When it Comes to Social Media, Think Tribal
by Jennifer Williams
Visibility Magazine – December 2008
(original article reprinted below)

Here’s a radical idea. Social media is not new, at least not entirely. The technology that delivers and facilitates it is new. The social part is as old as humanity, dating all the way back to when we lived in small tribes, and even though we no longer live in small tribes, human design is based on that early environment. Evolutionary Psychologists (also known as Darwinian Psychologists) propose that all human social behavior can be traced back to evolutionary adaptations. From reciprocal altruism to gossip, it is all driven by the purpose of keeping our species alive. Social interaction between humans is an innate, powerful, and sustaining force.

When viewed through this lens, it becomes difficult to shrug off social media as a passing fad. The various tools can surely rise and fade with surprising rapidity (remember Friendster?), but the premise that drives it is ancient. Understanding the social premise that drives Social Media can help search engine marketers and businesses sort out the fads from the staples, as well as lay the groundwork for harnessing and leveraging it.

Social Media is a loose term for all things “social” on the internet to include blogs, wikis, video sharing (YouTube, Google Video), podcasts, social networking sites (Myspace, Facebook), picture sharing (Flickr), social bookmarking (Digg, StumbleUpon, Reddit), and now even social browsers like Flock.

So Social refers to the ability to interact, and Media refers to the tools. This article focuses primarily on the “social” part of the equation.

Science has arrived at a few models to explain human social behavior, from Maslow’s Heirarchy of Needs to evolutionary psychology’s position that everything we do is driven by the need to carry on the genes. Either theory pertains, and neither needs to be understood at an academic level to demystify Social Media. Just think tribal. Social activity and the underlying emotions that drive it are a means to an end, the tools that execute the logic of survival. Status, leadership, power, affiliation, reciprocal altruism, cooperation, sharing of knowledge, trading of goods, pair-bonding, and even aggression are all part of the social milieu that help a group work toward that same survival end game.

It is at once deliciously complex and beautifully simple.

How Tribal Behavior Translates on the Internet

Up until Social Media, the internet was largely impersonal, random, and intimidatingly large. It was difficult to know which businesses were legitimate, which sources of information were accurate, and generally who could be trusted. Humans generally don’t take well to such conditions. A child in a new school will feel anxious until a new peer group is secured. Potential peer groups will remain suspicious of the newcomer until his/her character is revealed so that they can determine what the newcomer can offer. Once accepted, the peer group shares important information to help the newest member navigate his or her new environment. This sharing of knowledge, while imperfect, is efficient, and a form of reciprocal altruism. Even information that seems frivolous, such as gossip, has its purpose by helping to make determinations about what characters to invest time in.

At the base of this is a powerful drive to connect that is felt. Humans feel a strong need to connect with others to make sense of their world, to not feel lost in a sea of infinite possibilities and to share in mutual benefit. Though the underlying motivation is survival, the conscious emotions are social.

Social Media tools transformed the internet from an unfamiliar, socially disorganized, and unwieldy landscape to a humanly manageable series of social circles. From that point of view, the advance of Social Media is inevitable, not the next hipster flash in the pan. The kid at the new school has established his peer group, and thus carried out evolution’s plan.

Social Media offers tools for people to establish social groups, and to behave online much as they do offline. For example:

  • Social Networking establishes social circles, personal character and status.
  • Social Bookmarking allows for sharing of knowledge and gossip.
  • Blogging facilitates all of the above.

Yet, how does this help a search engine marketer determine what Social Media tools to leverage? How does this help a big business figure out how to market in this sought after arena?

Thinking Tribal to Leverage Social Media

First, here is an example of what would happen if a business failed to understand basic human social interactions in the real world.

It’s a Wednesday afternoon in Ms. New Mommy’s house, and she has invited some of her friends over to share an afternoon of coffee, conversation, and mutual admiration of their plump-faced, wide-eyed progeny. Suddenly, out of nowhere, a wild-eyed man busts into the house wearing a sandwich board, wielding a bullhorn and shouting into it, “USED AIRPLANE TIRES, 50% OFF!! BUY, BUY, BUY!!”

