Google


NOVEMBER 2003
Fresh from the success of his current bestseller, Purple Cow, Seth Godin is now talking about his next book.


across the hall
It is going to be about pathways to innovation -- and, even more important, how to implement those innovations.

Says Seth: "Marketers can do a better job of finding what they're looking for by first accepting that no one cares very much about them."

In other words, his next book, called Free Prize Inside, due out in May 2004, promises to be classic Godin.

Seth Godin. Should you mention his name and get back a blank stare, just say two words: Permission Marketing.

Oh, yeah: Seth Godin. The guy with the shaved head and the yo-yo. The one who sold his company, Yoyodyne Entertainment, to Yahoo. The one who writes all those books: Unleashing the Ideavirus, Survival Is Not Enough, The Big Red Fez.

That Seth Godin. The one who figured out that games were a great way to get people to interact with brands online -- pretty much before most of us knew what "online" meant. The one who had an email address when he was in high school … in the late 1970s.

This is the Seth Godin (is there another one?) who worked summers for Spinnaker Software in Boston while he was getting his MBA at Stanford University. That was in the mid-80s. When he left Spinnaker, to get married, Seth moved back to New York, and imagined he might find similar work there.

That didn't happen. So, instead, Seth started his own company. It was a "book packaging" company. What he did was come up with ideas for books and then send out proposals to a raft of publishers. If one of them bought the proposal, he would write the book. That explains why, if you go to Amazon.com, you will find a slew of books written by Seth Godin on all kinds of subjects. The idea worked pretty well, too. But Seth had a different idea for another kind of company -- an internet company -- which he started across the hall from the book packaging outfit.

That internet company was Yoyodyne, where Seth pioneered the concept he later made famous as "Permission Marketing." His clients included AOL, E-World, MSN, CompuServe and Prodigy. Yoyodyne grew to something like 90 people, with offices in Boston, New York and Los Angeles.

How he grew the company is a story in itself. As Seth tells it: "We didn't have big money to spend to advertise. So, the two parts of the strategy were, one, writing the book, Permission Marketing. We figured that if there was a name for what we did, we could get on the list of things that clients wanted to buy.

"The second thing we did was to turn me into a brand. So, I shaved my head and gave thousands of speeches, just to get the word out. "

It was exhausting, but it worked: "The speeches were effective because we had something different to say and that got us on the radar of people who were considering trying something new," says Seth. "Shaving my head was worth millions of dollars in advertising because people recognized me, and for some reason that made them believe what I said."

verbatim

Seth Godin
Has your view of the internet as the medium for marketing changed over the years?

It's changed in some ways but stayed the same in others. I took a lot of flack eight years ago for saying that e-mail was the "killer app," that web banners didn't work, and that the web wasn't television. I think that all of those things have proved to be correct. But I really thought of the web -- and how could you not in 1993 -- as a niche medium. I couldn't visualize a world where, when the internet went down, 80 percent of the white-collar workers in America would need to go home.

When we would go to sales presentations in the '90s, we would spend at least half the time persuading managers that lots of people had e-mail. Well, now you don't even have to mention that people have e-mail, because that's like saying people have a telephone. So, the ubiquity of it has really changed.

But in 1995, I was one of the very first people to write that spam was evil and was going to wipe out the efficiency of the whole system. I didn't at the time know what that would feel like ... what it would feel like to try to be productive and have 250 pieces of spam to carve your way through. Or that you couldn't check your e-mail with your kids in the room because who knows what they would see on the screen.

Does that mean that spam has destroyed the potential of e-mail as a marketing medium?

E-mail as a marketing medium will never be what it was. I think that RSS (Really Simple Syndication) is coming along, and it's going to change a lot of things.

But the fact is that certain people can still market very well with e-mail because they have discipline, and they really understand what it means to use permission properly. At the same time, the vast majority of marketers are basically white-collar spammers. The mistake that they are making is believing that the short-term benefits of weaseling their way through their privacy policy is worth it, when it fact, it's not.

The reason the e-mail medium is limping along is that people are too tempted and too greedy, and they push just a little bit further until they get a push back. The problem with that is that 98 percent of the people who you are contacting who now hate you, don't say anything. So when you're getting a push back of 100 people, what's really happened is you've annoyed 10,000.

Seth Godin, Permission Marketing
Is it now a good idea to put TV commercials on the web, now that broadband is more broadly established?

This is a real easy one to talk about. The fact is that there are two ways you can run TV ads on the internet. One way is to put on ads that people want to see. An example is the BMW movies. That is permission-marketing writ large.

The other way to do it is to put an ordinary TV commercial that stands between the user and what the user really wants to do -- what I call "interruption marketing." That doesn't work because there are an infinite number of channels people can switch to. Consumers don't have to watch the commercial.

