Choosing the right social media strategy: audiences vs. tribes

In a recent survey of readers I did, the “time sink of social media” turned up as something that challenges many: how do I get the most out of my time? out of this season of life? People want to know how to get the best “return” for the time investment they make. Social media becomes a ‘time sink’ when very little value is returned for the time invested.

“Media” is the plural form of “medium.” The English word medium comes from the Latin medium which meant ‘the middle, midst, center, or interval.’ Medium in the sense of communication has had the meaning of ‘an intermediate agency’ from the 1600s. Any medium or media is essentially something “in the middle” of us, in between us, enabling communication. Paper is a medium for writing, painting, etc. Print is a medium for the presentation of thought: a book exchanged between an author and a reader is “in the middle” of the two of them.

“Social media” is our catchall phrase for a medium (form) of communication enabling both mass sharing/resharing and commenting. To the individual item is attached either a ‘like’ (in some form) or a ‘comment’ (in some form). By enabling this, social media carries not only the information but the ‘value’ of our recommendation.

For those of us using social media for ministry purposes, I think the first key decision to make is your social media strategy. There are two possibilities. The first is to build as large an audience as possible for the purpose of a single goal (e.g. a prayer mobilization campaign, recruitment campaign, or raising funds for a single initiative). The second is to build a tribe of influencers as part of a longer-term effort which may consist of multiple strategies and campaigns.

Audiences are able to do ‘one thing’ and do it really well: crowd-fund projects, express outrage to politicians, vote, purchase, and so on.

Audiences are usually built by a charismatic individual who can create and share something both original and of value to large numbers of people (a song, story, book, poem, film, video, opportunity to act, etc). Audience-building can be assisted by re-sharing the posts of others and adding value with a comment on how it applies to the ‘why’ of the audience (this is curation).

Audience-builders have to be careful about what they post. The value of any single post can be less in the view of a single individual. If I have a million followers, what I ate this morning becomes important in two instances: as celebrity gossip for rabid fans (or enemies), or if I’m a chef. Keep in mind why the audience is following you, and discipline yourself to share posts which are valuable in that context. It makes sense, when audience-building for a campaign (e.g. prayer mobilization) to have a specific account for that purpose, separate from your individual account.

Tribes are less about the person and more about the vision. They are people who gather around a common cause, although they are often gathered by a charismatic individual. The people gathered interact with each other, not just with the initial gatherer. And tribes can flex: when faced with a situation they can discuss it internally, identify a good option, and implement the option, then move on to the next situation.

Tribe-gatherers, therefore, need to use a format that allows them not to not only interact with their tribe, but to encourage the interaction of tribe members with each other. For my purposes, I’ve mostly been working on gathering a tribe of mission-passionate activists and advocates. And the key difference between in strategy between audience-building and tribe-building seems to be the number of people “one-step” removed from you. When building audiences, it’s larger (you have more direct followers). When building tribes, it’s smaller. You have to reduce the number of people you directly interact with.

The reason is this: when you’re building audiences, you’re creating a single piece of new content of interest to everyone in the audience (a song, a poem, a book, a prayer resource, a funding request, whatever), and sharing it with all of them. But when you’re building tribes, you’re listening to each individual person in the tribe and responding to them, helping them, engaging with them, encouraging them to interact with each other and maybe build their own tribes. (And, they’re listening to each other.)

Because you only have so much time and attention, there’s a limited number of people you can interact with and maintain quality. So for me, building tribes, ‘less is more.’ To build a tribe I need to take steps to ‘reduce’ my “personal fame” — turn away from large numbers of followers in favor of moderate numbers of tribe-makers.

Making this decision — audiences vs. tribes — is challenging. We really need to make it on the basis of which can do what we see needs to be done; but often ‘ego’ can get in the way. Fame and fortune may beckon you to choose an audience-building strategy to do something that a tribe is better suited for. (I suppose the opposite may also be true: shyness may lead me to choose a tribe-strategy for something an audience-strategy would be better for.) Figuring out the right strategy may require some boldly honest thinking and the wisdom of counselors.

If you’re going to build an audience, the next step is to ask yourself how big an audience you need (you can reverse-engineer this based on the success line) and what sorts of things would appeal to that audience. If you’re going to build a tribe, the next step is to make sure your vision is well defined, what ‘success’ looks like and how it’s measured, and then ask yourself how you’re going to collect the tribe that will accomplish that.