Finding Copy Inspiration With Digital Tribes: A Quick Field Guide for Social Impact Startups

Have you ever walked into a room, taken one look around, and thought “I have found my people?”

That happened to me a few weeks ago.

I went to my first TEDx conference. As a self-described TED-head, I was downright giddy as I settled into my seat and awaited the first talk.

The lights dimmed, the crowd went quiet, and child welfare advocate Amelia Franck Meyer stepped onto the stage. She proceeded to give a from-the-heart talk on the deep psychic damage the US foster care system has caused children.

“From the moment they leave the womb, human infants have two survival needs: the need to be cared for and the need to be claimed. As a species, we yearn for belonging. We need our tribes,” she said.

Then she she told the story of a little girl who had no one to claim her.

The girl went from foster home to foster home. Her fear and grief became aggression against a series of foster parents who weren’t equipped to give her the sense of belonging she needed. Eventually she landed in a group home for emotionally disturbed individuals.

That’s when Franck Meyer’s group, Anu Family Services stepped in to help. They found over 25 people in the girl’s extended family who wanted nothing more than to claim her as their own.

She had found her tribe.

“You don’t have to help me anymore,” the little girl told Frank Meyer on her last day at the group home. “There are other kids like me who need you.”

As I sat in the audience, surrounded by fellow nerdy do-gooders with tears rolling down their cheeks as they listened to this story---people who desperately wanted to help their fellow human beings find the sense of belonging and empowerment that this little girl had discovered--- I realized I belonged.

I had found my tribe.

Okay, nice story. But what does this have to do with copywriting?

As a copywriter, it’s my job to get into the world of my target reader and adapt my words to the language of her tribe.

Because the best way to earn someone’s business is to earn their trust.

And the way to earn their trust is to let them know:

"You’re in the right place. You belong here. We understand exactly what you need and we claim you as our own.”

I’m going to tell you how I helped a copywriting client reach a very different tribe than the one he belonged to.

I’m also going to share my favorite content marketing strategy tools for finding and investigating digital tribes.

By the end of this post, you’ll have some essential tools for gaining clearer insights about your target audience’s collective dreams, fears, and challenges. Once you have those insights, you’ll have invaluable material for writing meaningful, relevant copy that inspires people to action.

Because ultimately, the purpose of story-based copywriting is to create connections between people based on empathy and compassion.

Like Amelia Franck Meyer says, we all want to be claimed.

Let’s take a closer look at what makes a tribe, and why we make them.

The Tribes We Make

My boys were born into the "bicycling gear junky" tribe. 

My boys were born into the "bicycling gear junky" tribe. 

Although many of us are blessed with families to claim us, as we can see from Amelia Franck Meyer’s TEDx Talk, some of us aren’t so lucky.

Even when we fit into our families, as we grow into adulthood, we yearn to find belonging outside our families of birth.

So we spend our lives searching for kindred spirits based on common interests and ideologies, or even shared struggles.


And when we find one another, we form tribes: communities that offer support and guidance as we seek our goals in life.

Thanks to modern technology, most of us can form tribes over vast distances through the swipe of a finger upon a screen.

Seth Godin calls the online communities we create our “digital tribes.” And he advises entrepreneurs to provide value and serve those tribes rather than exploit them:

“What the Internet has done is...we don't have to get on a plane anymore to meet strangers who like us.
...The Linux operating system, which is on a billion computers around the world, was written by a group of strangers who have never met, who are part of the same tribe. And so the challenge of our future is to say, are we going to connect and amplify positive tribes that want to make things better for all of us? Or are we going to degrade to warring tribes that are willing to bring other groups down just so they can get ahead?” (From On Being With Krista Tippett)

So as a socially conscious business owner, what can you do to serve the tribe of your target buyer AND the community you seek to empower?

It all starts with understanding them.


Tribal Marketing Is A Balancing Act

As digital marketers, we have the unique privilege of connecting with like-minded people and helping other people to connect. We exist within our own tribes and we help to form tribes through the content we create and the brands we build.

If you have a social impact business, you have the additional opportunity to build a tribe that collectively serves the greater good---but you also have the responsibility to comprehend the underlying needs of the tribes you seek to help.

Let me tell you a little story about a social enterprise with a great mission, but it needed some guidance on "getting" its target user tribe. 

Listening Is The Key to Understanding

When Shereef Bishay came to me for copy help, the Learners Guild website looked and sounded like a typical non-profit brochure. It had aspirational phrases like “offering opportunity to historically underserved communities” and “bridging the tech diversity gap.”

