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Seth Godin has written 12 bestsellers that have been translated into 33 languages

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Seth's worst seller and personal favorite. Change. How it works (and doesn't).

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THE DIP BLOG by Seth Godin




All Marketers Are Liars Blog




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Member since 08/2003

Seen, heard, gotten, changed

Most of the news/advice/insight you run into is merely seen. You might acknowledge that something is happening, that something might work, that a new technique is surfacing.

Sometimes, if you work at it, you actually hear what's being said. You engage with the idea and actively roll it around, considering it from a few angles.

But rarely, too rarely, we actually get what's going on, we understand it well enough to embrace it (or reject it). Well enough to teach it. And maybe that leads to a productive change.

It's not clear to me that more stuff seen leads to more ideas gotten and more action taken. We probably don't need more inputs and noise. We certainly need to do a better job of focusing and even more important, doing the frightening work of acting 'as if' to see if we get it.

It starts with more doing, not more seeing.

"What have you got?"

The wrong answer to this question is often, "what do you need?"

When someone asks what you have to offer, when they ask for a menu or a price list or some indication of what they can choose from, it's tempting to ask what they want, because maybe, just maybe, you'll figure out how to make that for them.

When you act like a short-order cook at a diner, people rarely ask you for something interesting. Instead of trying to figure out what will get us picked, we might figure out if there's a way we can sell people on dreaming about what we have instead.

What if you stopped?

What would happen to your audience if you shut the doors tomorrow? (I know what would happen to you, that's not my question... what would happen to them?)

What would happen to your customers and to your prospects if you stopped doing your work?

If you stopped showing up, if you stopped selling them something, would they miss you if you were gone?

If the airline went away, we'd just find another airline. If the cookie cutter politician went away, we'd just vote for someone else. If the typical life insurance agent...

Does it matter if it's you doing the work?

I am 'anti-business', you might be too

A hundred and fifty years ago, when people finally began organizing to eliminate child labor in American factories, they were called anti-business. There was no way, the owners complained, that they could make a living if they couldn’t employ ultra-cheap labor. In retrospect, I think businesses are glad that kids go to school--educated workers make better consumers (and citizens).

Fifty years ago, when people realized how much damage was being done by factories poisoning our rivers, those supporting the regulations to clean up the water supply were called anti-business. Companies argued that they’d never be able to efficiently produce while reducing their effluent. Today, I think most capitalists would agree that the benefits of having clean air and water more than make up for what it costs to create a place people want to live—the places that haven't cleaned up are rushing to catch up, because what destroys health also destroys productivity and markets. (And it's a good idea).

When the bars and restaurants went non-smoking in New York a decade ago, angry trade organizations predicted the death knell of their industry. It turns out the opposite happened.

The term anti-business actually seems to mean, “against short-term waste, harmful side effects and selfish shortcuts.” Direct marketers were aghast when people started speaking out against spam, but of course, in the long run, ethical direct marketers came out ahead. 

If anti-business means supporting a structure that builds a foundation where more people can flourish over time, then sign me up.

A more interesting conversation, given how thoroughly intertwined business and social issues are, is whether someone is short-term or long-term. Not all long-term ideas are good ones, not all of them work, but it makes no sense to confuse them with the label of anti-business.

Successful businesses tend to be in favor of the status quo (they are, after all, successful and change is a threat) perhaps with a few fewer regulations just for kicks. But almost no serious businessperson is suggesting that we roll back the 'anti-business' improvements to the status quo of 1890.

It often seems like standing up for dignity, humanity and respect for those without as much power is called anti-business. And yet it turns out that the long-term benefit for businesses is that they are able to operate in a more stable, civilized, sophisticated marketplace.

It’s pretty easy to go back to a completely self-regulated, selfishly focused, Ayn-Randian cut-throat short-term world. But I don’t think you’d want to live there.

Are you feeling lucky?

Expected value is a powerful concept, easy to understand, often difficult to use in daily life.

It's the value of an outcome multiplied by the chances it will happen.

If there's a one in ten chance you'll get a $50 ticket for parking here, the expected value (the cost) of parking here is $5. Park here enough times, and that's what it's going to cost you.

If there's a one in five chance you'll win that lawsuit for a million dollars, the expected value of the suit is $200,000.

That's not a guess or a vague hunch, it's actually true. If the odds are described properly (and setting those odds is an entirely different discussion) then the value of the opportunity (or the cost of it) is clear.

And yet...

And yet we anchor our risks, often overestimating just how much it's going to cost us to get a ticket.

And we anchor our possible gains, usually overestimating how much that opportunity is worth (which is why so few lawsuits that should settle, do).

