Seth Godin’s 7 life-changing ideas for marketers (and everyone else)
An exclusive interview with marketing visionary Seth Godin
September 6, 2017
Is there a better way for marketers to spend 45 minutes of their time than listening to Seth Godin? Having just wrapped the opening episode of The Sophisticated Marketer’s Podcast Season 6
I don’t believe there can be. The author of Permission Marketing, Tribes, Linchpin and Purple Cow plays the part of curtain-raiser for a star-studded line-up of interviews over the next few weeks. And he doesn’t disappoint. In fact, he’s not even in the same dimension as disappointment.
Seth’s capacity for original thinking, humour and humanity has played a critical role in defining the philosophy of marketing for the internet age. However, Seth is more than just a source of inspiration for better marketing strategies. He’s also a vital source of inspiration for better life strategies. I know this, because it was reading Linchpin that inspired me to escape from a dying music industry and find a better way to be myself as a B2B marketer.
Both sides of Seth were firing when we got together for our interview. Going back over the recording, it struck me that he’d casually mentioned seven ideas, any one of which can have a transformative impact on life as a marketer. He doesn’t trumpet these ideas, he doesn’t grandstand about them; he just shares them as naturally as if he were discussing the weather, the quality of the coffee, or his favourite jazz track. That’s part of what makes him Seth Godin – and part of what makes 45 minutes spent with him so worthwhile.
Click on the link below to hear the opening episode of The Sophisticated Marketer’s Podcast with Seth Godin in full. Then scroll down for his seven life-changing ideas – and why I believe they are so important:
Reach is almost always the wrong path
In Seth’s view, one of the fundamental flaws in marketing strategies is the assumption that your job is to reach lots of people. As he puts it, that’s at best a side-effect and at worst, a distraction from what you should really be trying to achieve:
"Reach is almost always the wrong path. It’s easy to collect a crowd on Main Street. You just parade a bunch of super models and people will stop. But that doesn’t mean that you’ve earned any trust and it’s trust and customer traction that build organisations.
“Being known by lots of people isn’t really the goal; it’s a by-product of certain kinds of marketing for certain kinds of products. What you’re really seeking is to be trusted, to be heard, to be talked about, and to matter. And if we look at any brand that’s succeeded, that is what they have done.”
The next time you’re planning a piece of content – or planning how to present your content in a social media feed – spare a thought for how you’re balancing the essential objective of Trust with the tangential objective of Reach. If you’re seeking to mislead or manipulate your audience in order to increase the chances of content going viral; if you’re playing the clickbait game, then the chances are you’ve got the balance wrong.
What “content marketing is the only marketing left” really means
According to Seth, this is the quote of his that’s most frequently misunderstood – largely because it’s almost always taken out of context. I got the feeling he really appreciated the chance to set this one straight. Warning: if your strategy is based on churning out content with little regard to quality, you’re not going to like what he has to say.
“When I said ‘content marketing is the only marketing left’, I didn’t mean that people being paid $4 an hour to write cheesy, algorithmically driven blog posts are the future of marketing. I meant content marketing with a small ‘c’, meaning the stuff we make and the way we choose to tell a story about it. That’s what marketing is now. It’s not advertising, it is how we are in the world.”
For Seth, every piece of true content should have a unique and inherent meaning that relates back to the brand story – the real ‘content’ of your brand. It should be drenched in authenticity. For me, nothing illustrates how far marketers can drift from this than the huge number of posts that Buzzsumo research shows are never shared at all – not even by the people who wrote them. If, as marketers, we’re producing content that even we can’t see the value of sharing, then surely we’re doing something wrong.
Industrialize or humanize: the choice is yours
The true meaning of “content marketing is the only marketing left” goes hand-in-hand with another point that Seth made in our conversation: about how marketers should be looking to leverage the technologies available to us at this moment:
“The question is: are we going to corporatize, industrialize and productize everything, and figure out how to just crank things up because we can? Or will we use this moment to be more human, and to figure out how to be original and to be missed if we are gone.”
That’s a great challenge to bear in mind when using data, automation and (when the time comes) Artificial Intelligence. These technologies can make our marketing choices less intuitive, sensitive and human – or more so. The important thing to remember is that we have a choice.
