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Home » Run Your Business

Are You Building a Tribe or a Community?

Tribe or Community

During my time at Chris Guillebeau’s World Domination Summit in Portland, Oregon last weekend, I was lucky to get into one of the breakout sessions by Pam Slim of Escape from Cubical Nation. The session was about creating content maps and in the context of that she described the process of how to determine what content you should be creating for your readers. One of the topics on her map for Escape from Cubical Nation is community.

During the Q&A section of her session someone brought up the Seth Godin idea of building tribes and questioned whether or not that was the same as community. Further, she wondered if we shouldn’t all have community as part of what we create for our visitors.

I responded to the discussion by pointing out that I believed tribe building and community building were two distinctly different things. The whole thing got me to thinking about tribes vs. community and prompted this post.

Tribe vs. Community

We can play semantics all day long on what we mean when we say Tribe and Community. So for the purpose of this discussion, I’m going to make an executive decision and use those terms. Your terms might be different but the concepts are what we really want to look at.


When I think of a tribe I see a group of individuals with a leader at the helm. All of the tribes-people have come together for a common cause or theme based around the leader. The individuals in the tribe may or may not connect with each other but they connect strongly with the leader and the cause/theme. The leader may or may not connect with the tribes-people but their message is the basis of why everyone has come together.

I’ll use Seth Godin himself in this example because he doesn’t have a forum, he doesn’t take comments on blog posts, he doesn’t engage on twitter and yet, he has amassed a large following of tribes-people who subscribe to his way of thinking and share his ideas. They do not create the ideas, they simply share in them.


Communities thrive on the connection of the group individual to individual. Although the community does have a leader, that leader becomes one of the group in a participative way as well as leading the charge.

I’ll use Pam Slim for this one because community is her specialty. For her site, Escape from Cubical Nation, she has created a forum that welcomes the idea of connection between individuals in her community. Participants can engage one another and Pam can be a part of the conversation. Pam regularly participates in the forum to foster relationships with those individuals in the forum, it is not just about her community members. Another method she uses at the web site is to ask readers to help respond to comments on blog posts. She will respond, of course, but she uses the power of the group to make sure people who can help others are asked to do so. It makes for a very community-oriented place.

Which and Why?

So which type of setup do you have? What kind of setup do you need?

There are three things to think about when you prepare to determine which model your business should use.

1. What do your readers need and want?

It is important to make sure that your readers want, need and will use a community before starting one. At the beginning, when reader count is low, a free test forum is a great way to “test” the waters. It is very possible that your readers, customers, etc. aren’t interested in participating in one. They may simply want resources or how-to information.

Knowing what they want means asking and watching.

2. Do you have the time and resources to devote to a community approach?

Creating a community takes much more time, less introversion and more connections. Creating a forum that no one ever uses is not a community. More importantly do you have the time to participate in it? Communities need some management. As much as we’d like to think it’s just a group of like-minded people, someone still needs to take charge and manage it.

Creating a tribe on the other hand takes much less time. As per our definition above, clearly one can remove themselves from interaction altogether or simply closely control it. Many businesses are run this way.

3. Which model aligns best with your brand?

Depending on the type of business you have, the customer/reader wants/needs and your ability to create a community (time) you should be able to determine whether or not having a community works with your business model. Not every business needs to build a community. And, for some businesses a tribe will be too restrictive.


An example of community comes from Big Red Tomato Company, right here! Matthew spends time working to create a space for like-minded entrepreneurs to come together to connect. He has recently created a Linked-in group [Feel Free to Join!], he responds to comments and welcomes guests to write for his site. That all spells community. I feel a forum coming…

My site, Red Hot Momentum, on the other hand is more aligned with creating a tribe. Since my target customer/reader is one that needs knowledge and support, they benefit from the information presented and services provided. These business folks are busy and may not have time to participate in a forum. The newsletter I’ve created is designed with those needs in mind as well, it presents a simple task that should take 10 minutes to complete every week to grow/build their businesses.


Of course you can have any combination of these two models. One mash-up or hybrid example is Lady Gaga Tribemunity. She has a tribe for sure but the tribe has created its own small communities. Fans hang with fans. The tribe may never get access to the tribe leader (Gaga) but they can fulfill the need for connection by building and participating in their own communities locally, on Facebook or on twitter.

The Bigger Picture

The point is this, for each business the choice between building tribes and communities will be different and for each business their choice of tribe and community building activities will be different.

So it’s up to you, how will you begin to build your business model?