Which is great if the aim is to get people to donate money to their cause.

But Learners Guild didn’t need donations--they needed signups. They needed participants in their software developer training program.

If there’s one thing I learned as I immersed myself in the world of their target user , the last thing anyone from an “underserved community” wants is to be seen as a charity case.

And when people from communities that have been snubbed or ignored by the tech world see the word "diversity," it's met with understandable cynicism.

With people of color in less than 1 percent of c-level positions at Fortune 500 companies, "diversity" has become an empty marketing phrase geared to make members of privileged groups feel better about themselves.  


So I needed to get to the heart of what people of color DO want out of a software training program, and what was standing in their way.

That’s when I discovered WoCinTechChat: a community of women and non-binary people of color who sought inclusion in the tech world.

And through them, I discovered People of Color in Tech: a blog and podcast devoted to the issues facing minorities working in technology professions.

Source:  WocInTechChat

 WoCinTech and People of Color in Tech (POCIT) host weekly Twitter chats, which offered the perfect opportunity for me to learn more about the needs and challenges facing women of color in tech careers.

The conversations in #WoCinTechChat led me to a Twitter list of participants. Soon my Twitter feed was flooded with a wealth of content about issues concerning people of color as they sought a place in the tech world.


Mining for Copy Gold


One of the top issues PoC  wanted out of training was a direct route from school into a well-paid job. Most people of color--especially women--lack the crucial career connections that lead to full-stack engineering jobs in Silicon Valley. 


The other big issue is the disproportionate student loan burden born by people of color.


So I knew I had to reassure a visitor to the Learners Guild landing page that we had a solution to their biggest problems. 

Here's what I came up with:

“Go From Beginner to Full-Stack Developer in 10 Months--Debt Free, Risk Free, Worry Free.”

The headline & subheader are designed to make clicking the "request application" button as frictionless as possible. 

And while the copy doesn't specifically indicate that Learners Guild actively recruits people of color, women, and LGBTQ people, the gorgeous stock photography sourced from WoCinTechChat sends the message loud, proud, and clear.



The sliders just below the founder's message address some of the biggest hurdles PoC in tech have to overcome: a lack of important career connections, a desire to be mentored and to become mentors, and a general disconnect from the larger tech community. 

Notice that instead of saying "come learn FROM us," I chose "come learn WITH us."

I want to let participants know they will be contributing members of a learning community of peers and experts--instead of outsiders fighting to break into a closed network.

Screenshot 2016-08-23 01.20.06.png

After the Facebook Ad leading to the landing page came out, the most common comment was "is this for real?" People were so amazed by Learners Guild's unique selling proposition (debt-free education), they thought it was too good to be true.

I added the last slide to reassure readers that it is, in fact, the real deal.

The final call to action uses a copywriting technique called "future pacing." It makes the reader imagine herself in the situation being described. And the scenario I've described is EXACTLY what the members of the POCIT and WoCinTechChat tribes are striving for.

Thanks to the inspiration from a wonderfully supportive community, the landing page copy earned Learners Guild hundreds of excellent applicants for their first cohort in Oakland, CA.

Now: what would have happened if I had skipped all that research and came up with a vague idea of what I thought potential learners wanted to hear?

What if I had created a message that was based on my preconceived notions as a white woman of the struggles people of color in tech face rather than genuine insights?

There’s a chance I could have written irresponsible copy that patronized the reader and made Learners Guild appear tone deaf.

Even worse, I could have written a message that turned potential learners away not just from Learners Guild but from software development as a career option altogether, thus undermining the social  progress that Learners Guild seeks to further.

There’s a very real danger in outsiders “helping” tribes without understanding them first: we risk exploiting them for our own gain--and destroying them as a consequence.


The One-for-One Business Model & Unintended Consequences


Let’s talk about Toms Shoes for a moment.

Toms can you heel me? ( Flickr )

Toms can you heel me? (Flickr)

Who doesn’t love the now ubiquitous cotton slip-ons, worn by hipsters and suburban moms alike?

I’ll tell you who: the third-world cobbler whose livelihood is undermined thanks to an influx of canvas slip-ons to his community, courtesy of Toms.

Matheson Miller, producer of the documentary Poverty, Inc. is challenging the perceived benefits of one-for-one businesses like Toms Shoes. He says that despite the philanthropic glow that Toms’ marketing inspires in consumers, the problems poor populations face can’t be solved by sending them free discarded or surplus items, but by addressing the issues that contribute to their poverty:

“Poor people aren’t poor because they lack stuff; they’re poor because they lack the infrastructure to create wealth.”