Humans are quite bad at dealing with ambiguity, and even worse when there's money on the table. Ellsberg's paradox helps us understand some of the bugs in the system, and perhaps we can take better risks by using a pencil, not our gut, to decide what a chance is worth.

"I'm not the kind of person who..."

We box ourselves in long before the outside world ever gets a chance.

"I'm not the kind of person who watches movies like that."

"I'm not the kind of person who proposes new ideas."

"I'm not the kind of person who reads books for fun."

"I'm not the kind of person who apologizes."

"I'm not the kind of person who gets a promotion."

"I'm not the kind of person who says 'follow me'."

I'm not the kind of person who... is up to you.

Hope and expectation

Hope is fuel, it moves us forward and it amplifies our best work.

Expectation is the killer of joy, the shortest route to disappointment. When we expect that something will happen, we can't help but be let down...

The noise in our head (and artificial intelligence)

One common insightful definition of AI: Artificial Intelligence is everything a computer can't do yet. As soon as it can, we call it obvious.

And so, self-driving cars and devices that can beat us at chess don't really think, they're just doing something by rote (really really fast).

One reason we easily dismiss the astonishing things computers can do is that we know that they don't carry around a narrative, a play by play, the noise in their head that's actually (in our view) 'intelligence.'

It turns out, though, that the narrative is a bug, not a feature. That narrative doesn't help us perform better, it actually makes us less intelligent. Any athlete or world-class performer (in debate, dance or dungeonmastering) will tell you that they do their best work when they are so engaged that the narrative disappears.

I have no idea when our computer overlords will finally enslave us, but it won't happen because we figured out a way to curse them with a chattering monkey. 

Five steps to digital hygiene

Washing your hands helps you avoid getting sick.

Putting fattening foods out of your reach helps you stay slim.

And the provocations and habits you encounter in the digital world keep you productive (or drive you crazy):

  1. Turn off mail and social media alerts on your phone.
  2. Don't read the comments. Not on your posts or on the posts of other people. Not the reviews and not the trolls.
  3. De-escalate the anger in every email exchange.
  4. Put your phone in the glove compartment while driving.
  5. Spend the most creative hour of your day creating, not responding.

Each habit is hard to swallow and easy to maintain. Worth it.

Why not?

If technology gives you the chance to speak up, build a platform and help show the way, why not use it?

If someone offers you a project or a job with more leverage and the chance to both learn and teach, why not take it?

If you can learn something new, more efficiently than ever before, if the opportunity to leap presents itself, why not?

Now is a good time.

Enthusiasm and contempt are both self-fulfilling

Someone who shows up with enthusiasm made a decision before she even encountered what was going on. The same thing is true for the guy who scowls with contempt before the customer opens his mouth.

It's a choice.

This choice is contagious.

This choice changes what will happen next.

This choice is at the heart of what it takes to be successful at making change or performing a service.

More than you imagine, we get what we expect.

Two heads or one?

As a company gets bigger, there's an inevitable split between the people who market what gets made and the people who design what gets made.

At some organizations, it's likely that these two people work in different buildings, and don't spend much time together.

One of the most important decisions made in the early days of JetBlue was that the woman in charge of marketing the airline was also in charge of hiring and training. Amy designed the product and the marketing, both.

This was certainly one of the things Steve Jobs brought to the table as well.

There are a lot of reasons that this is quite difficult to pull off. That doesn't mean it isn't important.

Try before you buy (or buy, then try)

There are two kinds of purchases: Either you are replenishing (you know precisely what you're about to get) or you are exploring.

Books and movies are almost always purchased before they are consumed. A bottle of Coke, or a return visit to a massage therapist, on the other hand, are replenishments of a known quantity. You might buy something for the satisfaction of owning it, or of owning one more, but that's different than buying one to find out what it does.

Neither is better or worse, but they are very much not the same.

If you sell an exploration, your customer is taking a chance. Sometimes magnifying that chance fits the worldview of the purchaser, and sometimes minimizing the risk is precisely what the purchaser is seeking.

On the other hand, in services like software and in recurring purchases, the sampling that leads to people getting hooked on the network effect and in replenishing what they have is what the seller seeks.

This is almost never talked about by marketers, but it's at the core of the strategy choices that follow.

Categories

Are tomatoes a fruit?

The benefit of a category isn't to denigrate something or someone. It's to help us make better decisions with limited information.

If we put someone in the category of, "frequent business traveler," we can apply previous learnings about what people like this might want or need.

