Shaping Business for the Tribe

Shaping Business for The Tribe Previously, in our articles Tribes in Today’s Marketing and Mastering Tribe Marketing, we explored how the marketplace is represented by countless networks of people who are connected by a common interest or goal – known as tribes – and how successful business growth is rooted in attaining leadership in those tribes and putting the principles of trustcasting into practice. Now we shift our focus to an outside-in examination of how the influence of tribes extends beyond promotion to shape how today’s businesses operate and evolve.

The old way

For any organization large or small, achieving a thorough understanding of its target market has always been fundamental to growth and long-term success. However, the task of gaining this knowledge has historically been a difficult process. It required a significant and ongoing investment of time and resources in fact-finding through surveys, focus groups, opinion polls and demographic studies – all in the name of formulating a more detailed profile of the customer, their attributes, their needs and their preferences. But in the same way that old advertising has been rendered ineffectual in today’s consumer-centric marketplace, these types of market studies have likewise become obsolete. Such disconnected, impersonal methods of information gathering are often too skewed, too broad or based on too thin an audience segment, ultimately falling short in delivering the depth of insight needed to engage in meaningful, trust-based relationships with the customer. More importantly, these outmoded forms of market research are not taken seriously by the majority of participants and thus fail to elicit the honest, thoughtful responses needed to understand what they really want, what truly drives their decision making and what actually motivates them to action. However in today's tribe-driven marketplace, the answers are right there in front of you.

Know thy customer, the tribe way

Simply by being an active participant in the tribe, you will gain an intimate understanding of your customers.If there is one thing that tribe marketing affords today's business, it is the ability to identify, engage and lead the community of customers that exists around it. You must understand that your tribe represents your customer base. While every one of your customers may not be active in the tribe, its membership is a reliable sample of all customers – especially those that can be the most passionate evangelists for your business. Therefore, attaining membership and demonstrating leadership in your tribe gives you invaluable access to your customers. Simply by being an active participant in the tribe, you will gain an intimate understanding of your customers, their lifestyle, their wants, their dislikes and their needs. It’s a deceptively simple concept: earn your place in the tribe by being one with its goals and serving its interests, and you will achieve unparalleled insight into the marketplace where your customers exist because you yourself are a part of it. However, it is then that the real work begins.

Listen, learn and integrate

When you’re a member of your tribe, you will be exposed to brutal honesty. The tribe is not there for you; they are there for the tribe. They will discuss their issues candidly and openly. They will likely complain and may at times be crass. This is not the type of polite, shallow input you receive from a survey or a customer comment card that is filled out hastily under the watchful eye of the clerk at the front counter. These are real issues being voiced by real people with real needs. You must be prepared to have your feelings hurt and develop a thick skin. However difficult it may be, it is important to absorb these opinions in their most raw form. If you’ve made the investment in earning your place in the tribe, you can take this process one step further and engage its members in your business operation. Let the tribe know what you are doing. Ask for feedback. Ask for honesty. Ask what’s wrong and how you can do better. Whatever you do, don’t attempt this unless you are a bona fide member, or you’ll find yourself being ignored, being fed ineffectual information or even being ousted from the tribe for conducting market research as an outsider. Ultimately, the benefit of being in the presence of such brutal honesty is that it often brings to light problems or weaknesses within your organization as well as untapped possibilities for growth. These may come in the form of an employee that they dislike, a product feature that they hate, an inconvenience you should correct or a void in the marketplace that is ripe for a solution. You may even find bigger issues to address: Maybe your product isn’t what’s needed. Maybe it needs to evolve. Maybe you need to rethink everything. Whether big or small, the problems and obstacles that you uncover by listening and engaging are invaluable to long-term success when you use what you’ve learned to direct the evolution of your organization in order to continue growing with your tribe.

Letting go and following the tribe

As the one charged with growing your organization, you’re probably used to doing things your way. However, if you are going to serve the needs of your tribe, you must take a step back and re-examine every aspect from the perspective of its members. You must not only preach the mantra, “The customer is king,” but live it through and through. You must not only preach the mantra, “The customer is king,” but live it through and through. It’s important to understand that your tribe represents the loudest, most opinionated and most critical subsection of your customer base. The honest, unfiltered information to which you have access as a member of this inner circle allows you to make changes to your product or service that will satisfy your most demanding customers. If you can placate these early adopters, loyalists and core users, then you will be ahead of the curve in not only meeting but exceeding the needs of your greater customer base. Should you give them what they want, they will wave the flag for you, giving you invaluable PR and unbiased word-of-mouth marketing the likes of which no amount of money can buy. This is not to say that you should make sweeping changes to your products, services, operations or processes based on the fleeting whim of each and every vocal customer. Quite the opposite is true, in fact. This is about getting to know the whole of your tribe – identifying the desires, problems and goals that are common to the greatest number – and applying your own ideas and innovation toward reshaping your product or service offering to provide solutions that address these needs.