How about blogs? Are they just another fad?

The 'hey let me tell you about the flowers in my garden' model of blogging is not long for this world. I do believe, however, especially when you start adding RSS to the equation, that you can use a blog to engage large numbers of people in conversations that may not have the impact of permission marketing, but don't have the annoyance of interruption marketing.

You can say to people: Look, I'm not going to show up in your e-mail box every two days with something that you may not want to hear about. But what I will do is create an ongoing monologue that's focused on you. Whenever you believe it's appropriate to take some time catching up, this is a good, cheap way for both parties to have that interaction.

When you add an RSS feed to it, people can have a little aggregator in their windows where they can stay current with the information they want, whether it's brands or writers or journalists. They can create their own private channels.

What's your take on Howard Dean's use of the internet as a centerpiece of his presidential campaign strategy?

Well, the fact that politics gets covered so much by the media means that when a politician figured out how to succeed online it was inevitable that it would get covered, which is great. The problem is that there are a whole bunch of people, mostly politicians, who are completely misunderstanding the tactics and the strategies.

Just because things are happening on the internet doesn't mean that taking TV politics and moving it onto the internet is going to work, because it's not. What Dean has had the discipline to do is to not take every e-mail address he's collected and try to figure out how to spam people to get $2,000 from each person as fast as possible.

The Dean campaign took its time in terms of building a network of blogs, places and people, each of which could say different things to different people in a way they want to hear it.

How about in terms of mainstream marketers -- are any of them doing a really great job?

Something very funny happened to me on my blog the other day. I posted, for the first time in a really long time, the URL of a site I liked. I got more angry mail about posting this URL of a good site than I ever got for criticizing anyone. As soon as I posted it, everyone said: "You think that's good? Why do you think that's good?" And every single problem with the site they took great pains to point out to me.

Would you rather talk about who's really doing a bad job then?

What I would like to talk about is William Gibson and Buzz Rickson. William Gibson wrote a book called Pattern of Recognition, which is pretty good. The beginning part is actually really good. In the book, the main character wears a Buzz Rickson, black MA1 jacket.

Now, Buzz Rickson, it turns out, is a Japanese company that makes a perfect replica of a WWII Air Force jacket. They do it with an otaku and they sell it for hundreds of dollars. They are magnificent.

So, I went online because I thought it would be really cool to see if Buzz Rickson was a real company or if William Gibson was just making them up. So I go to Google, type in "Buzz Rickson," and the very top company is actually an ad that says "Buzz Rickson Jackets."

So, I click on the ad and it takes me to the Buzz Rickson products page of HistoryPreservation.com, where there are pictures. Right there it says, in a big starburst: We have, by special request, the William Gibson black MA1 jacket. Now, these jackets did not exist until Gibson wrote his book, right? So I say, okay, I've got to get one of these jackets, even though it's ridiculously over-priced.

Seth Godin, Survival Is Not Enough
Then you get down at the bottom and it says "contact us." They don't want you to e-mail them -- you should call them. I roll my eyes at that -- that's ridiculous. But there is an e-mail address. They said if it's really an emergency you can e-mail them. So I e-mail them and a week-and-a-half later I get an e-mail back from the CEO. He answers my three questions. I write back to them. They write back to me. And a transaction will occur.

What is so good about that model?

What is so good about it is that it's almost a combination of intent and naivete that's leading to a highly profitable sale. It's a human being sending an e-mail to another human being who wants to receive it. When it comes to a model for how to do things online, this comes a lot closer.

Now if they're smart, what they'll do -- and this is where a lot of ventures fall apart -- is they'll stop trying to find customers for their products and they'll start trying to find products for their customers. Their job is to find stuff for me, not to find more people like me who will buy their stuff.

Howard Dean is another perfect example of this. Howard Dean says that 200,000 people gave him 80 bucks. Well, if he can get those 200,000 people, over time, with their permission, to give him a thousand more dollars, he will have made more money than any candidate in the history of American politics.

This changes things in two ways. One, it makes it easier for him to raise the money. Two, it makes it less necessary for him to raise money, because all the people who have a small stake are more likely to go out and vote for him, and bring their friends when they do.

Each one of your books has a really tight and compelling focus. Where do these ideas come from?

My new book, which comes out in May, actually is about a process for implementing great ideas. I think there is a small cadre of people who know how to brainstorm, who through genetics, or practice, or luck, are good at the art of quieting their brains and having things occur to them.

I think it's a mistake for many people to try to do that ... the same way it would be a mistake for me to learn how to be really good at skiing. It's just not going to happen. Marketers can do a better job of finding what they're looking for by first accepting that no one cares very much about them.

