable to competitors as that tribes loyalty, that took so long to build, is based on price - which is no loyalty at all. Perhaps they achieved their exit strategy, and did what they needed to do, but growing a massive and active internet tribe didn't prevent them being swallowed by a larger competitor. The larger competitor doesn't really have a tribe, but focuses on traditional channels.

Without getting the fundamentals right, a tribe, or any other marketing strategy, is unlikely to pay off. The danger in listening to gurus is they can be fadish. There is money in evangelizing the bright, shiny new marketing idea that sounds really good.

But beware of placing the cart before the horse. Marketing is a numbers game that comes down to ROI. Does building the tribe make enough money to justify serving the tribe?

Having followers is no bad thing. Just makes sure they’re the right followers, for the right reasons, and acquiring them supports a sound business case :)

Published: March 14, 2013 by A Reader in marketing


March 14, 2013 - 1:10pm

I agree that there's different marketing approaches depending on the business case. I see a lot of companies that sell something boring like nuts and bolts to a very specific market, yet they adopt a marketing approach similar to some internet marketing evangelist - spamming Twitter and Facebook with "zaniness" - basically having nothing to say, but saying nothing very often to a lot of people :) No doubt they've been swayed by the zeitgeist that they need to "go social" or have hired an SEO firm to somehow convert a decent, well-established company providing very good services into some wacky, fun, "social" organization. A lot of marketing is cringeworthy nonsense, but at the same time - I can't fully blame companies for doing it wrong, because search engines (a primary traffic driver for websites) still require us to perform strange means-to-an-end actions - using social networks - not becauase we want to (SOCIAL networks, remember?) but because we have to, for example. Whether it works or is appropriate is another thing altogether. No doubt there will be companies trying to build a "tribe" via direct marketing when really they're best suited to putting that energy into simply improving their product or service - and gaining more customers / members through word of mouth.

March 14, 2013 - 5:39pm

I don't know if "Tribe" means the same to you what it means to me, but I agree that they do work in some niches really well. The thing I noticed though (not sure if it's just me) is that the real value is created before a tribe is formed. After that, the value that the tribe creates goes down overtime and the tribe itself becomes a gatekeeper in their niche. Of course not always, but most of the time.

March 14, 2013 - 9:41pm

Great points Andrew and affhelper, thanks.

No doubt there will be companies trying to build a "tribe" via direct marketing when really they're best suited to putting that energy into simply improving their product or service - and gaining more customers / members through word of mouth.

Right. It's hard to know in advance what approach will work best, but I think your point about the appropriateness of the latest marketing trend to a particular business is well made. Some businesses suit some approaches better than others.

March 14, 2013 - 11:07pm

Thanks, Peter for the reference, but I’m afraid I need to quote Woody Allen putting words in the mouth of Marshal McLuhan: “Your correspondent knows nothing of my work.”

Contrasting tribes with paywalls is a little like asking if you walk to school or bring your lunch.

The New York Times is clearly the paper of record for a tribe. Not for everyone, but yes, they keep a certain group of a few million people
in sync. And they can certainly have a paywall. Or, more vividly, there’s clearly and obviously a tribe that uses the Bloomberg machine (the day traders, stock traders, masters of the universe tribe). Those guys pay $50 a DAY to get behind the paywall, that’s billions a year in profit.

Nowhere in my book or my work do I insist that people give stuff away. I do make the point that the leader has to feed the tribe. That doesn’t mean free. It means challenging, creating cultures, communicating, connecting and a bunch of other words that start with ‘c’.

As for “Not everyone can be a leader. Not everyone has got the time to be a relentless self-promoter... ” I’m perplexed. First, yes, everyone CAN be leader. We may not choose to be, but of course we can. And once again, the false coin flip between, in this case, leadership and “relentless self-promoter.”

Sure, there are lots of ways to make a living, no doubt about it. The argument in my book, though, is that one of the most satisfying, long lasting and human ways to do this is by connecting and leading the disconnected. Paywalls and SEO can co-exist with that goal.

March 14, 2013 - 11:17pm

Thanks for your comments, Seth. Perhaps I didn't make myself clear.

The article was in response to a Twitter conversation I had with a reader. He was saying that paywalls get in the way of building tribes. He associated tribe building with the need to "give stuff away".

As I said in my article, they're not mutually exclusive positions.

I've also updated the first section of the post to hopefully remove any confusion in this regard.

>>Sure, there are lots of ways to make a living, no doubt about it. The
> argument in my book, though, is that one of the most satisfying, long
> lasting and human ways to do this is by connecting and leading the
> disconnected. Paywalls and SEO can co-exist with that goal.

Sure. It depends what the marketers aims are.

I've run a few low-overhead lead generations sites in the past, and the aim was to return high, but not take up much of my time. I'm not sure nurturing a tribe would have been appropriate in that context, nor would it have been an efficient use of my time.

Theses days, I am interested in nurturing the community. I use the approach I feel is right for each business case.

March 16, 2013 - 3:44am


"@formspring ($14M in funding) shutting down Apr 15; unsustainable to keep lights on; 30M registered users & 4B posts - Link

@jason: That's shocking in one way (30M registered users and 4B posts is a lot), but not surprising in the age of Google's Panda update. Large, SEO-driven sites are just not sustainable when Google pushes organic search results half way down the page to promote their own services. You actually have to build a service now that folks type into their browser OR load on their mobile phone. It's a big lesson I had to learn the hard way myself. Anyone have details on this?"

So, HUGE tribe, but that didn't save them.

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