Setting your tribe on fire

People instinctively long to be a part of something meaningful. Another aspect of reshaping your business around your tribe is finding a way to inspire them. The members of your tribe have the greatest potential to become your most ardent evangelists, but only if you can connect with them on a deeper level. People instinctively long to be a part of something meaningful. They crave outlets that allow them to engage in their passions. They are ready to carry the torch for those who they see doing good. Let’s say you own the corner coffee shop. Who is your tribe, and what is it about your offering that inspires them? Perhaps your tribe is made up of people who are passionate about organic or fair trade coffee. Or maybe the atmosphere of your store represents the culture and sophistication of urban lifestyle, and that’s what excites them. It could be that your tribe feels strongly about patronizing locally-owned businesses, and you offer Charlotte’s best coffee, so they find meaning in supporting your shop with their dollars. It’s possible that inspiring your tribe will require you to tell a story that’s greater than your direct product or service offering. Perhaps the members of your tribe are highly attuned to social and political issues that affect their community. Let’s say you decide to raise $50,000 this year to support local charities that assist homeless families, and you pledge that 25 cents from every cup of coffee you sell will be applied toward that goal. People will be proud to be seen carrying your cup because of who you are and what you do. The logo on that cup then becomes the secret handshake for the members of your tribe. There’s no advertising campaign, no marketing gimmick and no customer rewards card that can rival a tribe that is inspired. If you attach greater meaning to what you do, you give your tribe a reason to shout your message from the rooftops and proudly embrace your identity as part of their own. In this way, you’ll become more than a brand, you’ll become a revolution.

Tribes crave ideas

If you find that what you’re doing doesn’t light a tribe on fire, it’s time to invest in the white space of creating ideas. Today’s business is idea-based. Great ideas require a willingness to take a risk, to challenge the status quo and to do something revolutionary. This runs counter to traditional business thinking, which tends toward minimizing risk whenever possible. However, a tribe-driven marketplace has no tolerance for those who play it safe. Apple has sold two million iPads within the first 60 days of launch in the midst of an economic downturn because they hit on an idea for a new category of mobile device that set their tribe on fire. Great ideas require a willingness to take a risk, to challenge the status quo and to do something revolutionary. Amélie’s in Charlotte has achieved monumental growth because they took a concept usually found in much larger metropolitan locations – a 24-hour authentic French bakery and cafe – and brought it to a tribe of urban foodies that were primed for something new and different. Bucking conventional restaurant industry wisdom about the necessity of turning tables quickly, they instead welcome the members of their tribe to stay and linger, transforming their offering from a commodity to a culture and winning a following of loyal and vocal evangelists as a result. Tribes are ready and waiting for the next big thing that is going to solve a problem, meet a need or make their lives better. If you’re the one that delivers that idea, they’ll rally around you, spread your message like wildfire and fan the flames of your success.

There’s no shame in being small

The downfall of many small businesses when it comes to advertising and business growth is trying to act like a large business in order to increase their perceived legitimacy and trustworthiness in the eyes of the customer. However, in today’s tribe-driven marketplace, small businesses actually have a clear and distinct advantage. In fact, more and more, it is the large business that is trying to emulate and keep pace with the local mom-and-pop operation. Trust is earned when real people connect with real people. It is very hard for a large corporation to be real to anybody. In fact, when it happens, it’s because they have found a way to provide the level of personal service and engagement with the tribe that would typically be expected of a small business. In today’s tribe-driven marketplace, small businesses actually have a clear and distinct advantage. AT&T tried this with “Seth the Blogger Guy.” Recognizing that they couldn’t just run ads saying that they were working on the problem, they crafted a fake persona to represent AT&T to its tribe. They thought presenting customers with an unassuming-looking character on a first-name basis with the audience would be sufficient to cultivate trust-based relationships. This is false tribe leadership, and tribes are not so easily fooled. Conversely, Frank Eliason of telecommunications giant Comcast has established a customer service program that offers the kind of highly personalized touch that would ordinarily be more characteristic of the neighborhood florist. He has built a reputation for approaching problems with a genuine passion for resolving problems and following through on what is promised to achieve a positive outcome. As a result, over time people have given Frank and his team their trust, and they trust Comcast more as a result. Another great example is Mellow Mushroom – a very successful pizza restaurant chain with sales in the millions. However, their success is due in no small part to the fact that when you enter a Mellow Mushroom, nothing – from the menu to the decor to the staff – resembles a chain. They have identified their tribe, and they are catering to it. If Mellow Mushroom suddenly decided that they needed to look more sophisticated, more polished and more corporate, their tribe would quickly abandon them and follow the next place to come along and offer the casual, unrefined ambiance of a college dive bar. In this way, there is great possibility for small businesses. Your tribe inherently expects you to be real and to be personal, and as a result, they are predisposed to trust you. Don’t fall into the trap of trying to force your organization to be something it’s not. Remain focused on listening to your tribe and molding your operations around what you see and hear as an active member of your core customer base.

All for the tribe

The facts are simple: if you want to grow and thrive in today’s marketplace, your organization, your business operations and your products or services must be shaped by and around the tribe. If what you have to offer doesn’t fit your tribe, you have an obligation to listen to them, identify their needs and grow your business in that direction. If a competitor does it before you, you’ll be facing a mountain that’s immeasurably harder to climb.