This isn’t to say that the one-for-one business model is by nature harmful to poor communities. The key is to provide needed items while still preserving the dignity and independence of the recipients.

What could Toms have done to avoid the backlash caused by their shoe giveaways?

They could have researched the communities they sought to help and listened--really listened--to what they had to say.  They could have had a conversation with them about why they lacked shoes (poverty) and what they needed (better paying jobs and more local business opportunities).

Toms has since changed up their model: they now sell coffee, and for every pound of coffee they sell, they donate a week’s worth of clean water to the communities they source the coffee from.

That’s a slip-on-shod step in the right direction.

The marketing lesson here is clear: before you adopt a model that claims to help people, make sure what you’re doing is truly helping them.

What does this mean in terms of copywriting?

It means we must chose our words with as much care as we choose our causes.

And as you’ve seen from my work with Learners Guild, when the words we choose come straight from the hearts of the tribes we want to help, it can have a huge impact on creating a sense of trust and connection.

Finding the Tribes Your Customer Claims

To create sales content that easily converts people from strangers to buyers and from buyers to advocates, it’s imperative that you know your target buyer.

You literally have to speak their language.

And as I demonstrated with my story about Learners Guild, the best way to learn a language is to immerse yourself in its culture.

But in order to study a tribe, as any anthropologist will attest, you first have to find them.

A Tribal Discovery Field Kit


Here you go:  some of my favorite tools for finding tribes and capturing relevant conversations about issues that tribe members care about.


  1. BuzzSumo-  

One of the most popular content creation tools out there, BuzzSumo is super-easy to use. Just search for a topic and BuzzSumo will generate a list of the most-shared content AND will give you a list of the top influencers on any subject.

HINT: the key to finding influencers isn’t in the number of followers but the amount of engagement. Followers can be bought. Retweets and shares are harder to manufacture. So keep an eye on the people with the most shares, not the most tweeps.

2. Mention-

Mention is a good old-fashion media monitoring tool. You can use it to keep track of conversations about any topic across any platform. I’ve discovered some amazing Twitter feeds about social enterprise thanks to this tool.  You can also use it to keep track of mentions about your brand or content that you’ve created. I’ve also discovered that one of the articles I wrote for Copy Hackers gets shared daily (*cough*egoboost*cough*).

3. Quora-

Not only can you search for answers based on topic in Quora, but asking a question can result in surprisingly in-depth answers and inspire thoughtful conversations that are ripe for copy mining.

4. Reddit-

This is the Garden Gnome Liberation Front subreddit. It exists in reality.

This is the Garden Gnome Liberation Front subreddit. It exists in reality.

There’s a subreddit for ev.ery.thing. Even if you’re not aware that something is even a thing, there’s a subreddit for it.  Just search for a topic and chances are someone is having a conversation about it. Also great for Ask Me Anything threads with influencers.

5. Product Hunt-

If you’re an SaaS startup or maker, the comments on Product Hunt give fantastic insights about the needs (and quirks) of other founders, developers, and makers. Plus, you can get access into the minds of some of tech’s biggest influencers.


6. Facebook Groups-

Still bitter that MailChimp doesn't auto-save.

Still bitter that MailChimp doesn't auto-save.


I’m a big fan of Facebook Groups because people tend to be more candid and closer-knit than other, more anonymous forums like Reddit. Candid comments = more expressive language = better copy inspiration.

7. Twitter Chats-

Twitter chats can reveal a ton of information about a tribe: the issues they face and stuff they love to talk about.

8) Amazon (And Other Product) Reviews-

Joanna from Copy Hackers has a fantastic article on how to mine Amazon reviews for copy inspiration, so I’m just gonna leave this here.  Go: read it and be enlightened.

By now, my do-gooding nerd-friend, you have more than enough resources to go on a tribe-hunting expedition of your own.

If you've got a favorite tribe-hunting resource that I haven't listed, feel free to drop a link in the comments.

But before you set off, a final thought:

Grabbing inspiration for content from a community, even with the best of intentions, is still exploitative if you have nothing to contribute. What value do you have to offer the tribe you seek to serve?

(Hint: it’s not your product. Not yet.)

In an upcoming post, I’ll discuss the delicate art of sharing content with user tribes so you can start building relationships built on trust and value.

Until then, go find your tribes!

P.S., Speaking of tribes, feel free to head over to my new Facebook Group: Storytelling for Social Impact. You’ll connect with like-minded changemakers, share your ideas and support, and give each other feedback on any content-in-progress you happen to be struggling with. Looking forward to seeing you there!





Alaura Weaver