You’ll need to have connection if you hope to build a lasting business with repeat, long-term customers/clients. Remember that fostering those relationships in some way will build lasting connections.

Which model resonates with you, your business and your customer base and how are you building it? Tell us in the comments.


  • Katey said:

    Thanks for the cool article… I had always thought I was community minded until I read your post.

    When running my business it is very tribal – people love information but very few if any comment. It is not until I am talking to someone on twitter, or meet them at a networking function that I hear what a great and useful article such and such was.

    It’s a catch22 – in order to improve we need to hear from the community, yet work together as a tribe (individually toward a common purpose) to achieve things.

    Reading your post gave me an “Ah Moment” 🙂

  • Yolanda said:

    Wow! I’m honored, Ah Moments are hard to come by!

    I feel now as if I could keep adding and adding to the topic the more I thought about it.

    Yes it is a catch .22 but feedback isn’t necessarily a community-only function. When you are posting information that is solid how-to knowledge there is a tendency for folks not to comment because it is “use” information and not “controversial” information, i.e. specifically designed to incite a response.

    So, ask. Ask the folks in your tribe via email and twitter and facebook. Sometimes this needs to be done on a one-to-one level. I find that people really need to be emotional about a topic in order to feel like commenting.

    Your latest post, for instance, is helpful, clear, concise – I’ve got nothing to add, rather I will bookmark it for use later to make sure I’m doing it right.

    Hope that helps! Thanks so much for you ‘feedback’!

  • Matthew Needham said:

    Good point Yolanda. Thinking about this I printed an article off the other day, and it went into a few pages of comments. I never read them on authority blogs like that because they don’t add anything to the article.

    So, maybe your Tribe sits in your email list, Twitter and Facebook accounts, not on your blog?

    I think it’s important to be clear about what you’re trying to build.

    Maybe I might have to go and have a read of Seth’s Tribes book.

  • Katey said:

    Thanks Yolanda & Matthew for your comments.

    Everything works out when you put it into perceptive 🙂

    My tribe would have to be twitter. It is where I get the most feed back, next email, then facebook.

    However I had not really thought about it until I read your replies.

    Working with expert internet marketers I have it drummed in my head that it’s about social proof and blog comments are essential.

    However I am slowly learning not to care so much about social proof to the “possible” outsider coming in. And look after the current tribe I have, what their needs are and how I can meet them, support them and allow them to work together to achieve the common purpose/goal.

    Thanks for sharing 🙂

  • Matthew Needham said:

    Hi Katey, thanks for circling back around and adding back to the conversation.

    Just remember Seth Godin doesn’t accept comments on his site. A quick scan down his recent posts spotted a 6 line post which has been re-tweeted 1300 times and “liked” on Facebook almost 1600 times.

    I think that RT’s and Shares are just as important.

    But that’s only half the story. A lot of conversation goes off way off your site. I have just started using to track (free) engagement off the site and identifiying how many people RT, RT’s without any @mention of @bigredtomato – it’s more than what you think.

    I can now see who is sharing my content and send them a personal tweet.

    One way to think about this is as a sales funnel. Sure you do have to develop and nurture your tribe as they are the ones most likely to buy at somepoint, however, you do have to fill the funnel with new prospects, so maybe focus 80% of your attention on your “tribe” and 20% on creating the funnel.

    I hope that’s given you some more to think about.

  • Matthew Needham said:

    Hi Katey, thanks for your comment and stopping by. I was stumped too when I read this. I thought I was building a tribe.

    You’re right, it’s very much catch-22. Feedback helps so you know that you hit the mark with your articles.

    Glad Yolanda’s article has given you some clarity. Thanks again for sharing.

  • Raul said:


    What a great way to explain this to so many people especially here? I see here everyone trying to create a tribe the problem is that to create a tribe you have to be able to validate your experience and have a following already.

    Building community is a lot more work but is open to many people to join in and can scale faster (unless you are a celebrity of some sort). I think Lady Gaga’s model is perfect a great hybrid. But Lady Gaga every once in a while reaches out to her community so I would say even her approach is a bit of a hybrid model looking only at her. Does that make sense?

    Thanks for sharing!

  • Yolanda said:

    Yes! That does make sense.

    One thing I realized after writing this piece, and I struggled with feeling like it wasn’t “done”, is that there really are so many more hybrids.

    Seth Godin puts all groups together when he talks about building a tribe but I like seeing the distinction in each type of tribe, community or hybrid. It makes the process of creating one a bit easier.

    You can have a tribe of two people, in theory, but not a community. So I do think you can start with one person, then two, etc. I suspect we use the term “tribe” too loosely.