The crucial difference between anecdotes and stories
Storytelling is one of the most over-used buzzwords in marketing at the moment – partly because people find a way to apply it to just about any marketing tactic, any piece of marketing activity, and any piece of marketing content. Seth’s take on the real meaning of stories is worth keeping close. It reminds us why a lot of marketing activity doesn’t involve storytelling – and why it’s worth aspiring to marketing that does:
“An anecdote is interesting because it happened to you – and it’s only interesting because it actually happened. A story is more universal than that. A story involves tension, and it involves identity.
“There are wonderful stories that many powerful brands have been built around. They’re about identity, about culture and the change that we seek to make. What we do when we do great marketing is we tell stories; stories that create tension, stories that lead to forward motion.”
Seth uses the example of “the boy cried wolf but the villagers didn’t come” to illustrate how a great story can take place over as few as nine words. That’s all it takes to explore what it feels like to blow people’s trust, abuse their attention and stand there helpless with nobody coming to your aid. Stories are universal because of the way each person can identify with them – and the result that identification leads to. Whether they happened or not is the least important thing about them.
Real brands aren’t for everyone
The smartest marketers know that you can’t build a great brand by trying to appeal to everybody. You have to do it by crafting a consistent and authentic story over time. Here’s Seth’s take on it:
“Harley Davidson can tell a story with an ad, they can tell a story with a video, but they can also tell it with the sound that the bike makes, and they can tell it with which kind of leather jacket they’ve decided to grant a license to, and they can tell it by where they’re going to have a rally. All of those things are part of the story of Harley Davidson. And so if we’re going to build a real brand, not just a logo, we’re going to build it by living a story – one that’s not for everyone but for the people we seek to serve.”
Sales teams want to be able to keep marketing’s promises
Sales and marketing alignment is fast becoming the priority that it deserves to be for any business looking to grow. I asked Seth what he felt the secret to a better sales and marketing relationship really is:
“Professional sales people want marketing that makes a promise they can keep – and they get very frustrated when marketing shows up with promises that just aren’t true. They are the feet on the street, they have to look people in the eye. And they don’t want to have to say ‘this ad isn’t true but you should buy this product anyway.’ They care a lot and that’s where mismatches occur, because the marketer who hasn’t been on the sales floor can’t understand that.”
Seth explained that this is why he recommends that marketers spend some time working in sales – and also why sales reps spend some time experiencing life in customer service. It’s not a one-size-fits-all solution to the complex business of sales and marketing alignment – but it can certainly help different groups understand the role that each plays in the buyer journey. Putting the marketing team’s objectives in the context of the sales team’s experience, certainly feels like a valuable way to bring the departments closer together.
Don’t bother playing a game you’re going to lose
Linchpin, which Seth wrote in 2010, is a book that changed my life. It convinced me that trying to fit in is exactly the wrong way to go about building a successful career. I was lucky to find an organisation in LinkedIn that celebrated individuality in exactly that way. But is it realistic to expect all organisations to be that accommodating? Are there some businesses and brands where it pays to submerge your true identity and play the corporate game to get ahead? Here’s what Seth has to say:
“I guess we have to talk about what the outcomes of playing the game are. If you are working in a corporate setting where they want individuals to be fungible, cogs in the system and easily replaceable without the power to demand accommodation, then you can play that game. The question is: Can you win that game? And the answer is: No, you can’t.
"Yes, one out of a hundred people in your starting class will end up as the boss, but 99 of you will be phased out because you’re replaceable cogs in the system. The alternative is to play a different game, and it’s the game of being sought out, being worth accommodating, being able to earn the shot at doing more interesting work. I agree with you that there are corporations where the only way to work there is to play their game. But I would point out that you don’t have to work there.”
To me that idea is still as inspiring as when I first read Linchpin. I think it applies to any original-thinking marketer and, in fact, any professional full stop. It takes courage to be the unique individual that you were put on earth to be. But in today’s professional world, it’s the only sustainable path to success.
There’s your healthy dose of inspiration from Episode 1 of The Sophisticated Marketer’s Podcast Season 6. And there’s a lot more on the way. Subscribe to the podcast and you won’t miss our upcoming episodes starring bestselling authors Bryan Eisenberg, Scott Stratten and Eric Barker.