When you think back to the previous tribes that made up our population, what comes to mind? Most people think of strong ties that were expressed with allegiances to chieftains, stories shared over late-night fires and children ushered into adulthood through various rituals. Tribal members identified themselves with masks and tattoos, and they certainly weren’t afraid to fight for their turf. Everyone worked together to make the tribe succeed, and everything that was needed to survive was made available through the tribe.

Tribes defined people. They gave tribal members a home, a sense of identity and a safety net. When you look at it this way, you can see that we now live in a new world of tribalism, but the idea certainly isn’t extinct. Rather than being part of one tribe, we are now a part of many. We belong to the community where we live, but we also belong to many other tribes. One minute we might find ourselves engaging on Twitter about the latest hockey game, while the next minute we’re pinning images on Pinterest about summer recipes.

Centuries ago, tribes were bound by blood, but today they are bound by interests and passions. The Internet has made these connections more accessible as well. No matter what we’re interested in, we can easily find groups of people that share these same passions.

Tribal Marketing and Your Institution

So what does all this tribal talk have to do with your college or university?

When it comes to marketing, your school probably focuses on targeted groups based on age, gender and demographics. But students are part of different groups that have nothing to do with these characteristics. Instead, they may be part of tribes based on their interests and hobbies, and it’s these groups that define them and drive their consumption choices.

This means that your marketing efforts are still a step behind your students. If the tribes that people choose to be in expand beyond age, gender, nationality and class, why are you still marketing to these groups?

Tribal marketing is student-centric because it’s less about your college and more about helping students achieve what they want. For the most part, students won’t be trying to create new groups. They will be looking for existing tribes that are well-established. They will then want to strengthen the tribe with new skills and learning opportunities. This is where you come in.

Your college or university needs to show students how you can strengthen the bond between them and their peers. You need to amplify the social experience rather than disrupting it. You need to find a way to partner with these various tribes and make your mark. If you simply target groups based on their age and demographics, you’re limiting your school and what it can do for others.

So what are some of the ways that you can be successful at tribal marketing?

Identify Your Tribes

First, identify which tribes are most likely to be a good match for your school. If your school has a strong liberal arts program, the groups to work with are those that have interests in art, music and photography. You can easily find these groupings on social media like Pinterest, Instagram, Facebook and Twitter.

You can be as selective as you want in finding certain cliques. In fact, you’ll see that this approach is more rewarding than looking for students simply based on age or location. If you search for students that are between 16-18 years old in your local community, only a small fraction of these people will be interested in your school because they have such varied interests. But if you focus on 16-18 year olds with a passion for photography, you cut through the noise.

Learn About Your Tribes

Once you identify your tribes, you need to learn about them just as you would learn about your target audience. Who are their influencers? Where do they meet? How do they share ideas? Is there a special language they use? In order to speak to photography students, you must understand their language. You can always hire a trained expert if you’re not sure of all the details. Being accurate and precise will show your professionalism.

It’s also important to know where your tribes meet. Do they meet online only, or are there offline locations as well? Photography students enjoy sharing their works of art online, but it’s also likely that they meet in local vicinities to share ideas or practice photography together. Knowing where these groups meet allows you to market in different areas such as on social media and in a local coffee shop.

Reach Your Tribes

Now it’s time to reach your tribes. Keep in mind that tribal marketing requires a different way of thinking compared to traditional marketing, so it’s smart to have a fresh perspective. Instead of looking at these groups as targeted categories, look at them as groups that you can serve. Your marketing efforts should be geared toward building relationships with others that share the same passion. How can you interact with them? What information can you give them to broaden their experience?

Ideas include offering places where photography buffs can get together such as a community Facebook page or Instagram account. You can also provide tailored content that focuses on the photography industry in the form of colorful infographics and articles. Interview famous or up-and-coming artists and download the interview on a podcast or use it to create a short video. Make your school present at conferences or events. Run a contest where people can share their works of art and get feedback or ratings from others.


Tribal marketing is a fresh approach to traditional marketing. It shouldn’t take the place of your current marketing efforts, but it should be an addition to what you already do. It’s important to have this mindset so that you don’t limit the groups that you market to. When you think outside the traditional age and demographic characteristics, you’ll see that there are many leagues you can associate with. College is an investment, and it’s up to you to deliver practical benefits that will help students in their distinct life and career path.