    As @problogger pointed out this morning, he is doing both and clearly Darren is a perfect example of someone who does both.

    I think the best way to use the concept is to find someone doing it as you want to, then determine their methods of engagement and of course the secret sauce…. Go Go Go! Nothing beats action.

    Thanks for your thoughts Raul, very helpful.

  • Gabriella - The Stepford Wife said:

    This article was great and you made a good example out of Lady Gaga and her little monsters (ie: her fans) – it really made some good sense.

    Happy Friday!


  • Yolanda said:

    Ah yes, the little monsters!

    Thanks for weighing in!

  • Joe Sorge said:

    Matthew, love your thinking here, and I agree (especially after reading this) that the two are different. Thankfully that are not mutually exclusive, as I believe the “mash-up” approach maybe most effective.
    Thanks so much for all your participation in KTC 🙂

  • Yolanda said:

    Glad the post helped clarify the differences and yes, I think the mash-up is the most effective in that it allows you to give your audience exactly what it needs!


  • said:

    Are You Building a Tribe or a Community?…

    What are you building? During my time at Chris Guillebeau’s World Domination Summit in Portland, Oregon last weekend, I was lucky to get into one of the breakout sessions by Pam Slim of Escape from Cubical Nation. The session was about creating content…

  • Adrian Swinscoe said:

    HI Matthew,
    What a great thought provoking article. I guess from an evolution perspective that a tribe would come before a community but that once a shared cause/objective is established that a community can exist without tribal leadership.


  • Yolanda said:

    The evolution idea is interesting, although do you think all tribes become communities?

    I think becoming a community makes sense in the evolutionary way you mention and yet tribes still exist…

    More food for thought!

  • Adrian Swinscoe said:

    Hi Yolanda,
    I don’t think that all tribes will necessarily become communities over time. However, if we agree that there may be an evolutionary element at play here, I guess my question would be: What stops a tribe evolving into a community that is less reliant on a single leader?


  • Matthew Needham said:

    Hi Adrian, thanks for the comment. I agree with you, but would also add, do they need to? Tribes don’t necessarily need to be a community and vice versa. Darren Rowse from Problogger said that he was both a tribe and a community. I think that’s exactly right. He has built a tribe around himself (Darren Rowse) and a community around (the forum). I’m thinking that you’re a tribe leader ( can’t be built around lots of people, unless of course they all happen to be called Adrian Swinscoe! – but I suspect that would be a very small tribe!!). as Yolanda points out The Big Red Tomato Company is a Community but Matthew Needham (ie me!) I’m looking to be a tribe leader. So, you and I as individuals are tribes, but this site extends to be a community.

    So, to that end I see that apart from earning 7 figures a year from this website, I do have something in common with Darren Rowse!

    Thanks again for the comment, Matthew

  • Steve said:

    I tend to follow more of a community feeling. It seems like the “tribe” attitude is more about one person having all the answers. With a community; you can learn from other people even if you’re the leader.

    Take blogging for example. It seems like most bloggers leaders in their own way. But one of the benefits is you get to learn skills/techniques from one another. That seems like what being part of a community is all about.

  • Yolanda said:

    Steve, I think that’s where we run into trouble and it’s the same trouble I had writing this post… our own perceptions about what tribe and community mean. They are different and yet very closely related. I agree with you that tribe does tend to have a more self-serving connotation but it doesn’t have to.

    I suspect online we see people who use Tribe as a platform and I don’t agree that is entirely what a tribe should be.

    I really enjoy seeing everyone’s perspective here. Thanks.

  • Adarsh said:

    It’s a great article. I heard about Seth’s idea of tribe and was looking forward to a clear comparison between a tribe and a thriving community.

    At first a tribe sounded like a master-slave relationship. But it’s obviously not the case. Do you define creating a tribe only by reader interaction? Then does HTML sites follow a tribe model?

  • Yolanda said:

    Thank you Adarsh!

    Seth’s Tribe idea is a solid one and the inspiration for the post started with Pam Slim’s workshop. I heard the two words together and instantly felt like they were two different things. By dictionary standards they are different but by Seth standards they are the same.

    I suspect my need to differentiate comes from wanting to better define the concept so that I could determine where I fell and looking at different tribes and communities really helps to create an idea or structure around what you want for your readers/customers/clients.

    I would stay that a static HTML site tends to lean to Tribe… HOWEVER, your community doesn’t have to be by web site, it can be through twitter, facebook, email, anywhere you choose to allow a two-party engagement.