Categories are useful tools when they help us find shared worldviews and interests. They're ineffective when they are nothing but surface labels, labels that don't help us serve.

Use categories well and you seem like a well-prepared mindreader, able to provide what people need, sometimes before they even realize it. It means you can treat patients, lead employees and delight customers on a regular basis.

Use them with laziness or ill intent, and you dehumanize the very people you ought to be serving.

A practical definition of reputation

Reputation is what people expect us to do next. It's their expectation of the quality and character of the next thing we produce or say or do.

We control our actions (even when it feels like we don't) and our actions over time (especially when we think no one is looking) earn our reputation.

Customer service and luxury

If your Chanel bag wears out, don't expect the same response you might find if you have trouble with something from LL Bean or Lands End. Luxury brands have long assumed that if you can afford to buy it, you can afford to replace it.

That's changing.

The mass brand leaders in most markets have figured out how to deliver extraordinary promises at scale. Not the high end guys. The mass ones. They do this by realizing that the cost of making the customer happy is tiny compared to the cost of leaving her unhappy.

[Hint: if you think that there's any chance at all that people consider what you sell a luxury good, the answer is, they probably do.]

Go to a McDonalds. Buy a Big Mac and a chocolate milkshake. Drink half the milkshake. Eat half the Big Mac. Put the rest of the Big Mac into the milkshake, walk up to the counter and say, "I can't drink this milkshake, there's a Big Mac in it." You'll get a refund. (Please don't try this, but yes, it works).

It's cheaper to just say, "here's a refund," than it is to start a debate.

How is a luxury brand going to compete? Is part of the story of why you pay extra because of the service you'll get? Lexus did groundbreaking work on this (compare the Lexus service story/truth to the way Porsche or Jaguar owners used to be treated).

Luxury buyers who see that they're getting lesser service feel stupid, and stupid is the brand killer.

If you're going to sell luxury, you probably need to figure out how to use some of the premium you charge to deliver even better service than your lower-priced competition.

The hard part about surfing

Surfing, the conceptual kind, is more essential than ever, it's not optional.

And the hardest part of surfing, by far, is paddling out, not surfing in.

Carrying the board, getting back into the water, paddling through the waves, waiting for the next set...it's exhausting, and surfers spend far more time doing this than they do on the other part.

Having the guts to surf is what change demands. And finding the stamina to paddle back out is a key part of surfing.

The selfish truth about word of mouth (why referrals don't happen)

Of course you will be eagerly and often referring your friends and neighbors to your dentist, insurance broker, lawn mowing guy and that book you just read.

Actually, not so much.

But I thought you liked it?

Well, whether or not we liked it isn't what motivates us to take the risky step of referring something (or someone). Instead, the questions that need to be answered are:

  • Do I want to be responsible if my friend has a bad experience? Will I get credit if it works, blame if it doesn't?
  • Does sending more business in this direction help me, or does it ultimately make my service provider more busy, or overwhelmed, or encourage her to raise her prices?
  • Will the provider be upset with me if the person I recommend acts like a jerk, or doesn't take his meds, or fails to pay his bills?
  • How does it make me look? Do people like me recommend something like this? When I look in the mirror after recommending this, do I stand taller?
  • Is this difficult to explain, complex to understand, filled with pitfalls?
  • Does it look like I'm getting some sort of kickback or special treatment in exchange? Is that a good thing?

Being really good is merely the first step. In order to earn word of mouth, you need to make it safe, fun and worthwhile to overcome the social hurdles to spread the word.

When specialization starts to pay off (and the danger of getting it wrong)

Last week, I got to beta-test a new service called tuber. Tuber is the Uber of food delivery services, with a focus (okay, an obsession) on certain kinds of root vegetables.

Just as some people keep Sidecar, Lyft and Uber on their phones, so they can compare who's got the best price or service in any given moment, Tuber is working to stake out a particular niche. They'll deliver a potato, yam or cassava, usually within twenty minutes of being requested.

In my case, I got three organic Japanese sweet potatoes, delivered to my house in time to roast for dinner. They were perfect specimens, and the price was right. (In case you're interested, the recipe: 450 degree oven for an hour. Done.)

Think about how they can magnify their advantages. Unlike more general food delivery sites, they can dig deep into the entire range of tubers. They can outfit their vehicles and focus their staffing with an eye on delivering exactly what this particular consumer seeks out. If we are indeed all weird, then tuber can get to the root of what we're after.

The interesting battle happens when these specialists start to overlap. Carrots, for example, are a taproot, not technically a tuber, and yet the company appears willing to expand into this area, risking their focus. Spread too thin, there will be pressure on management to expand into green vegetables and even fruits.

