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« August 2007 | Main | October 2007 »

The finger moustache virus

Andrew sends us this video. The local TV element is hysterical, but what I commend you to is the extremely viral nature of the tattoo. By turning something passive (body art) into something active, the item spread like wildfire. (It also helps that it feels like a much smaller commitment than say, an eagle on your back.)

Of course, lots of people are taking credit for inventing this. My guess is that it goes back to the days of particularly silly pirates.

The irresistible story

Many stories that spread and stick do so because we so desperately want them to be true. Urban legends (and urban truths) fill a niche that we've built for them.

Miss Teen South Carolina has been watched nearly 20 million times over the last few weeks... because her inane prattling confirms our funniest dreams of empty-headed beauty queens. Doesn't matter whether she is actually a dolt or not... the story matches our worldview, so we embrace it. It makes us feel even smarter than we did yesterday.

Jeff points us to Done, an SEO firm that claims it can quash bad reviews from showing up in Google. Sort of a reverse SEO play, they offer to take angry customer rants or riffs on sites like Consumer Reports and
make them less likely to show up in a Google search. MSNBC reports that they point to success with companies like WebLoyalty.com. (Typical search here). Marketers love this story. They love the idea that SEO could be done in reverse and that unfair and unjust besmirchments can be made to disappear.

The problem, of course, is that while the story is seductive, it's not particularly true. As soon as a company starts to push the bad stuff down, someone writes about it or new bad stuff shows up and on it goes... Even worse, not only is there always another bad thing to push down, but the act of writing about what the company is doing (like I'm doing now) makes it even more difficult to "manage your reputation" by burying the critics.

The real answer is simple: be transparent, do good work, answer your legitimate critics in the same forum or through your actions.

Let's make up some numbers

The Times reports today that the MPAA has released a study that DVD pirates are costing New York City $903 million a year in lost wages.

Making up numbers is a brilliant marketing technique, especially when the numbers are precise and untestable. Ivory Soap, after all, is 99 and 44/100 % pure.

$903 million is about 9,000 jobs paying $100,000 a year each. That's a lot of ticket takers, Blockbuster clerks and gaffers. And yet the Times reprints the numbers as true.

Marketers make up numbers all the time. It's a great way to tell a story with efficiency, and if you do it in the right spirit (meaning that the numbers are as close to true as you can get them) there's little downside or damage. Except to your reputation when you're wrong...

Do we need to know how much the Dow moved to a tenth of a point? No, of course not. But when we start delivering numbers with that level of accuracy, people can't help but believe them.

Big ideas

Padmanabhan wrote me a nice note today, asking why I so freely give away ideas. (It was nice because he thought some of the ideas were actually good ones).

I responded that ideas are easy, doing stuff is hard.

My feeling is that the more often you create and share ideas, the better you get at it. The process of manipulating and ultimately spreading ideas improves both the quality and the quantity of what you create, at least it does for me.

History is littered with inventors who had "great" ideas but kept them quiet and then poorly executed them. And history is lit up with do-ers who took ideas that were floating around in the ether and actually made something happen. In fact, just about every successful venture is based on an unoriginal idea, beautifully executed.

So, if you've got ideas, let them go. They're probably holding you back from the hard work of actually executing.

Thinking about this war

This is the first war that's a marketing war.

The New York Police Department just released a report on Jihad and terrorism. [It seems as though the NYPD has taken the document down. Not sure why....Here it is.] It's controversial, particularly among people who haven't read it. I'm going to skip over some of the ethnic generalizations and focus on other parts of the document... I think there are some fascinating implications for marketing in this document, so here's my riff (those who wish I would just write about selling soap should skip to my next post).

How come there are no longer any famous bank robbers?

During the heyday of bank robbery (from Butch Cassidy to John Dillinger), banks were a great option for criminals. After all, that's where the money is.

