Saturday, April 15, 2006

All journalists are marketers.

Idea Man
By Joe Jarvis

He says the only thing he sells is change. So why is Seth Godin so successful?

FOR THE FIRST TIME in my journalism career, my interview checklist reads: list of questions, tape recorder, ink pen, notepad, and one bottle of caviar-extract shampoo. Seth Godin, originator of permission marketing, listens on the other end of the telephone line as I read the label of my wife’s latest addition to her private apothecary, which once functioned as our shared bathroom cabinet. The bottle boasts “antiaging formula.” Antiaging? Doesn’t hair consist solely of dead skin cells?

“That’s right,” Godin says.

Then why on earth would my dear wife purchase hair product made from fish eggs to stop the aging process of something already dead?

He pauses for a few moments and then advises, “It sounds like you need to buy her some flowers.”

This quick rapport helps keep Godin booked for speaking engagements up to 65 days a year, when he’s not busy organizing his own Whiteboard Seminars or writing follow-ups to Unleashing the Ideavirus, the most popular e-book in history. Or writing his next hard-copy book, Small Is the New Big,, due out this summer. Or writing daily entries on his blog, read by more people than his seven best-selling books combined. Or starting a direct marketing company like Yoyodyne, which was acquired by Yahoo! in 1998. Or monitoring the growth of Squidoo, his latest — and in many ways most ambitious — project.

GODIN HAS A KNACK for getting a jump on sea changes — the man had e-mail in 1976. And while marketing departments across the world strain to think outside the box, Seth Godin invents new boxes.

During the mid-1990s, marketing experienced an honest-to-goodness paradigm shift. Prescient marketers began questioning the effectiveness of producing increasingly louder ads to communicate with the average American, who was already being bombarded with 3,000 advertising messages per day. Simultaneously, American consumers started leveling their deadliest weapon — neglect — against interruptive marketing tactics, like the sales call that imposes on the family dinner. “And then, on top of that, you add the Internet,” Godin remembers, “and there were a whole bunch of different forces coming together at once. The fact that there are 500 radio stations and 500 TV stations and a billion websites means that I can’t just buy a Super Bowl ad and hope to reach a lot of people.”

Yoyodyne reached a lot of people. Godin and his 70 employees received more e-mail messages per day than any other business on the planet. Driven by the ideas in Permission Marketing, the book that launched Godin’s career, Yoyodyne’s success was evidence of a company’s need to persuade customers to “raise their hands,” to go out of their way to learn about new products and services. Among many other direct-marketing strategies, Yoyodyne provided the likes of AOL, MSN, and CompuServe with interactive games for potential customers. These games offered education about new products and rewarded users with sweepstakes prizes and other incentives. In 1990, Guts, developed by Yoyodyne for Prodigy, quickly became the most popular game on the Internet. Godin, in turn, became a sensation, speaking to everyone from Wal-Mart and Disney to Yale and NYU.

Since then, Godin has written a spate of increasingly popular books, founded a music label, and, with the help of a doctor friend, published an innovative idea for a kidney transplant procedure in a medical journal. Regardless of the particular hat worn on his trademark shaved head, Godin first and foremost considers himself an agent of change. “There are a lot of people who try to make a living trying to sell consulting or trying to sell a product,” he says. “And the only thing that I sell is change. That’s all you can buy from me. I have succeeded if, at the end of a talk or at the end of reading something I’ve written, something in your life changes for the better.”

UNFORTUNATELY, after Yoyodyne demonstrated the capabilities of e-mail marketing, spammers promptly ruined the medium for everybody. So, the agent of change kept moving. In 2001, he began his blog, before most people had even heard of weblogs. Presently, 80,000 new blogs go online each day, opening endless doors for commerce. Godin’s blog discusses prominent marketing breakthroughs and pratfalls. (“Most organizations spend lots of time imagining that everyone in their audience is their mother-in-law, when in fact, nobody is.”)

Today, Godin is hopeful that Squidoo, the innovative technology he currently uses, will soon become ubiquitous.

Godin started Squidoo, which has the clean feel of Google and the personal touch of About.com, partly because “most people who search online don’t find what they’re looking for,” he says. “They do really bad searches. No one’s ever bought anything online with just one click. They research it. They get the lay of the land, and then they take action.” In an ordeal that inspired the e-book Everyone’s an Expert, Godin spent more than three hours shopping online for an espresso machine: clicking, reading, backtracking, clicking, reading — until he found helpful information.

