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The Treasure of Temporary Tribes

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Modern man is a transient being. A small fraction of us live in the community in which we were raised. Similarly, what binds us together today isn't so much our externally-obvious demographics as it is our internally-connecting psychographics. In fact, the rise of Internet communities has more to do with our common interests and perspective on life than it does the color of our skin or whom we sleep with. But, Internet communities alone aren't enough. We are naturally social beings who need the occasional hall pass that breaks us out of our cyber-cell at home or work so we can connect with our flock.

In the last three weeks, I had the opportunity to experience three temporary tribes. I only chose two of the three by celebrating at the 25th anniversary of the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah and, this past week, at the 25th anniversary of the TED conference (Technology, Entertainment, Design) in Long Beach, California. I opted out of the ALIS Hotel Investment conference that I usually go to every year as I knew that collection of business-suited tribe members was going to be dour and depressing given the sorry state of the hotel industry. Strangely, I also went to the 25th anniversary of Burning Man in the Nevada desert five years ago, so I've had an opportunity to experience tribes connected by their hearts (the Sundancers), their heads (the Tedsters), and their souls (the Burners).

Why would someone pay $6,000 to go to the TED conference when they could watch the talks on TED.com for free once they're uploaded? Certainly, there's some provocative joy seeing in person the inventor of the World Wide Web, Tim Berners-Lee, talk about his vision of the future of the Internet while the erroneous inventor of the Web, Al Gore, sits in the first row taking it all in. Of course, there's great parties and lots of star-sightings. But, it's definitely something deeper than that and it offers profound implications for how business can be transacted in the 21st century.

First of all, our transient nature thirsts for real community. Just as Blockbuster didn't kill the movie theater, online communities don't substitute for the experience of touching and being touched by your psychographic family. The real rewards at TED are less about the lectures and more about the cerebral and emotional blender that exists when you bring this many intellectually engaged people together. My best lessons as a student at Stanford Business School weren't inside the classroom, but instead they were in the community of my fellow students. This sense of expressing what you experienced with like-minded people gives you a kind of "contact high" that can't be replicated online. It's such a bonding moment to come out of a Sundance film completely in awe of what you've just seen and then connect with a stranger who was equally moved. So, modern day businesses may want to rethink their marketing. They would be well instructed to bring their customer evangelists together for an immersive experience in person that can create the kind of memories. No Super Bowl commercial will ever produce that kind of feeling.

Secondly, there's something reassuring in the knowledge that your flock is meeting once a year and that these folks with a similar world view will be there no matter what. In our unpredictable world, knowing that your tribe will come together, come hell or high water, gives you a sense of solidity especially during these troubling times. How the Burners, the Sundancers, and the Tedsters will address the common themes of the moment is part of what we look for when we come to these gatherings. At TED 2009, no fewer than eight speakers highlighted the fact that it was Charles Darwin's 200th birthday (sort of a TED God) and the 150th anniversary of his book "The Origin of Species" and made the point that evolution isn't easy or pain-free as we experience an economic evolution currently that feels more rooted in adversity than opportunity. We can learn a lot about our times from just connecting with our tribe.

Finally, one of the most profound insights about the success of these temporary tribal gatherings is that we live in the Experience Economy. As Joe Pine and Jim Gilmore wrote a decade ago in their similarly-named book, our society has matured to a point that experiences trump material possessions for a growing percentage of the consumer public (ain't that the truth today!!). When you tire of collecting stuff, you collect experiences. Companies that organize their product development and delivery of services in a manner that speaks to the idea that our customers want unique and authentic experiences will have a greater chance of flourishing with this discriminating consumer.

So, in sum, there's only one problem with this idea of treasured temporary tribes. After you've filled your head at TED, how do you deal with "TED Crash," the inevitable downside of the high you've experienced while connecting with your mates? That's when those online communities come in handy again.


Chip Conley is an author and hotelier. He is the author of several business books including:
The Rebel Rules: Daring to be Yourself in Business (Simon & Schuster, 2001), Marketing that Matters: 10 Practices to Profit Your Business and Change the World (co-authored with Eric Friedenwald-Fishman, Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2006), and his most recent book, Peak: How Great Companies Get Their Mojo From Maslow (Jossey-Bass, 2007).