On the other hand, they are now saying that legumes (like peanuts) will be handled by their sister company, guber.

Different kinds of magic

A stunning video about what school can mean.

A beautiful book about art and meaning.

A different kind of management tome.

Rethinking your career. Or this way.

And worth thinking hard about: two brilliant social histories by David Graeber. Debt and Bureaucracy.

Direct marketing (and the other kind)

Direct marketing is outbound, measured and designed to pay for itself.

So, the catalog you get in the mail, or the Fuller Brush man. The idea was to buy stamps (or some other form of contacting people) and make enough money on average to buy more stamps.

Before the internet, direct marketing was on a steady growth path. The science of testing and improving offers and the industrialization of systems that lowered costs meant that more and more organizations were using direct marketing to solicit donations, get votes and sell products and services.

One of the key elements that allows direct marketing to grow so fast is that once you know how much an action is worth (a returned phone call, a door opened, an address added) you can buy it from anyone, in any quantity. Because it pays for itself. The media works on commission, for you.

The internet, of course, is fueled by direct marketing thinking. What's a click worth? How much will you bid to have your ad on top? How many visits does this buy create? What's the funnel on our site, and how do we make it more efficient? What's the allowable for a download?

So Amazon grew largely on the basis of its affiliate program (anyone can join, you only get paid when someone clicks and buys--classic direct marketing thinking). And so Google grew without a salesforce, because the direct marketer doesn't wait for someone to show up and sell--instead, the direct marketer eagerly seeks out anything that generates a click for less.

This is the opposite of the other kind, which doesn't really have a name. Brand marketing, or mass marketing, or indirect marketing. The kind the guys at Mad Men do. The full-page ads in magazines, just about all the ads on TV, sponsoring a conference...

[For the purposes of this post, I'm talking about the duality of marketing in the traditional sense. My take for the last 15 years is that marketing is merely storytelling and promise making/keeping, and in fact, everything the organization does is at some level, marketing.]

If you're hoping to build something on the web, then, you're almost certainly required to think like a direct marketer.

That means that if you're searching for traffic or action or sales or word of mouth, you will be offered a hundred ways to measure what happens. And if you improve what you're measuring, the amount you have to spend on each action goes up, and if you earn enough from each action, direct marketing becomes a profit center, not a cost.

That means if you're required to sell ads or sponsorships, the easiest sales to make, and the most likely sales you'll make, will be to a direct marketer, and the offer is probably similar to Amazon's original affiliate offer: We'll pay you when it works. We'll pay for a click or we'll track how many people type in a discount code, or... 

Sometimes eager direct marketers will pay upfront for an ad, but they always measure, and they don't keep running ads that don't measure up. That's at the core of direct marketing.

There are costs to this shift, worth thinking about:

1. While it's tempting to build an organization with direct marketing techniques, just about all the brands that matter to our culture aren't built this way. The subtle and powerful stories behind Starbucks and Apple and Harper Lee don't lend themselves to direct response ads.

If you're trying to build that kind of brand, it's essential that you reject direct-marketing tactics as a shortcut. They will drive you to make decisions that keep you from building the sort of promise you seek to build, and they'll end up not paying for themselves either.

Whether you're a solo entrepreneur or a giant corporation, this is a trap the web sets for you. What you need to sacrifice to make the numbers work might be the very brand you seek to build.

2. Open-system direct marketing (where just about anyone can carry a link or run a banner) inevitably destroys the media that gets hooked on them. If your podcast becomes dependent on getting people to visit a sponsor's site and type in the discount code, you can bet that there will be ever-increasing internal pressure to mention the code louder and more often. Not by the advertiser. He doesn't care, he'll just move on. By your partners and your boss. And so we get popups and popunders and sneaky data tracking. Because people are measuring.

[There is an exception to this, which proves the rule: The Yellow Pages, where responding to the ads is the only function of the medium. Craigslist and eBay understand this.]

In many ways, direct marketing on the web is a self-limiting process, because the more that media companies embrace it, the worse it works. This is precisely the opposite of what happened for a generation to branded ads in Vogue and other magazines. Work too hard at getting clicks on the ads you sold, your audience leaves.

Lester Wunderman, Lillian Vernon and LL Bean built direct marketing businesses at their kitchen table, buying stamps and mailing lists and learning the hard way how to think like direct marketers. The web has turned all of us, if we want to be, into direct marketers. Go in with your eyes open, and do it well, and for the right reasons.

The panic tax

Systems under severe stress degrade.

