How To Activate Tribes For Viral Content Marketing Success

The idea of “Tribes,” popularized by Seth Godin and others, is just a fancy way of articulating the idea that the internet has allowed for massive segmentation of individuals. These silos of individuals can be thought of as tribes because they behave cohesively and respond similarly to stimuli that resonate with their shared interests, desires and goals.

We’ve now entered a period in online marketing and advertising where forms of push mass persuasion are no longer as efficacious or appealing as they were in previous years. We’ve begun to realize that in order for brands to really engage with potential customers, they must meet them where they live, speak to them in the language they understand, and provide value by enabling these tribes to better reach their goals, satisfy their desires or enhance and expand on their interests.

This, however, is more easily said than done, and there are a woefully small number of guides that can point you in the right direction. What follows are guidelines for creating initiatives that work, not by pushing an agenda, but by figuring out synergies and non-zero sum arrangements with the tribes that have the potential to gain real benefit from the goods or services your company offers.

Step 1: Define Your Tribes

The key to successful engagement with relevant online audiences, or “tribes,” is first clearly defining who they are.

Who Are They?

Who is your target demographic? What are their ages, what is their gender breakdown, and what is their earning profile?personas_shutterstock

Define these broad aspects of your target audience first before trying to drill down and actually find them. You may be surprised that there are many sub-tribes that you did not initially consider but that fit your target demographic perfectly.

Understanding Their Core Values

Why is it that this tribe has self-organized? What is important to them? What are their typical concerns and discussions about? Who are their heroes and who do they hate? What does the rest of the world say about them? What are controversial topics to them? Who do they attempt to influence?

Understanding Where They Live

Tribes segregate themselves online in a variety of ways. Your job as an effective content marketer is to find the most active and influential places where they congregate, paying special attention to places that are not too “closed off” as to be allergic to any outsider.

The active, influential places where your tribes typically congregate include the following:

  1. A network of blogs (ranging from several dozen to several million depending on the specificity of the tribe in question) including usually 100 or fewer blogs that wield primary influence over the rest of the tribe and function as thought leaders and content repositories.
  2. A small group of forums (usually fewer than 10, many times fewer than 5) that act as gathering places for these tribes.
  3. Other places like subreddits, chat rooms, image boards, Twitter groups, Facebook groups, Linkedin groups, Yahoo! groups, aggregated YouTube channels, crowdsourced blogs (those written by groups of writers) and a few other variations.

Understanding How They Communicate & What They Share

Each tribe is unique, and they communicate and share content in a wide variety of ways.

BuzzSumo Social

In order to fully understand your tribe, you need to answer the following about how they communicate and what and where they like to share:

  1. What common forms of media do they prefer? Look at what types of content generate the most interaction.
    • Short form, long form, or a variety of written content?
    • Plain written word or mixed media blog posts?
    • Do they create and/or consume video content?
    • Do they have active podcasts?
    • Do they communicate actively via email lists?
    • Do they subscribe to RSS feeds?
    • What types of visual content do they prefer?
    • Infographics?
    • Instructographics?
    • Data visualizations?
    • What types of images do they share most often?
  2. How do they typically engage with that content?
    • Forum comments?
    • Blog comments?
    • Sharing via email, Twitter, Facebook, other?
    • How much do they cross-pollinate between different sites, forums, etc.?
  3. What topics are they most interested in?
    • What are their most discussed topics?
    • What is controversial to them?
    • What current events apply to them?
    • What tangential topics do they typically also find interesting?
    • What voice do they typically write in?
      • Academic?
      • Serious?
      • Sarcastic?
      • Satirical?
  4. Do they actively remix content?
    • Understanding a tribe’s tendency to participate with and expand on content has a big impact on the types of initiatives you may choose to engage them with.
    • Do they modify, alter, or create their own content based on content produced by others?
    • Are they active with memes and image macros?

Step 2: Tell A Compelling Story

shutterstock_172510577-storytellingBy taking the time to clearly define and find your target tribe or tribes, you are now ready to begin planning your content initiative. It can be helpful to think of your content initiative as a type of story that you are telling your target tribe.

Your goal is to get them to be interested enough in the content you are creating, to want to engage with it based entirely on its own merit. While it may not be a “story” in the traditional sense, it needs to hold attention and demand a level of emotional investment in order to gain a foothold.

Content Matches Your Goals To Theirs

Begin first by coming up with a variety of content ideas that you feel meet your goals and also satisfy the interests and goals of your target tribe. Be very careful to take into consideration all of the prior research you have done about your target tribe during this process. Remember that no single piece of content will behave as a magic bullet. Be prepared to use different pieces of content to get at different aspects of your target tribe’s interests.

Vet Your Content

For each idea that you come up with, you should be able to form a cogent argument for why you believe that idea will resonate with your target tribe. Ask yourself:

  1. Have I compared my idea to the research I’ve already done on my target tribe? Does it really mesh well, or am I forcing it?
  2. Is the content original, or does it take a new spin on something I know to already be popular?
  3. Does this idea work with my budgets and bandwidth? Can I actually get this done?
  4. What specific outlets or individuals within my target tribe do I think would be most likely to post, share, or otherwise talk about this content? It’s even better if you can do preliminary work to see what some of the key tastemakers of the tribe think of your ideas.
  5. Does this content meet my goals fully, or have I gone too far in pleasing the tribe that my goals have become diluted? You need to seek a happy medium — content that will accomplish both your goals and the goals of your target tribe as equally as possible.

