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How marketers can create tribe-like relationships with customers

Long before social networks exploded into our lives, there was another way that human beings had connections with each other: as members of the same tribe. Anthropologists have found that as human beings evolved from primates to hunter-gatherers, tribes of up to 150 members were created. The size of the group is important: it is the number of people with whom we can maintain a meaningful relationship.According to Robin Dunbar, an influential evolutionary psychologist, it’s what human beings are ‘cognitively built for’.

Dunbar, who has written numerous books, including the Journal of Evolution, How many friends does one need? and delivered TED talks globally, believes most of us can maintain a social connection with 150 people, but any more than this and the authenticity of the relationships is lost.

With the introduction of social networking, most have more ‘connections’ than the golden Dunbar number. But, if you look through your Facebook or LinkedIn connections, you will probably find there will be about 150 people that you can offer something personal to, such as recommending a restaurant they would enjoy or a book on a topic that would interest them – they’re your tribe.

The Dunbar Number is fine from a personal level, but what does it mean for a brand that has a customer base of hundreds or even tens of thousands of people? How do you create interactions with customers that are personal and meaningful?

Customers today have a deep knowledge of the brands they interact with – think about how easily you can identify the iconic red of a Coca Cola can. Conversely, they expect brands to have the same level of understanding about them – their preferences of communication, previous purchases and channels they interact and shop.

It now seems that a marketer needs to be an anthropologist, copywriter and a relationship expert in order to reach the empowered, hyper-connected consumer. I don’t know any marketer, or in fact anyone who meets all this criteria. So where do we go from here?

Marketers can enrich their campaigns by creating interactions that make customers feel that the brand knows them as an individual, they are part of the tribe. My view is that this can be done in two ways.

1. Brand personality.

The face of the business is what enables the consumer to connect with a brand and what it stands for. If your CEO doesn’t want to be the next Richard Branson, you can draw on your employees to help bring out the essence of what your brand stands for. Or show the behind the scenes view, such as how products are made.

Mackays, a family business that grows bananas in Queensland, puts barcodes on its bananas sold in-store which when entered online, reveals the location of the crop where they were grown. The company’s website also introduces the consumer to the family members involved in all aspects of the business.

It’s a great example of turning the business inside out. Although we are living in the digital age, as human beings we have Stone Age needs and abilities. We seek to have interactions with another person, not a machine or recorded message. For brands, this means a shift back to the personal days of customer engagement: it means that they can start engaging with consumers, rather than selling at them.

2. Utilising data.

Never before have marketers had access to so much data. Data should be the first place that you start and the foundation of all marketing plans. It will enable you to know how to talk to a consumer about what they want and through the channel they want. It also allows marketers to communicate with customers in real time, responding to their preferences and behaviours.

In today’s world, a personal connection goes a long way. We’re hard-wired to think in a tribe-like mentality and expect to be valued by those we interact with. Brands are no exception and it takes data and genuine communications to build relationships with customers. Sometimes, you have to look back in order to move forward.