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Preface to Seth Godin’s Tribes: The Convergence of Tribes: The Obama Campaign (part 3)

July 18th, 2009 · 5 Comments · Entrepreneurs, Talents, Innovators

Part 1: Tribes are more than a trendy phenomenon

Part 2: Urban tribes and digital tribes, two simultaneous phenomena

The Convergence of Tribes: The Obama Campaign… While analog and digital tribes appeared independently at the same period, they converged about ten years ago, and are now increasingly hard to dissociate. Even though the expansion of digital tribes does not change the definition of what a tribe is, it certainly modifies the fabric of our social environment. When individuals seem to belong to one given urban tribe only, it is easier to categorize them. When they belong to several tribes, it is much harder. Which is the tribe or combination of tribes that best characterizes any given person? For example, what’s the best way to address that person as a voter?

Godin wrote before the election of Obama, and therefore only indicates that “in today’s world, Barack Obama can raise $50 million in twenty-eight days.”  In fact, Obama raised $500 million over his twenty-one month campaign. A record amount, for sure. How is it that Obama was so extraordinarily efficient, and that neither Hillary Clinton (during the Democrat primaries) nor John McCain (during the presidential campaign) could benefit from the Internet in similar proportions? Such a question is all the more worth asking as the Internet has long been an important tool for electoral campaigns: John McCain was the first candidate to raise $500,000 online in one day in 2000, and the 2004 Democrat candidate for the primaries, Howard Dean, already leveraged social networks – Meetup in particular. All these politicians being leaders in their own rights, we can’t simply assume that Internet miraculously served Obama: after all, Obama had to create his Internet presence for the 2008 elections, while Clinton and McCain already had one. To win a national election, Obama had a lot playing against him: his color, his age, his name, his short time as a senator, a limited influence within the Democrat apparatus, and his lack of funds. It is not because of the Internet in general that Obama was able to compensate for his shortcomings and shatter the political establishment, but because of the way he used Internet. David Plouffe, his campaign manager, ascribes the success of his candidate to the candidate himself, of course, but also and unambiguously, to the innovating management of three linked components: people, data, and technology.

The Obama campaign proved successful at building up the levers that Seth Godin speaks about — and taking advantage of them. Until 2006, the Internet was primarily a medium whose function was to inform and reach masses, with the assumption that the larger the net, the better. With Obama, it operated as a platform to target differentiated networks of fans, micro-movements of activists, very dissimilar tribes, but, in the end, as the means to interconnect them all around one message. This message, expressed through real-time pieces of information, has worked as a sort of communication protocol establishing a common language. The Internet users addressed by the Obama campaign were not only millions of eye-balls, but a myriad of small tribes within each of the 50 states in the United States, each tribe having the ability to identify one way or another with the Obama global tribe.

In a speech at the Consumer Electronics Association (CEA) in April 2009, Plouffe provides details about his methodology. During the primaries, and contrary to what had been customary in both parties for decades (“organizations that destroy the status quo win,” Godin says), the Obama campaign focused on one single state, Iowa for almost a year, in order to establish a technology strategy and an organizational model that could be replicated in all the other States. They didn’t try to reach everybody simply because the Internet is a universal platform: “What we did differently,” Plouffe says, “was based on the belief that it would allow people to organize on their own and that they could move a message […] As we spent the entire year on Iowa, in the rest of the country, our supporters were organizing on their own. By the time we placed staff in the other states in the fall of 2007, these states were already working because these states, these people were already doing it through We empowered them in a way”. In other words, the Obama campaign implemented the key principles described by Godin to create and orchestrate micro-movements: “Our online organization,” Plouffe continues, “became a home for people. We gave them the tools to succeed, and hundreds of thousands people were spending hours on our site.” Tools of all kinds, ranging from the technology to register voters to the ability to forward a message to your entire address book in order to instantly address any attack coming from adversaries.