The idea behind Squidoo, Godin says, is to reduce the amount of time people spend chasing down useful information: “Here it all is, in one place, from a real human being who has no hidden agenda. This is just the good stuff.” To explain, Godin tells me about aardvarks. “I could build a lens [on Squidoo] about aardvarks. Maybe I’m a professor of aardvark technology. I could have pictures about aardvarks, books about aardvarks, notes about upcoming aardvark conventions, all sorts of information that, at a glance, would give people what they need to know to get started.”

A lens is a one-webpage introduction to any given topic, built by an expert or enthusiast, filled with useful links, and hosted on Squidoo.com. For example, lensmaster Ray Daly constructed a basic intro to Sudoku, the hot game of the moment, with an explanation of Sudoku mathematics and links to puzzle-subscription services. One of Squidoo’s most famous lensmasters, Dr. Jane Goodall, created a page about her life philosophies in connection with her work with chimpanzees and charities.

“The aardvark example I gave you sounded ridiculous on purpose, but every single day, thousands of people type ‘aardvark’ into a search engine,” Godin says. “We don’t need just Britney Spears and Paris Hilton covered; we need to cover things like aardvarks and espresso machines.”

One of Godin’s favorite examples of interesting lenses is geared toward fondue; the other, New York delis. “When you see one of these lenses that works, it becomes really clear to you that that’s the place you want to start,” he says. “If I were from Wisconsin, before I went to a deli in New York, I’d want to read this lens and understand which one to go to and where it is.”

WITH CHARACTERISTIC modesty, Godin says that Squidoo isn’t “going to change marketing any more than search engines changed marketing before Google. I think Squidoo is merely something that is going to enable a whole bunch of online transactions to go better.” But just because you’re modest doesn’t mean you can’t be ambitious. Godin hopes Squidoo will raise $100 million for charity and help 100,000 people quit their jobs. “Those are the two goals,” he says. “I’m using every tactic that I know. It’s easy for me to do that, because I’ve already written them all down.”

Those goals come closer to fruition each time someone visits a lens and clicks through to Amazon or eBay to purchase one of the books, albums, or services endorsed by the lensmaster, who receives a commission for the sale. (Squidoo also makes it easy for lensmasters to redirect all income to a favorite charity.)

One of the tactics Godin uses in pursuit of those goals involves the idea of marketing as storytelling, set forth in his most recent and most controversial book, All Marketers Are Liars. “Liars is selling more [copies] every week, but the title really put people off, so it’s depending entirely on people hand-seling it to each other. I wrestle with myself about, if I were to do it all over again, whether I’d change the title. I’m not sure. I should have called it Green Kangaroo or something like that,” he jokes, referencing his wildly successful book Purple Cow. It’s fitting that the book depends on word-of-mouth marketing. All Marketers Are Liars has nothing to do with lying. The word liars simply made for a far better title than storytellers would have. The cheeky title refers to the relative truths that marketers tell people about a product, as well as to the stories people tell themselves — and other people — when using that product.

Godin asks the price of the caviar-extract shampoo and tells me that my wife “got at least $20 of joy out of the purchase. Never mind taking it home. Just buying it gave her joy, because what people pay for when they buy most anything these days is the anticipation. The feeling of self-satisfaction, the way it feels when you put it in the bag, the dream of how it’s going to make you happier or more attractive tomorrow. When it comes down to using the shampoo, in practice, it’s way less important. What’s important is the dream.”

That dream is the story. Liars discusses the stories we tell, whether about why we buy SUVs with needlessly flared wheel wells or about the spectacular service we think we received at the Union Square Café. Those stories spread as ideaviruses, infecting new people, exposing bigger demographics.

One of the book’s theses states that everyone is a marketer, whether you’re introducing a new line of soy chips or embarking on a first date. “I don’t think that most of the people outside the world of marketing who listen to me think they’re doing marketing,” he says. “They think they’re trying to spread ideas, which is my definition of what the new marketing is, so it’s good that I’m reaching them because I’m trying to broaden what the topic is altogether. It used to be you couldn’t do marketing without $10 million, and there were only 200 companies. Now you can do marketing for free. So, it’s everyone.”

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