Nine Tribes of the Internet

101 copyIf you work in online advocacy transformation at any organization, a presentation by Lee Rainie of Pew Internet which describes “Nine Tribes of the Internet” is timeless.  I first heard it at a Web Manager Roundtable in 2009, and his message to web managers still rings true: your job is to organize content to fit the needs of your users. When you want to connect to your audience, you must get on the same wave length as the receiver of the information.

Rainie’s research reveals 10 personas to keep in mind – one of which is off the net altogether (hence it is Nine Tribes, not 10 Tribes)…..

  • 8 percent – Digital Collaborators
  • 7 percent – Ambivalent Networkers
  • 7 percent – Media movers
  • 9 percent – Roving Nodes
  • 8 percent – Mobile newbies
  • 13 percent – Desktop vets
  • 14 percent – Drifting surfers
  • 10 percent – Information Encumbered
  • 10 percent – Tech indifferent
  • 14 percent – Off the net

When I collapsed the categories into broader clusters I found, based on the Pew research:

  • 22 percent were “wired” either creating or sharing content;
  • 17 percent were “mobile” getting their info primarily from smart phones or texting;
  • 47 percent were “low” on online engagement front, and primarily wanted user-help features and traditional transactions and
  • 14 percent were “off” the net entirely, as Rainie put it.

Sift through his entire presentation below if you want. Be sure to read on with this post below the slides to get my take on what the research holds for how communicators need to do their job.


What does this mean to web communications? It’s a big mistake to put all your chips on the desire to have your network act, because more often than not they will be there to lurk. My lesson is that it is time to be strategic about who you are talking to and how you are delivering and packaging your information. And the need to have smart packaging and presentation of content is greater than ever before.

This is a powerful tactic to translate this into action when your goal is to spread information and persuade them to your point of view.  Nirvana for web activists is less about prodding your friends, followers, stakeholders, etc. to create content.  The universe of people who do this is really quite small. Instead, serve up content in a bite-size chunk and in a format that is easy to share.

In this new communication playing field, often your victory is about picking the right distribution channel.  Mainstream media has lost steam because we now go where people congregate to spread information.

So if the sweet spot is really NOT about getting social networks to create content, but instead hinges on distribution, what is a web manager to do? Rainie divides the targets into broadband and mobile users and provides a smashing road-map (which he called the 4 “A”s) to flavor how to do business online:

  • Attention – Leverage traditional platforms and alerts, updating feeds. Be available and relevant.
  • Acquisition – Be findable in the Long Tail. Distributed publishing means offering “link love” Find/create pathways through the network.
  • Assessment – Honor the ethics. Be transparent, show your sources, aggregate the best related work, when you make a mistake, acknowledge easily.
  • Action – Feedback, remix, reuse, mash-up. Look for opportunities for community building, be open to the wisdom of the crowds.

As some colleagues reminded me when I shared this research, information is not cheap. But distribution is. And it has changed the ballgame for communications.


It is time to relearn everything you ever knew about marketing and PR. While some of the basics of message development hold steady and true, the days of how to distribute your news and information has changed forever.

As Hubspot preaches to digital marketeers you must shake out the old out-bound marketing habits (TV-radio-main-stream-media) and add some in-bound marketing habits (RSS, social networks, bookmarks, list-serves) if you want to take advantage of the new way people consume information.

The bottom line: it is time to get EVERYONE in the organization involved in doing the inbound thing. The days of “it’s not my job” classification of what we do at work are over. The PR office must ask and teach their office colleagues to show some link-love for everything that you put out the door. Start with step one, and if you are feeling bold continue on up to step five.

  1. Tweet it with a shortened URL
  2. Put a note (or a feed) in their status on Facebook with a URL/embed
  3. Put a note in their status on LinkedIn
  4. Embed in their blog/blog about it
  5. Submit online comments

When I watch some organizations (like get their peeps to all configure the automatic RSS feature on their Facebook pages with their blog posts, and I’m in awe of the discipline. You set it and forget it, and then continually spread the news via RSS out toward all the social networks on your team. Traffic can’t help but build.

Of course, before you distribute information, you must create it. And how that job occurs has a big impact on your success in your chosen distribution channel.

In this world those who do the heavy lifting to simplify and filter information and tend to its presentation and packaging often don’t get the credit they deserve. The irony is that if they do their job right, the content presentation seems simple and painless. And the user may not appreciate the front-end effort and pain involved in making it that way.


The power to persuade is the power to filter. This is one reason it is interesting to watch the trajectory of Bing, Microsoft’s “decision” engine. Did you see the joke about “Googling on Bing?”

What continues to sadden those of us who care about web communications is how stuck large institutions are in the old way of organizing the work of distributing information on the web.

Too often, the bulk of the funding and resources go to the technology provider and their bloated proprietary systems and platforms, along with the perceived needs to have fancy and expensive protocols in place to keep the security people happy. Meanwhile, where is the RFP section that addresses content or quality?

A wise web manager invests in her content and content strategy, and gets on the same wave-length as her audience.  Why? Because the power has shifted to those who filter.  When you understand what the nine tribes of the Internet means for your organization and integrate that understanding into your web operations, you will be an effective online advocate.