Digital Tribes – Creating Behaviour Change in Users

Everyone is a customer for something. As UX designers we should be aiming to influence customer behaviour in order to persuade them to take action for the benefit of the brands we work for. One way we can do this is by tapping into the theory of digital tribes and the group behaviour they inevitably create. We are all part of a tribe of some sort, whether that be around an interest, a hobby or an organisation. Looking at customer behaviour through this lens can help increase our understanding of the customer journey and more importantly, influence it.

Influence Flowchart

The problem with influencing group behaviour

Historically, there have been several ways to identify and connect with different audiences or ‘tribes’. Unfortunately each of these have different problems associated with them.

Type Issue
  • Simple to understand but requires hard economic data
  • Quite broad
  • Indicates spending power but no indication of propensity or need to spend
  • Location based – favours traditional media not online
  • Proprietary
  • Potentially expensive
  • Limited information on interactions that drive behaviour
Task based (Explorers, Hunters, Trackers)
  • Can be overly simplistic – takes account of how behaviours change through a task based process
  • Very broad – no emphasis on relationship building

 The emergence of the digital tribe

The internet eliminates geography – Seth Godin

Seth Godin
Seth Godin

The internet has opened up a wide range of ways to target what used to be fragmented and expensive to reach groups of people – but they can be harder to identify. Individuals can span a range of groups – or digital tribes. Often these digital tribes are based on interest.

Digital tribes and their individual user journeys can span multiple touchpoints. The growth of digital is breaking down barriers but it can make users harder to reach. The users tend to be looser in their destinations and it is becoming increasingly difficult to influence users into taking action we want them to with any degree of control.

Some examples of digital tribes could be:

  • Breaking Bad fans
  • Arsenal supporters
  • Mums (e.g. mumsnet)
  • Trekkies

Digital tribes are extremely valuable touch points for brands for a number of reasons:

  • They are self sustaining
  • They can survive without strong incentivisation or leadership
  • They are not necessarily dialogue based
  • They are loyal and in many cases long lasting

Another reason digital tribes are of particular interest is because they are often multi-generational. For instance brands like Lego, Apple or Harley Davidson contain tribe members from all walks of life and age range.

Using digital tribes to influence user behaviour

Digital tribe attributesMany anthropologists use the term tribal society to refer to groups organised largely on the basis of kinship and geographical location. Whilst geography may play a lesser or greater role depending on the digital tribe we are talking about, there are three shared attributes tribes tend to have which which make up their identity.

We can tap into these attributes in order to engage with them as user experience designers and influence their interactions.

1. Language

Many digital tribes have their own distinctive jargon and/or symbolic language which develop naturally in the same way slang does in certain social groups. We can help cultivate this by using the tribes own language in our messaging, navigation, content and sometimes by even incorporating it into the product itself.

The most famous example of this is probably Twitter and hashtags. Hashtags were used by the Twitter community as a way of following particular topics. Twitter decided eventually to incorporate this into their core product and it became an official feature.

2. Culture

Shared Narrative

Create a shared story or talking point about the brand or community to encourage discussions. Hashtags are a great way to consolidate these discussions and make them easily findable by the tribe members.

Screen Shot 2013-10-28 at 16.33.34

Shared Values

Pret - Good FatCommunicate the brand values in your marketing and community messaging. A great example of this is Pret A Manger who’s customer base is formed around good, nutritious food.



Shared Rituals

Pret - daily soupRepetition leads to ritual. Pret announces their daily soups each day on Facebook and Twitter. You can also extend this to things such as weekly competitions or content which is always published at a certain time or day.

3. Organisation

Ask for opinions and feedback from your tribe. If the tribe feels like they are being listened to they will be more loyal and cohesive. An obvious example of this is providing customer service online through the brand’s Facebook or Twitter pages.

Once established, communities will tend to govern themselves. Negative elements will normally be chastised or discarded by the wider community. Very often brand champions or advocates will emerge – particularly as a result of feeling like they are heard. These champions can often do a lot of the grunt work of managing the community for you.

Plug DJ is an example of self-managed tribes built around music genres

The campfire

Digital tribe - camp fires
Traditional camp fires

Each digital tribe has a ‘campfire’ which they  gather around.

These campfires tend to enable one or more of the following three tribal activities

  • Co-operation (Wikipedia)
  • Communication (Social networks)
  • Cognition (Blogs)

However, some forward thinking brands are building their own tribes around platforms outside of these such as the ASOS fashion finder.

Screen Shot 2013-10-28 at 16.49.47

Digital tribes are a powerful mechanism to take into account when taking on projects like trying to increase conversion rates or reduce customer service enquiries. Very often this involves a combination of UX, social media strategy and content input.

Understanding digital tribes is key to any digital brand strategy and understanding the way consumers act online.

This article is taken from a presentation at Digital Shoreditch in 2012. Co-written with Andy Farmer. Image courtesy daspader