Absurd, isn’t it? After the bewilderment of the women wore off, chances are this guy’s next potential customers would be his cell-mates at the local lockup. It would be hard to find a marketer or business that would be foolish enough to try this tactic, and all the reasons why it wouldn’t work hardly need to be deconstructed. Yet, online marketing in Social Media sometimes takes such a counterintuitive approach. When Facebook hit the big time, businesses were hungry to break in and market there. They wanted, in essence, to crash the party screaming, “BUY, BUY, BUY!” and when the Facebook tribe responded with active ignoring, banishment, and even public shaming, some marketers sat back in startled confusion. What went wrong? They failed to think tribal.

The marketers who succeeded in leveraging Facebook understood that particular social arena and anticipated social behavior within it. That initial understanding enabled them to create tools that would be, not just accepted, but popular. One such application, ILike, launched a start up into success.

There is no doubt that a group of mothers are consumers as much as they are friends, wives, and mothers. Successful offline marketers long ago figured out how to think tribal. They understand when and where and how to best communicate to a group. They ask questions and respond by providing products that are desired by a particular group, whether it be for status, basic survival, efficiency, protection, or exchange of knowledge. Successful offline marketers understand human nature, and online marketers need to as well to leverage Social Media.

To best demystify and thus understand how to navigate and engage with Social Media then, simply take out the “media” part, or in other words, translate it into offline social correlations. In this way, the question no longer becomes, “Should my company (or my client’s company) have a blog or videos on YouTube?”, but rather, “What Social Media tools are the best fit for communicating with my consumers?” or, “What should I bring to the party?” A business must first answer such questions before they send out the tech troops to develop widgets, shoot videos, or set up a blog.

Why the Tribe Won’t Let You Ignore It

Another mistake created by wrong-angle thinking is the dismissal of Social Media altogether. Failure to understand it, leverage it, or make direct and immediate return on investment leads many businesses to ignore Social Media. If they can’t understand it, they would prefer to leave it out of their marketing arsenal. A business can no more expect to ignore Social Media than could a tribesman ignore the people standing in front of him who wished to make a trade of goods. To behave in this way would have resulted in any number of social punishments. We witness that very same behavior online when a powerful blogger speaks out negatively against a company, or when a group of users on Digg “bury” a story from a user that isn’t “with the program”.

Think of it another way. For the better part of history, trade was a face-to-face transaction. Merchants interacted with their customers in small markets, or village stores, and trade was as social as any other activity of the day. Customers shared their knowledge of merchants an goods with their social circle. They bargained and bartered. Merchants got to know their customers and introduced them to new goods that could enhance their lives. Sly merchants could get away with fooling their customers for a time in this small social context, but not for long, and would soon be driven out of town. Honest merchants, friendly merchants, and steadfast merchants were able to sustain and prosper their business over time.

The internet marketplace now resembles a virtual village. Customers can once again share knowledge and reputation of merchants with ease with their social group and beyond. So the snake oil salesman can put up a good front, but will have a hard time sustaining business. Businesses that make the mistake of thinking of the internet as endless and faceless, fail to think tribal, and they may pay the price for it. Take a recent example straight out of the blogosphere where a semi-prominent webzine was discovered clipping copyrighted pictures from a popular blogger. The webzine, even though they were bigger, ended up in a rapid and public back pedal to try to salvage their reputation and readership. As with the small village, those merchants who engage with their customers with transparency, honesty, and friendliness, who play the social game, will gain a leg up on the competition for the simple reason that humans are social, and now the internet is too.

Understanding the social matrix upon which all human interactions are based, including merchant to customer, results in an organic understanding of what questions a business needs to answer to determine how to leverage Social Media and the virtual tribes it has created. In short, behave with your customers online as you would as a merchant in a small village.