Tribe Management in Real Estate: Just Don't.

Seth Godin, he of the bald head and brilliant marketing insights, has a new post up talking about how branding is dead, replaced by what he calls ‘tribe management’:

It adds to that the fact that what people really want is the ability to connect to each other, not to companies. So the permission is used to build a tribe, to build people who want to hear from the company because it helps them connect, it helps them find each other, it gives them a story to tell and something to talk about.

And of course, since this is so important, product development and manufacturing and the CFO work for the tribal manager. Everything the organization does is to feed and grow and satisfy the tribe.

Instead of looking for customers for your products, you seek out products (and services) for the tribe. Jerry Garcia understood this. Do you?

Who does this work for? Try record companies and bloggers, real estate agents and recruiters, book publishers and insurance companies. It works for Andrew Weil and for Rickie Lee Jones and for Rupert at the WSJ… But it also works for a small web development firm or a venture capitalist.

People form tribes with or without us. The challenge is to work for the tribe and make it something even better.

With all due respect, I think Seth made a mistake by including real estate agents in that list.

There are a couple of reasons why.

First, the term “tribe” by its very nature implies permanence.  The definition of tribe is:

1: a social group comprising numerous families, clans, or generations together with slaves, dependents, or adopted strangers

2: a group of persons having a common character, occupation, or interest

Add to that dictionary definition, the anthropological notion of a tribe being organized around kinship connections, and you get the idea of permanence.  After all, what is more permanent than family?

You can extend the metaphor plenty — after all, the second definition above is about as wide open as you can get.  So you can speak of a ‘tribe’ of a particular writer’s fans — I belong to the ‘tribe’ of George R.R. Martin’s fans.  I also belong to the ‘tribe’ of people crazy about Alison Krauss and Union Station.  The membership in these various tribes is based on relatively durable interests.

So when Godin speaks of working for a tribe, I have to think he means some sort of a more-or-less durable group of people with common interests.  Blue-state conservatives, or people who love chocolate, or whatever.  Work for such a group, and find products and services for that tribe, and you can be successful.


But what happens when the “tribe” is held together by absolutely nothing except a passing, momentary need?  If the sky opens up in a sudden rain shower, is it logical to call all those running for cover a “tribe of shelter-seeking people”?

What Seth neglected to take into account is that real estate consumers surface every seven years on average.  Alex Periello of Realogy likened them to whales who breach the surface every seven years in a frenzy of activity for a few months, buy/sell the house, then disappear for another seven years.  There is no permanence there.  No enduring interest, no enduring common character.

Are there special niches within real estate where tribes are found?  Sure.  Commercial investors might make up such a tribe — because they have an enduring interest, a permanence to the membership.  But for general application, the “tribal management” approach to real estate marketing is likely to get you very broke, very fast.

Second, and this is perhaps a bit more fundamental a critique, it appears to me that even within a tribe, branding occurs.  Unless we’re talking about paleolithic hunter-gatherer societies, you always have specialization in any group of human beings by the very fact that we’re not the same.  Some people are just better at making pottery than others; some are just more talented at writing poetry than others.

Seth’s focus on ‘what people really want is to connect with each other’ is just a touch too much of the soft muddled buzzword-driven thinking that infects so much of modern marketing.  (Personally, I blame Facebook.)

In some cases, what people really want is to connect with each other.  In other cases, what people really want is someone to solve their problem for them with the minimum hassle.  If my pipes burst, I really have no desire whatsoever to connect with the plumbing community and partake in their tribal rituals.  Sorry, I don’t.  I just want a competent plumber to come to my house and take care of my broken pipes.  That’s it.

And frankly, I really don’t have the desire to go and engage in a lengthy conversation with my tribe (whoever the members may be) and learn the ins and outs of a plumber’s skill level, education, perspective on piping, and his philosophy of ecological sustainability.  I just want to know who to call, and if he’s reasonably competent.

Branding is absolutely critical in those cases.  I’m not likely to call the guy who brands himself as “The Best Baker in Town” with my piping problem, despite not having connected with him or his tribe, or held lengthy conversations with my neighbors about his qualifications to fix my pipes.  I’m far more likely to go to Google or and search for “plumber” and go with the guy with the best branding.

Because I really don’t want to think about it anymore than I absolutely have to.

Now, combine the two factors and you have a perfect storm of non-tribal work.

Real estate consumers are not a tribe, because its “members” surface every seven years.  When they DO actually surface, they’re not looking for kinship connections or establishing common interests.  They’re looking for someone to help solve their problem with a minimum of hassle: buying, selling, or renting a place to live.  The buyers are not looking to connect with the sellers anymore than they absolutely have to.  The sellers are not interested in having the potential buyers come over for tea and biscuits while they discuss all of the various interests they have in common.  They’re just looking to transact business for their own purposes.

In that context, I submit that branding is absolutely crucial.  Being branded as a professional real estate agent, who knows what he’s doing, who knows the market, who is an expert in the process, and can get things done with a minimum of hassle and maximum of helpful advice, will be of far greater utility than any sort of “tribe management” strategy.

Ignore branding at your own peril, if you’re in the real estate business.


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Rob Hahn

Managing Partner of 7DS Associates, and the grand poobah of this here blog. Once called "a revolutionary in a really nice suit", people often wonder what I do for a living because I have the temerity to not talk about my clients and my work for clients. Suffice to say that I do strategy work for some of the largest organizations and companies in real estate, as well as some of the smallest startups and agent teams, but usually only on projects that interest me with big implications for reforming this wonderful, crazy, lovable yet frustrating real estate industry of ours.

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2 thoughts on “Tribe Management in Real Estate: Just Don't.”

  1. I found your site on google blog search and read a few of your other posts. Keep up the good work. Just added your RSS feed to my feed reader. Look forward to reading more from you.

    – Sue.

  2. I found your site on google blog search and read a few of your other posts. Keep up the good work. Just added your RSS feed to my feed reader. Look forward to reading more from you.

    – Sue.

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