The FBI realized that they didn't just have a crime problem. They had a marketing problem. Bad guys knew that robbing banks paid. In response, the FBI did a few things. First, they focused on catching every single bank robber. And second, and more important, they built Alcatraz and promoted it like crazy.

Alcatraz marketed a concept. "Bank robbery is a really bad idea." Combine that with some big arrests, marked bills, silent alarms, video cameras and some movies and TV shows and the act of robbing a bank shifted from easy to dumb. There's no doubt that Dick Tracy and the FBI TV series did more to stop bank heists than bullets ever did. The money might have been in the banks, but smart crooks looked elsewhere to commit their crimes.

No ads were purchased, but marketing was done nonetheless. Stop for a minute and think about that. The FBI did this on purpose. They marketed to criminals. They spread an ideavirus.

Some people saw the post 9/11 world as an enforcement problem. With enough guns and wiretaps (along with a modern Alcatraz), the idea was that a similar sort of anti-crime marketing could be effective. Catch every single terrorist and put them in a high profile jail. I don't agree with this perspective. There's still a marketing problem, but it's a different one.

As the NYPD report points out, fundamentalist terrorism is an ideavirus. It spreads (via mass media) but unlike bank robbers, Jihadists and others are far more immune to the idea of law enforcement. In fact, unlike the bank robbery meme, the ideavirus that leads to this behavior is actually enhanced and further spread by traditional enforcement tactics and martyrdom.

The NYPD report frequently mentions the Internet as an enabler and connector, but monitoring and regulating the internet isn't going to be effective in stopping the problem. If the RIAA can't stop file sharing, imagine how difficult it will be to hinder the spread of text online. The medium is far too permeable. If we shut down all media, including the Internet, we could slow the virus, but even that wouldn't stop it--and no one is willing to pay that price.

The best way to counter an ideavirus, any ideavirus, is not by challenging the medium in which it spreads. It didn't stop pirate radio or salacious TV shows or online porn. What has always worked the best is countering one ideavirus with another one. To use the same medium to spread a different, better, more powerful ideavirus. You don't counter racism by making the act of uttering racist statements against the law. You do it by spreading an idea (racism is hateful, wrong and stupid) that keeps the racist from expressing his ideas because all his friends will shun him if he does.

If you want moderate ideas to spread in a community, promote the people who are spreading those ideas. Make them heroes. Amplify their message and help it spread.

Hamas leverages and extends its power with the Palestinians by providing health care in neighborhoods. That's the message that gets through to the people on the ground. Every action a group (any group) takes tells a story. What's that story? Does it spread? When it spreads, how does that story affect the conversations that people have with each other? If the NYPD is right (and I think their analysis of how this meme spreads is right) then the most important thing our government can do is discuss what sort of ideavirus they are working to spread. And then take action. And spread the right story in the right way.

What's the story? What is the TSA 'saying' in their work at LAX? What is the brave soldier saying as she does her stint in Takrit? What does the NYPD or the school district or the local hospital say as they interact with immigrants in their daily lives?

I guarantee you I don't know the answer. I don't know where we should send troops and how long we should stay there. I don't know who to arrest and what to look for. But I do know this: it's a marketing problem, the most important one we face. By and large, the marketing is being done by people who don't see that we have a marketing problem. Understanding the words and concepts behind the ideavirus is the critical next step in spreading the right message to the people who need to hear it.

I sat in my office six years ago, looking south along the Hudson and watching our world change. I don't think anyone could have predicted then where we'd be now. I'm hopeful that by looking forward, we can market our way to better place. Thousands of brave people have sacrificed for our safety and peace of mind. I'm grateful to them. The next step is to get smart about strategy and marketing.

The haystack

It's easy to be wowed by what a magical job the search engines do in finding you just the right needle in the haystack.

The fact is that search engines are very good at fairly simple searches, and very good at finding information about single products, services, people and ideas.