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

  • Christine Martell said:

    This is a great differentiation. I heard your comment at the conference and have been thinking about it since.

    I have a tribe who says they want community. They are relationship oriented people, but they are also very busy. I support one part of what they do, so they come in and out over the years when they need to learn something for a project they are doing.

    The way they flow in and out doesn’t provide enough time for them to build solid relationships to each other, so although they are aware of each other and have casual connections, the primary relationship is to me.

    I have incredible customers who have a lot to offer each other, so I’d like to figure out ways for them to get more of a community feel. So I’d be really interested to hear more of your ideas of how to foster hybrids.

  • Yolanda said:

    Without stewing on your situation for some time, I can say off-the-cuff that you might have to use a static area on your site where folks can show what they do and how they are using your tools. Then other folks can go there, see if a connection makes sense and do that without you having to foster it.

    You raise an interesting dilema… I’m certainly going to give it more thought!

    Thanks for stopping by and sharing!

  • OTR Links for 06/11/2011 « doug – off the record said:

    […] Are You Building a Tribe or a Community? | Big Red Tomato Company […]

  • Sarah Arrow said:

    Great post Yolanda!
    Birds is a tribe, built with common bonds, the tribe is sometimes led by me and sometimes it’s led by others. I’d like to think we are like the Amazons, we have different leaders for different jobs.

    Does a community evolve into a tribe? and vice versa?

  • Matthew Needham said:

    Hi Sarah, thanks for stopping by. Personally I think having read all these comments and had some inputs from some “A list” bloggers on Twitter/email, that a tribe can evolve into a community. However they don’t need to. A tribe can just be as lucrative from an income point of view as a community. I think it depends on your business model. For example I can’t see Seth Godin creating a forum whereas Chris Brogan lives in one (

  • Tom Tiernan said:

    Hi Yolanda

    We have been mulling over the idea of community since we started VisualsSpeak. We like the idea of community but our customers tend to connect face-to-face and not online.

    After reading your article, I’m thinking we are more tribe based. A tribe is still a community. Just a different definition of one.

    Thanks for the perspective. Now I can stop obsessing over building a community when we are already building a tribe. :>)


  • Matthew Needham said:

    Hi Tom, thanks for your comment here. You’re right, I think there’s a degree a scale and community is bigger (in my opinion) than a tribe. Maybe tribes become larger communities over time?

  • Yolanda said:

    I think with the introduction of Seth’s book and the introduction of his concept, we’ve gotten a bit off track in thinking our businesses are all about the Tribe. The reality is that each “member” is a customer/client or potential customer/client. It doesn’t matter how they engage with us as business owners, it only matters that they DO!

    A tribe sounds cool. A community sounds cool. To me, in the end, it’s all about the customer. I don’t focus on creating a tribe or community, I focus on providing the absolute best service/product for my customer as possible.

    You really can’t force the creation of a tribe like Seth’s, and why would you want to? A mindless RT from 13,000 folks is meaningless if they don’t actually ‘engage’ or more importantly ‘buy’.

    It takes a lot of energy caring for a tribe that never buys anything…

    But then that’s just my no-nonsense attitude peeking through!

  • Tom Tiernan said:

    You’re absolutely right. Bottom line is that it’s the customer/client that matters. And whether they buy!

    Focus on the customers’ needs and let the tribe/community chips fall where they may. It’s too easy to get caught up in the tribe/community debate and lose perspective.


    PS. Love your direct, no nonsense approach. :>)

  • Matthew Needham said:

    Tom, thanks for the comment. I agree with you, Yolanda’s style is great. If you want to hear more from her, sign up to her excellent newsletter Red.Hot.Momentum which you can do here: alternatively, swing by next month when I hope Yolanda has yet more thought provoking stuff to share.

    Thanks for your comments and your attention.

    Much appreciated, Matthew

  • Extreme John said:

    Wow! Excellent business article Matthew. I had no idea before that there are two kinds of business with regards to the level of participation– that is, the tribal business and a business that is much like that of a community. And you can even have a mixed or hybrid of both types. That’s pretty cool and I love the way it is presented. Very eye-opener and insightful. I have realized that my business is a combination of both models. There are some posts where I encourage participation of a community and there are others which have fewer participation and I realized that those were the times when I was trying to build a tribe.

  • Matthew Needham said:

    Thanks for the comment John! You raise a good point. Sometimes some articles get a lot of responses and other times they don’t, it’s not necessarily the article, but the focus. Maybe going one way or the other will dictate the style of posts you write.