This certainly isn’t a new topic for those of us who’ve been involved in online communities, but to some reading this it’s a new concept. Ryan Adcroft takes a good start at the basics of joining tribes online, and I’m going to take it a step further by stating that if your firm or company isn’t part of these tribes you aren’t maximizing your campaigns. Let’s start by defining what a tribe is.

According to Wikipedia, a tribe is:

tribe, viewed historically or developmentally, consists of a social group existing before the development of, or outside of, states.

Based on this definition, the notion of being a part of a tribe is something that has existing since our species began. Communities formed, leaders emerged, those tribes split and new tribes were formed. They have distinct cultures, passions and histories.

In recent decades, we’ve seen the formation of bulletin board systems, chat rooms, message boards, blogs and now social networks. And while MySpace was a race to having a large tribe, Facebook’s rapid adoption and poor usability made it difficult to segment the information you want to share with your tribes, and now the emergence of Google+ whereby you can organize your friends into tribes, it’s pretty clear that social networking sites are starting to organize themselves around how people communicate online. The notion that common interests don’t always mix is playing out and it’s great to see the evolution of these platforms.

That being said, I would define these as weak or loosely associated tribes. The only common interest for co-workers is a shared employer; however, it’s not a passion. A Twitter community based on using the tool is another example of a loosely associated tribe. Today I was at the grocery store, as were a dozen other shoppers. Because we were in the same place at the same time doing the same activity does not make it a passion; it makes it a coincidence.

Strong or passionate tribes are built on the notion that we have common interests and/or passions. You can love a brand, a hobby — you name it — and find a group of people online to talk about that topic with. Engage with them regularly enough, invest your time and share your passions and — viola — you’ve connected with that tribe.

This takes me to the fundamental issue that I have with marketers, especially those completely disconnected from online tribes they’re marketing to, not being involved in tribes: without belonging you have no real sense as to what that community wants, needs or desires. You’re also missing out on opportunities to understand your customer better and tailor programs to suit their needs. And no, being a part of a “marketing tribe” doesn’t count.

Here’s an amazing example to illustrate my point, courtesy of my friend Phil Gomes. Phil started a blog dedicated to cachaçagora, the national alcoholic beverage in Brazil. Sounds really niche, right? That’s exactly the point. It’s a passion that Phil has and he has created and joined a community of people interested in the topic. He invests his time, energy and passion into the blog and his readers are engaged. Phil has created a strong tribe of cachaçagora enthusiasts. Yes, he is also an amazingly brilliant PR guy, but his focus isn’t on self promotion within the marketing world – it’s on building his tribe.