But they're terrible at connections, at rankings, at horizontal results. They can't help me find the 25 most important up and coming artists in the United States. They can't help me find six products that are viable alternatives to something that was just discontinued. They can't help me rank the service of four accounting firms.

There's a giant opportunity. (Many opportunities, actually). It's to collate and slice and dice and rank domain-specific knowledge and surface it. There are some areas where this is done extremely well (restaurants, for example), but in most cases, it's not done at all.

Organizing the world's information is a laudable goal. But we're only an inch down the road.

Random Acts of Initiative

As a young first-year student at the Stanford MBA program (most of the other 300 students had wasted a few years working at a bank, but he came straight from undergrad) Chip Conley picked out four other students--strangers to him and to each other--and invited them to a weekly brainstorming session. He explained to us that once a week we'd meet for four hours and brainstorm business plans and entrepreneurial ventures.

A year later, we had compiled more than 500 great ideas, countless lousy ones and  had figured out how to think about the structure of a business. I think the five of us would all agree we learned more in that room in the anthropology department than we did in the classes we were paying for.

The extraordinary thing about Chip's little bit of initiative in setting up the group is how rare it is. Successful people have this in common. It's not the giant breakthroughs, it's the willingness to take little chances.

Chip has gone on to be the most successful of our team, running one the largest independent hotel chains in California. We had a deal... I agreed not to open hotels, he agreed not to write books. Well, once again, he broke his end of the bargain.

Even if you don't have an anthropology department nearby, there's no doubt that there's some small piece of initiative you can grab a hold of tomorrow.

How to spend $20 million

Treating different customers differently is important.

Customers actually like it if you do it right. People in coach don't mind the folks in first class getting more service, because they'd like to be there one day. (Or because they like the fact that the people paying too much for a fancy seat are subsidizing their flight). People at nightclubs like watching celebrities being whisked to the front of the line, because it reinforces their belief that they're at a special place.

The trouble kicks in not when you treat different people differently but if it's random, or unfair or unpredictable.

When Steve Jobs gave a $200 discount to the late adopters of the iPhone, the early adopters were incensed. They were being treated differently, but in the wrong way. My guess is that his $100 store credit and personal note helped a great deal, but it also cost about $20 million in profit. If Apple had thought it through, he could have offered any of the following (and done it during the presentation he did of the new products):

  • Free exclusive ringtones, commissioned from Bob Dylan and U2, only available to the people who already had a phone. (This is my favorite because it announces to your friends--every time the phone rings--that you got in early).
  • Free pass to get to the head of the line next time a new hot product comes out.
  • Ability to buy a specially colored iPod, or an iPod with limited edition music that no one else can buy.

The key is to not give price protection to early buyers (that's unsustainable as a business model) but to make them feel more exclusive, not less.

Backpacks As for being capricious, consider this photo from the US Open. The Open doesn't allow spectators to bring in backpacks of any size--IF the straps are padded. They don't announce this rule, and they enforce is somewhat randomly.

If it were really a security issue, they'd have to enforce it completely. If it's just a silly policy that someone dreamed up one day, it's sure to annoy people. Because it's irrational. Because it's not enforced in a way that makes sense.

So yes, treat different customers differently. The more the better, actually. But do it consistently and in a way that your customers respect and understand.

Charity idea

Given the serendipity of having 17 (almost 18) people running for president, we need a charity to sponsor a baseball game. Do it in a big stadium, and you'll raise a lot of money and awareness. Be sure to ban steroid use.

How to do an interview

Tamara recently interviewed me for UXPioneers. The only reason I agreed to consider it was that a good friend introduced us. Then I read her other interviews and realized that this woman had figured out how to create a very different kind of interview. It was a lot of fun. More relevant, as a reader, is that I actually learned something from reading the other interviews she had done.

I guess this is what happens if you ignore press releases, don't have a traditional editor and aren't trying to appeal to the largest possible audience segment. Either that or if you're a good interviewer.

« August 2007 | Main | October 2007 »