This approach, Plouffe adds, “unleashed the imagination and talent of millions of Americans to help shape the outcome.” These millions of Americans made the Obama message their own. The Internet was not simply a means to broadcast a directive to everybody, but a message for people to translate into their own words on the field, which is quite different. As Godin writes: “What leaders do: they give people stories that they can tell themselves. Stories about the future and change.” The Obama campaign addressed people as they are in their real world with their ideals, their prejudice, and their personal way of expressing their beliefs:  We have a crisis of trust out there,” Plouffe says. People don’t accept information like they used to, from their media, from their government, from their businesses; what they trust is what their neighbors and family members have to say. They live the same kind of life. And we put a huge premium on this in our campaign. Nothing is more important that Gary talking to the six or seven people he might talk to on any given day.” In the end, the Internet was not so much a net to catch millions of fish at once, but rather what I called in a conversation with a group of entrepreneurs, a Local Impact Positioning System (LIPS), enabling people to tell the right story to the right public at the right time. In short, the Internet is the ideal tool to scale traditional grassroots marketing.

Neither the Internet nor the social networks changed the American electoral map by themselves: it’s the people who leveraged these tools to get heard. By establishing a complementary relationship between the analog and digital realms, a geocentric Web, Obama was able to attract younger voters as well as older ones in a different way. As reminded by David Plouffe, had Obama addressed the same pool of voters in the same way – those who had participated in the Bush-Kerry duel in 2004 – he would have won over McCain by only one percent. Which means that Obama might not have won at all. This one percent might not have even existed, because the opponent to McCain would have most likely been Hillary Clinton.

What’s important may not so much be that a tribe is always a tribe, whether analog or digital; what matters may be the type of cooperation that a leader establishes between his/her tribe in the physical world on the one hand, and the Internet representation of that tribe on the other. The Internet side of a tribe is its organizational architecture, allowing everybody to know what to do and enabling immediate communication at all times: the Internet enables a type of dynamic responsiveness simply impossible to imagine off-line. As a result, it can drastically change the impact of any given tribe. The physical side of the tribe is where people execute, which, in turn, enables corrections and adaptations on the organizational side. In the end, and well apart from the current Web numbering efforts that primarily serve marketing purposes, this geocentric Web (a Web with its feet on the ground) made the Obama tribe the fastest profitable start-up ever. In any case, it was the most efficient fund-raising apparatus since the beginning of the Internet and drew the largest number of fully engaged users in the shortest timeframe – a level of performance that could inspire the business model of many entrepreneurs.

The Web –  a world of differences… The Web connects people. That’s a truism, yet a complex one. The Web connects people who, at a given time, and showing a given facet of their identity, agree to connect to others. The Internet connects people who belong to a same tribe. As much as it is a participative architecture, the Web is equally a differentiating platform, a place where myriad of tribes of all types and sizes want to affirm their uniqueness. In 1993, when Marc Andreessen and Eric Bina created the browser that popularized the World Wide Web, Mosaic, the Web had only 200 sites. Today, the fragments – the tessellae as specialists call them – that constitute the Web mosaic are also an infinite and changing mirror of the extraordinary social and human complexity, of a galaxy of tribes that each wants to have a say, sometimes at expense of others. So, how is it possible to fill the space between compatible (or loosely compatible) tribes, and eventually give some of them a common purpose? That’s when leaders are needed, leaders that able to not only lead one tribe, but able to coordinate multiple tribes at once.

The diversity and heterogeneity of digital tribes may not necessarily lead to a new War of the Worlds. The simple fact that each of us is well aware that as individuals we are also a collection of characteristics that we can express by joining distinct digital tribes may also be the best way for us to prepare to join a complex tribe in the real world, even when it does not reflect us entirely. After all, gays in San Francisco massively voted for a president who never claimed he was in favor of gay marriage; African-Americans massively voted for a man who didn’t have their history, and for many American Christians “Barack” ended up meaning “blessed” and “Hussein,” “elegant.” Ultimately, the digital tribalism detour that enables people to speak their mind may reveal itself to be more efficient than any direct democracy at reflecting the American diversity and multiculturalism, eventually dispelling many preconceived ideas about the Unites States and accelerating history. Who would have been able to seriously predict that the United States would have a black President only forty years after the assassination of Martin Luther King? “It seems that we rarely get to see leadership in action. We tend to notice it after the fact or after it’s gathered steam. That’s because it starts where we least expect it,” Seth Godin notes in a section that he titles “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised.” 

Marylene Delbourg-Delphis

For more information about Seth Godin:

French version of the book:

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