Personalize & Increase Empathy

By tailoring content to specific tribes, you already have a leg up on personalization. Content that feels custom-made for the tribe will have greater authority and stronger impact.

Strive to create content that strikes at basic human emotions and helps to move them in positive ways. Can your content create feelings of hope? Of love? Of nostalgia? Can your content soothe fears? Spur creative thinking or encourage creative outlet? Can your content engage with the emotional brain?

Enhancing Stickiness

Does my content meet the elements of stickiness?

    • Emotions: Can my content create an emotional reaction? Especially one that piques interest or surprise?
    • Concreteness: Does my content have a purpose, a thesis? Is it easy to understand?
    • Simplicity: Can I boil down my content into one sentence?
    • Unexpectedness: Is my content original? Does it challenge expectations or the status quo?
    • Credibility: Does my content have authority? Have I adhered to sourcing best practices? Have I gone out of my way to be a primary source (by doing my own research), or find a primary source elsewhere when possible?

Step 3: Connect A Tribe Through Your Content

shutterstock_178108073-connectionContent that encourages or enhances tribe cohesion and internal connection stands the best chance at viral success, so you should be thinking critically at the planning stage on how you might best tweak your content to take advantage of the cohesive nature of the tribe you are targeting. There are many ways to use tribe cohesion to your advantage, but to give you a hint, they almost all require an interactive component.

Enhancing Tribe Cohesion

1. The Bandwagon Effect & Groupthink

The Bandwagon Effect is a form of Groupthink. It is the idea that members of a group (tribe in this case) can be influenced to all behave similarly if they witness enough other members of the group behaving in a given way. In essence:

The probability of any individual adopting it increasing with the proportion who have already done so.

Do your best to apply this principle to your content initiatives. Do everything you can to:

  • Make it obvious when members of the tribe interact with the content you create (Tip: Endorsements from tribe leaders can do this very well, as can social media counters that show how many have “liked” your content.)
  • Encourage interaction and participation from tribe members. Participation is often de facto approval. Seeing others in your tribe interact with the content significantly improves your chances of interacting with the content.
  • Encourage in-tribe sharing, perhaps offering sharing incentives to only members of the tribe.

2. Ingroup Vs. Outgroup

Ingroups are those who belong to your target tribe, and outgroups are everyone else. The idea of ingroups and outgroups can have a significant impact on the success of your content for two reasons:

  • Members of an ingroup tend to show strong preference for those things preferred or liked by other members of the ingroup. Thus, the more ways you can enhance the obviousness of your content’s value to members of the ingroup (and perhaps even contrast that with the idea that your content does not apply or would not be liked by an outgroup) the better.
  • Secondarily, you need to make sure that when you launch your content to the tribe, the content itself is vouched for by several members of the ingroup or by a single prominent member of the ingroup that is respected by the rest of the tribe. Giving an “exclusive” opportunity for a tribe leader to feature the content you created (usually on their blog) is an excellent way to do this. Not only do you form or grow a relationship with this powerful tribe member, but you also gain ingroup approval, thereby making your content more appealing to other members of the tribe.

Step 4: Lead & Spread

Sometimes, it can be more advantageous to enable and then follow a leader than to be the leader yourself. This is especially true as an outside company with a marketing agenda.

The inherent distrust that members of the tribe may ascribe to you can be overcome by creating content that enables current leaders toward the goals of the tribe or by giving greater power to individual tribe members to come closer to their shared goals.

Content Should:

  1. Provide leadership or enable leaders within the tribe when possible. Contests, awards, Ask the Experts content, You Know You Are X When content, and charity-sponsored content are all types of content that do this well.
  2. Be remixable whenever possible. Give the tribe content they can make their own. JibJab does this perfectly.
  3. Be enhanced for sharing. Give the tribe the tools they need to share this in all of the different places they congregate. Examples include sharing buttons and embed codes.


As users of the internet continue to segment themselves according to what makes them unique, content marketers that are able to best understand this segmentation and work with it will find the most success. If your content speaks the tribe’s language; enhances who they are; and gives them a way to become more cohesive, spread their influence, or bring them further toward their goals, you will be on your way to a highly successful engagement.

 (Stock images via Used under license.) (Social Image courtesy of Buzzsumo, used with permission.)

Opinions expressed in the article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Marketing Land.

Related Topics: Channel: Content Marketing | Content Marketing Column


About The Author: is a public speaker, Harvard Business Review columnist, and VP of Marketing at, a company that specializes in the science behind viral marketing.

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  • Nancy Hoerst

    This is one of the most helpful articles I have seen. I am technically illiterate and this article gives me hope! Thanks.

  • Justin Belmont

    It’s interesting to consider your target audience as a “tribe.” always talks about how important it is to know your target audience and cater your content to them, so it’s nice to see you talk about that in a new way. One of the most difficult things for businesses is figuring out what style of content will work best with their audience, and here’s a post from us about that:


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