Know your customer: digital tribes

The rise of social networks has changed how companies interact with their users: online marketing is now about social communities and generating interest groups rather than just the hard sell
Know your customerAs we move into the second decade of Google's existence and witness the fast rise of social networks like Facebook and Twitter, there are big questions for companies and marketers about the nature of their audiences and their consumers.
Today the mantra is more about participating with audiences or users rather than simply broadcasting a programme or a marketing message to them. And it is also increasingly about portability, rather than just offering a piece of content like a song or a service such as a flight booking facility, that sits only on one device in one room of the house.

In the digital world, getting people's attention means creating and accessing communities of interest – also known as digital tribes – that have shared interests over a particular subject or service.

Members of digital tribes are defined by who they hang out with on the web or via their mobile devices; it is about what interests a person has, and what networks they communicate inside of. "Traditionally companies have targeted people by socioeconomic groupings, but that misses the point," says Tudor Aw, digital media partner at KPMG, which has recently identified some of the characteristics of digital tribes and how they function. "There is something about why a certain group of people are together around a certain service or interest that is much more powerful than simply their demographic group."

David Docherty, chairman of the Digital Television Group, the digital standards body for the UK, says it is useful to identify these tribes, but only up to a point: "It's also important to remember that they are incredibly fickle. Tribes are nomadic; they don't stay pu for long. So, 'goth culture' as a way to describe a tribe will work, but only up to a point."

On the internet and connected mobile devices, the one-to-many model of television, radio, newspapers and even early internet websites is long gone and replaced by a many-to-many model. Strategies are shifting to embrace "communities of interest" – especially now that social networks such as Twitter and Facebook have grown to be so staggeringly popular in just the last couple of years.

And because people belong to more than one community or digital tribe, this provides opportunities as well as challenges for marketers. The trick is to be able to identify which communities a person is attached to at any moment.

"Today's marketing imperative is to manage conversations about brands," says Richard Pindar, chief operating officer of Publicis Worldwide, a creative advertising agency owned by WPP that recently launched a branded entertainment division Publicis Entertainment that will bring brands into programme making. "We are seeing a switch from being a brand manager to being a brand guardian and influencer. That is a very different place to be sitting."

In the networked world provided by the web, many companies and brands are starting to focus on the big social networks, led by Facebook, but including MySpace, big blogging sites like the Huffington Post and games communities like Addicting Games and the recently purchased Playfish, as a way to tap into the social zeitgeist around online communities. "The most exciting things right now are happening in the social communities, and the idea is to take advantage of those powerful communities, because that will make you that much more interesting to your users," says Mika Salmi, chairman of Habbo Hotel , a social networking site for teenagers.

Salmi, who until recently was the president of global digital media for MTV Networks/Viacom, says that the rise of social networks has changed how companies interact with their users, viewers and customers. "The goal for companies used to be to use promotions and short clips to drive people back to the company's home website and keep them there," says Salmi. "Now it's about figuring out where people are and taking your content to them."

To that end Habbo Hotel is close to launching on Facebook using the social network's popular Facebook Pages platform, which is essentially a free publishing platform that allows companies like Habbo to replicate the Habbo experience inside of the Facebook community of 300 million users globally. Some 1.3m brands have used the Facebook Pages platform since the service launched a year ago, including Nike, Adidas and ITV's X Factor. Says Salmi: "It's like having your embassy on foreign soil. You control the experience but you get access to all the Facebook users."

by Kate Bulkley  @

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