Sunday, April 1, 2007

the age of the tribe

I attended a two day symposium on digital communications last week, put on by my firm.

One of the guest speakers – Mitch Joel of Montreal’s Twist Image – blew my mind with his presentation on the trends in communications, the impact of Web 2.0*, and the need for those in the communications industry to either get ahead of the current changes, or to become irrelevant.

Among other things, Mitch argued that whereas communications professionals used to be able to control the message because they were the only ones who could afford the means of distribution (eg. advertising, press releases on the wire, creating coalitions of supporters to advocate as a single voice*), the Internet has now made it possible for anyone to distribute a message – for free.*

Today's Internet has changed the dynamics of the game from a one-way communication from the professional to the target audience, to a two-way conversation between the speaker and her audience – and between the audience members themselves.

The result, Mitch argued, is that the age of marketing to demographic groups is over – we are now in the age of the tribe.

By this theory, consumers/voters/individuals are no longer best (or most usefully) defined according to age, race, gender, location, income level, etc, but by their ideas, interests and approach to life.

Our job as communications professionals is to identify which tribes the people we want to target belong to, where they congregate, and what they’re talking about when they’re there. Then, to join their conversation, and get on with our usual business of building relationships and trust.

I’m still grappling with the social, political, and business implications of this concept.*

But over the last month or two I have noticed three concrete examples of how the evolution from demographics to tribes has begun to change the landscape:

1. Politics
In his book The Audacity of Hope, Barack Obama asserts that although he identifies as black, he also believes that his race is not necessarily the most influential aspect of who he is:

“…I’ve never had the option of restricting my loyalties on the basis of race, or measuring my worth on the basis of tribe.” (p. 231)

Contrast this view with how obsessed the U.S. media is with whether or not Americans are ready for a black president, and with the debate amongst African-American civil rights leaders and thought leaders as to whether a man raised by a white woman and born of an immigrant African is really a member of the African-American community, shared legacy, or experience.

We might be moving towards a community of tribes online, but we’re clearly not there yet when it comes to politics.

2. The Arts
I attended a solo performance last night that was promoted as “a powerful exploration of isolation and difference" by a Brazilian dancer-choreographer, using original music and a blend of Mozart, Lauren Hill and others. The audience included a sprinkling of black youth who complained bitterly and vocally during the intermission that they had been deceived - the performance was less dance than “idiosyncratic movement style” together with sometimes-alienating narrative, better targeted to lovers of the radically modern and avant-garde than to those looking for more accessible hip hop or funk-tinged ballet.

The organizers had marketed based solely on the demographics of the dancer, but her performance would have been better suited to a more specific tribe.

3. The Personal
I write and think a lot about personal identity and finding a like-minded community that also lives where I live, because I notice that it has happened only once in the seven regions I’ve worked or studied in over the last 15 years.

Social media tools like Facebook, Linked-In, MySpace and blogs allow users to present an image of themselves and then to find others who may share the identity presented. It also allows them to hear back from these people as to what they’re thinking about at the moment.

This intertextuality* not only allows us to connect with others, but to shape each others’ perspectives - it pushes us forward and helps our thinking evolve.

But what is the tipping point from change of outlook and opinion to change in consumer choices?

Implications for Business
Social media tools lend themselves well to grassroots mobilisation, sure – but is there a limit to how well the traditional techniques for mobilising individuals can be applied to consumerist goals?

How can those communications professionals who are marketers, not lobbyists, avoid the sheen of artificiality when social media are used as tools to bring people together - not around policy, emotion and ideas - but around merchandise?*

And how can pure-PR practitioners identify which members of a tribe have the disposable income to act on their suggestions?

Those of us who are lobbyists might have it a bit easier because using the techniques of social movements translates well to campaigns for changes to government policy.

But, still, a question remains - how can we leverage the support built through social media (i.e. after we’ve raised awareness and cultivated grass-roots support for a policy shift), and turn it into political support if the politician can’t identify which members of the tribe are relevant sources of votes or financial support?


*digital communications and Web 2.0 meaning using the Internet to create or use tools that allow individuals not only to access information, but to find and communicate with each other – and to give timely feedback on how well what they've heard has resonated.


*of course, we’re only talking about people and societies who have access to computers

*Mitch Joel is an upwardly mobile acknowledged guru and white guy, which might influence his view of the declining importance of demographics in the purchase decision. Me, I still find it disturbing that there are so few members of my demographic group to be found in my tribes.

*Intertextuality – another Julia Kristeva gem, developed pre-Internet, but even more relevant now I think.

*I am reminded here of the way Mac owners feel about their Macs. A quick search of Flickr or of Apple’s emotion and tribe-based advertising campaigns pokes an slight hole in my argument/query, but I maintain that many communications professionals are not hired to promote the industry underdog – so can the same marketing techniques be successfully applied to a Microsoft or a Bell?