Seth Godin
I could do a complicated, multi-layered book that some critics might think is way better and more thoughtful than Purple Cow, but the only people who would read it would be people who care about me -- and no one cares about me.

So, by forcing myself to have a really cogent sub-title and a title that makes it easy for one person to tell another person, I'm acting the way I would like most marketers to act. When I challenge people in my seminars I say: Tell me in one sentence what you want this website to do. Tell me in one sentence what you want person "A" to tell person "B" about what you do.

And they say: "Well, it's complicated -- it's blah, blah and blah." Then they're invisible. They don't exist. They need the discipline to say that if they don't have one thing to say, they have nothing to say. Then they will be able to be a lot more cogent.

What led you to the cogent idea for this new book?

You know, every once in a while I decide never to write another book because I don't think I can do better than the last one. Survival is Not Enough is a book I'm really proud of, a multi-layered one that took me more than a year of hard writing to write, but that no one bought and no one read. And, still sort of reeling from that, I hadn't made any plans for writing a new book.

Then two things happened. The first thing that happened was that I started a little record label, just as a marketing experiment. One of the musicians I recorded was worried because she didn't think I was going to be able to make a very good record because, previously, I'd only produced one other album.

She said: This is what we do for a living and it's got to be very good because if it's not very good we'll be embarrassed. And I took her aside and said: Jen, you're already "very good" and it's not getting you anywhere. Very good does not get you on the radio and very good does not get people to buy your records because they already have records that are very good. Why should they switch? You have to be remarkable.

That really worked for her and it worked for me.

Seth Godin, Purple Cow
The second thing that happened was my dear friend Lionel Poilane, to whom I dedicated Purple Cow, who was a baker in France, died in a helicopter crash. Well, you can't dedicate a book to someone unless you write a book. And his bakery was a complete revelation to me. I've actually flown to France to have breakfast with him and see the bakery and talk about it. I was scheduled to see him two weeks after he died.

I wanted people to understand what it was that he had done that had touched me in such a way and that was such a lesson for everybody else. So those two things came together and I took a lot of very hot, long showers because that's where I come up with my basic thinking and turned it into Purple Cow.

This new book, the one coming out in May, I did in a much more deliberate way. The publisher who published Purple Cow bought two books from me, and so I owed one. Then I sat down and I said, okay if I'm going to write a book, following my own advice, how do I do that? And so that's what I did. I very deliberately went through the process that I talk about in the book to make the book itself.

So this new book is designed to help bigger, more plodding, companies kind of tap into some of this magic that comes more naturally to people like you?

It is very much supposed to do that. The problem for most people who have a good job in a big company is that their main goal is not to lose their jobs. What big companies do is reward people for not screwing up. That is exactly the wrong thing to do, because if they don't screw up then the company will certainly fail. The whole "safe is risky, risky is safe" paradox kicks in here.

Did you hear about Kentucky Fried Chicken? I'm going to put that in my new book. I find this hysterical. All right, so there we are at Kentucky Fried Chicken. Suddenly, everyone in America apparently cares about eating healthier. What's the answer? Let's fire Jason Alexander and run a bunch of commercials that tell people that fried food is good for them. No one's going to get fired for running those ads, but that's got to be the beginning of the end for them, right?

The same thing happened with beer before that. The right answer is to take a deep breath and say: We have 10,000 outlets around the world. What could we serve at these outlets that people who want to eat healthy would seek out? That's a totally different way of looking at the world, but essential if you're going to grow.

Seth Godin
Is there a common thread that runs through all your books?

Other than the fact that I tend to get a little pissed-off sometimes? Yes. If there are threads, number one is that treating people with respect always works better than not treating them with respect.

Then number two, I believe as a corollary of that, smart individuals always do things better than dumb organizations. And so if we can empower the smart individuals and organizations to move things forward -- especially if they can do it in a way that respects all the constituencies without kowtowing to them, but just respect them -- then everything works better. Our jobs are better, our companies are more productive, the products that get made are the products that should be made, and everything just turns out for the best.

The other thing is, there's a large class of people who want to read about ideas but don't want to do anything about them. So, my thought would be to say to those people: Look, you can read about this, but you can also try it for free.

You can fire up Outlook Express and have an e-mail relationship with hundreds of your customers before the hour is up. So why don't you do that? Why don't you send an e-mail to a hundred people who do business with your company and ask them a question and see what they write back?

Then, have a dialogue with a hundred people for a week and see what you learn. Why don't you get your staff together for lunch and tell them that the last person who comes up with a crazy idea is fired and see what happens? There are lots of things you can do that don't cost anything, that aren't particularly frightening, that can start this process unfolding in a bunch of different directions.

But if you just keep reading about it, nothing's going to happen.


©2004 reveries.com