Human beings can’t help it: We need to belong. One of the most powerful of our survival mechanisms is to be part of a tribe, to contribute to (and take from) a group of like-minded people. ---Seth Godin, Tribes: We Need You To Lead Us
I’m going to be perfectly honest with you: I’m still trying to fit into my professional tribe as a copywriter. That’s why I’ve been having such a hard time writing this post.
My plan was to write at least 1500 words using the little corner of Neil Gaiman fandom to which I belong as an example of the relationship between finding one’s niche and using that niche to serve a community that shares an interest (aka a digital tribe)-- and I actually did write that post---but then I realized something:
The majority of you probably don’t care.
I mean, yes, in the previous post I discussed how Gaiman was able to find his professional niche by identifying his talents (comic book writing), discovering his passions (folklore, mythology, and horror), and offering it to the world in a way that only he can (genre-defying graphic novels). But what do you care that he gained a huge fandom and his brand was strong enough for him to seamlessly change his platform from writing horror comics to writing children’s books? Why should you invest any consideration to the fact that he gained even more popularity and acclaim as his original goth-geek teen fans grew into book-buying parents and a new generation of fans was spawned? What do you care that he is regarded, along with Joss Whedon, Wil Wheaton, and Felicia Day as a Voice of Geekdom?
I mean, how is that pertinent to you as an entrepreneur or a marketer?
Ok, I’ll tell you why: in order to be successful in your niche, you need to find an audience that will embrace you and evolve as a community to support and encourage you in your work. That group of people, according to The Godfather of Tribal Marketing (aka Seth Godin), is called a digital tribe.
And the way you find your tribe is to follow your passions and to be true to yourself.
But like I said, I’m still trying to fit into a tribe as a copywriter. So all I have to offer today is how I'm still looking for my tribe, and what mistakes I’ve made as I’ve struggled to fit in.
Where My People At?
Social media is a natural gathering place for digital tribes, as are discussion forums. As I’ve begun my quest to find a tribe for my niche (No-B.S. copywriting and blogging with a focus on business storytelling), I’ve done some digging around Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn and Google Plus. Turns out, there’s a group for everything these days.
I even discovered a group of fans of the Longest Shortest Time podcast who are also moms and entrepreneurs. Bingo, right? Bring on the assignments!
Not right. At least, not yet.
Tribal Initiation Rites
One thing I’m learning is that if you want to get accepted in an online group, the worst thing you can do at the start is promote yourself. There are tons of people bursting on the scene shouting “Visit my website!” “Subcribe to my blog!” “Read this post!” Heck, I’ve been guilty of it as well.
No, the best thing you can do when you first join any community—be it online or in meat-space—is watch and listen. Learn the ways of the tribe. Listen to their stories. Watch their interactions. And sometimes, ask for help.
People love to help, especially when someone is new to a community. It makes them feel important and, well, good. In my family’s religion, an opportunity to help others is a blessing--a mitzvah. So the first contribution you can make to a tribe is not your service or product or blog post but a request for others to be of service to you.
For example, when I joined the Longest Shortest Time Entrepreneur and Freelancer group, I started out by posting links to my blog posts (“Hey you guys! I’m here! Lookatme!”), and was mostly ignored. Then I allowed myself to be vulnerable (there’s that word again…it’s such a good word…). I confessed that I was having difficulty finding a balance between giving my kids the attention they need and giving my business the attention it needs. The other members opened up and shared their own difficulties, offered advice, and daydreamed about having a co-working space where moms could have their kids play happily while they worked nearby.
Well, it turned out that one of the members is in the process of developing such a co-working/childcare space in the Denver area, called The Coterie. She shared the website with us and got free publicity out of it. She had a mitzvah.
And eventually, when she opens her shared workspace and needs someone to write the copy for her website, guess what tribe member plans to pitch her some landing page and blog ideas?
Once You’ve Joined a Tribe, Find a Role
Everyone has a contribution to make to their community. I found this fantastic infographic on the roles within a tribe from Tribaling:
I recommend bookmarking this link to Tribaling’s Tribal Marketing Playbook. It has beautifully designed infographics and a clear, simple message on the importance of tribes to one’s marketing plan.
See that? I was being a Chum for the Tribal Marketing Tribe.
Once you find a role to play in your tribe, does that role remain static? Heck, no. Our identities within our tribes transform as many times as they can in our lives. Through making connections and contributions, we can go from entry-level cubicle drones to being our own bosses, from free-wheeling singles to sleep-deprived parents.
For example, because I had a lot of compassionate advice to offer some of the younger women on the Gaiman board, I went from a newbie community member to becoming a Board Goddess (seriously: I had a cult of Alaurians. I highly recommend having a cult. It does wonders for one’s self-esteem).
Don’t Exploit Your Tribe
Do you remember like, every 80's movie ever where the popular guy is dared to take the unpopular girl ( usually played by Molly Ringwald) out on a date and falls in love with her, but before he can tell her she finds out about the dare and dumps him? Meanwhile, Duckie is there just loving Molly Ringwald for who she is?
Don’t be the popular guy on the dare. Be Duckie. ALWAYS be Duckie.
If you join a tribe, do it because you feel a genuine connection to its members and can’t help but want to be a part of what is happening in that group. If you join it at first as a superficial marketing opportunity, the members will figure it out and it will be really hard to gain their trust.
If you made the same mistake that I did and self-promoted before getting to know the group, do yourself and your tribe a favor and just back off a little bit. Give them some space. Then just…be yourself. Marisa Murgatroyd, in her video about Niche vs. Tribe, says when we make choices that are congruent with who we are and what we can get behind, we’ll draw people around us. No self-promotion necessary--at least, not much: people will see and like what you do because, frankly, they like *you.*
Still Geeky After All These Years
As a postscript, I should let you know that the members of the Neil Gaiman Message Board, who call themselves the Worlds Enders (or WE-ers) after the discussion forum we frequented the most, have remained in contact for going-on 15 years. We experienced historic world events (9/11, the 2008 election, the Arab Spring) together. We intermarried and created geeklings of our own. We’ve attended each others’ weddings and memorial services. We mostly stay in touch via Facebook, but the board is still active, just not as much as its hey-day.
All the while, we dropped in at every Neil Gaiman reading or signing bearing a red balloon: our House sigil (to borrow from George RR Martin, another Voice of the Geek World). We bought every book Gaiman put out and donated to the causes that Neil endorsed. The love and acceptance we've experienced together is All Because of Neil, and we want to show him our support and appreciation.
My goal here isn’t to be another Neil Gaiman; it’s to be Alaura Weaver and to find a community that I can serve and give voice to with my writing so that they will support me as I grow in my career. Here’s hoping you can find a tribe like that, or inspire others to form a tribe devoted to your work.
By the way, if you haven't seen this, you should. It's Seth Godin's TED Talk on tribes; considered tribal marketing canon.