While individuals might do extraordinary work while pumped with adrenalin (lifting a car, running through a burning building), panic can decrease the efficacy of a system by 30% or more--often completely destroying it.

Compare the typical throughput of a highway during rush hour (when it's filled with seasoned commuters) to a similar road when people are fleeing a natural disaster.... in the first case, the cars naturally keep a safe distance, drivers are sufficiently alert, everyone gets home. In the other, there's a complete standstill.

Or consider how the TSA functions in an environment of stress (like the Orlando airport). A combination of leisure travelers, poor management and bad architecture means that (at least every time I've been there), there's a lot of yelling, invaded space and wasted time. Not to mention frayed nerves among Disney-overdosed parents in need of anything but more hassle.

Here are some thoughts for someone who might want to write a book about the panic tax (or someone who runs a system that shouldn't be degraded):

1. The cost of ameliorating panic in your system is always less than the cost of the lost productivity when panic hits. In other words, all the other steps are worth it.

2. Slack is the enemy of panic. When in doubt, add resources, or even simpler, remove requirements. That's what the gated entry points on crowded freeways do... the entire road goes faster when fewer cars are on it, meaning that gating cars at the entrance is actually far faster than letting them on over the course of the commute.

3. Media voices, politicians and others that create panic for a living need to own responsibility for the way their actions dramatically magnify the cost we all pay.

4. The answer to, "should we panic," is always no. Always. Panic is expensive, panic compounds and panic doesn't solve the problem.

5. Install panic dampers at every opportunity. TSA officers should be trained to talk more softly and slowly when their systems approach capacity. Sound deadening devices should be tuned to be most effective when volume increases. The police should be trained to seek compliance second, after they are able to diffuse panic.

6. They call them panic attacks for a reason. After-action review, an attack-analysis session, ought to be held whenever a system freezes under panic. Find the instigator, the first step, not the last one, and invest in what it takes to ameliorate it next time.

Mostly: Panic averted is far cheaper than panic survived.

Self talk

There's no more important criticism than self criticism.

There's no amount of external validation that can undo the constant drone of internal criticism.

And negative self talk is hungry for external corroboration. One little voice in the ether that agrees with your internal critic is enough to put you in a tailspin.

The remedy for negative self talk, then, is not the search for unanimous praise from the outside world. It's a hopeless journey, and one that destroys the work, because you will water it down in fear of that outside critic that amplifies your internal one.

The remedy is accurate and positive self talk. Endless amounts of it.

Not delusional affirmations or silly metaphysical pronouncements about the universe. No, merely the reassertion of obvious truths, a mantra that drives away the nonsense the lizard brain is selling as truth. 

You cannot reason with negative self talk or somehow persuade it that the world disagrees. All you can do is surround it with positive self talk, drown it out and overwhelm it with concrete building blocks of great work, the combination of expectation, obligation and possibility.

When in doubt, tell yourself the truth. 

'Pick yourself' and taking responsibility

Perhaps you've decided that the idea of Pick Yourself is sort of a new-age mantra, a promise that everyone is entitled to what they want, right now.

What a shortcut it seems to be. A false promise, holding out that illusion that we can get what we want if we just raise our hand. Pick yourself, you win...

It's precisely the opposite.

If you want to be responsible for making music, make music. If you want to be responsible for writing, speaking, making change happen, go do that. Waiting to get picked is a form of hiding, not realism.

No, it’s not always possible for everyone to succeed by being the most popular, the most clicked on, the most liked. In fact, it will never happen. No one is promising that, I hope. What pick yourself means is that it’s never been easier to decide to be responsible for your own work, for your own agenda, for the change you make in the world. To have a chance to matter. Not to be finished right now, but starting now.

Pick yourself means we should stop waiting and whining and stalling.

The outcome is still in doubt, but it’s clear that waiting just doesn’t pay.

[Podcast discussions on this topic: Unmistakable Creative, Sounds Like a MovementThe Lede, Read to Lead]

Hypergrowth

Fast growth comes from overwhelming the smallest possible audience with a product or service that so delights that they insist that their friends and colleagues use it. And hypergrowth is a version of the same thing, except those friends and colleagues quickly become even bigger fans, and tell even more people.

Often, we get sidetracked when we forget about "smallest possible." If you make the audience you're initially serving too big, you will dilute the very thing you set out to make, avoid critical mass, and compromise the magic of what you're building. You'll make average stuff for average people instead of something powerful for the few.

By "smallest possible" I don't mean, "too small." I mean the smallest number that eventually leads to the kernel of conversation that enables you to grow.

[Minimum Viable Audience, a great term, originally coined by Brian Clark.]