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« October 2008 | Main | December 2008 »

An iphone app that could change the way you get to work

[Update: since I posted this two days ago, I've gotten dozens of notes about systems in the UK, Australia and around the world that people say are "almost but not quite what you're describing." I also got a few notes pointing out that this was impossible and would never be done. Go figure.]

[New update! Matt points out that Apple has stolen this idea and applied for a patent.]

In 2000, I invented a gadget called RadaR. Fred Wilson told me that I was ahead of my time, and he was right.

RadaR.com was a hardware/internet hybrid that could eliminate boatloads of traffic (and frustration). The idea is this: traffic reports are useless, because they tell you about places where you don't want to go and because they don't help you make smart choices. Have you ever once been on the Father Baker Bridge? Me either. I don't care if it's closed.

When I go to the airport, I have a choice of three bridges. Which one should I take? If a smart friend was in a helicopter, she could call me and say, "don't take the Triboro (RFK)! Take the Whitestone..."

They never say that on the radio. "Hey Seth, don't go that way!"

Well, with GPS and a little spectrum, we could fix this problem in a clever way.

You get a box a little bigger than a pack of Altoids. There are four big red buttons on top and a serial number on the bottom. Type your serial number into radar.com then put in addresses for the four buttons (the airport, work, your grandma's house and Philadelphia, say). Then, whenever you get in the car, hit the button for where you want to go. The device speaks to you and tells you which route to take.

Here's the killer part: the way it knows which way to go is that everyone driving along with a RadaR device is consistently uploading two pieces of data: where they're going and how long it is taking to get there.

Since RadaR central has thousands of cars in every city, it knows which routes are fast and which ones are slow. Crunching some numbers, it realizes that the Whitestone is totally jammed and can send people over the Throgs instead.

I was going to seed the market by giving RadaR devices to taxi drivers, so we'd have plenty of data points from the beginning.

The challenge is that getting this much hardware to so many people is expensive. Not to mention the bandwidth.

You probably already guessed the punchline: Do it with an iPhone.

Have the iPhone use the gps data... upload where I was a minute ago and where I am now. Figure out my speed and route. Use the data to tell other RadaR users which route is best. It's worth $20 a month if you live in a place with traffic jams. It's a natural monopoly--once someone figures it out, why wouldn't everyone want to use the market leader?

I minimize the difficulty of technology implementation (and I'm usually right). So don't tell me why it's impossible to do this, just build it and I'll buy one. If you build it, let me know.

BONUS! Here's an easier one that you could probably sell as well. I type in a phone number and enter a time. Record a message and press go. I can cue up a bunch of messages that are based on time. I can have groups get the message I record, at the time I want them to get it. I can make announcements... For example, if the sign in at the gym starts at 6 am, I can set my phone and it will call ahead and sign me in. Or you could ping your exec team every morning at 8 on their way into work...

Creating a clearance sale culture

If you want to avoid being stuck with inventory or downtime during a recession, you might profit from realizing that people tell themselves a different story when they go to buy something.

During good times, we wonder, "can I get this house before the price goes up or someone else snatches it?" or we think, "my time is really valuable, it's okay if this is a little more expensive than the store down the street." Businesses think about getting the invoices in before budget closes, or making the boss happy.

In our current times, people tell themselves the story, "I got a steal!" If it's not a steal, they wait.

You can't just lower all the prices in your operation. There are two reasons this doesn't work. First, you no longer communicate the story of 'special deal', instead you communicate 'we're in trouble.' Second, you end up charging everyone a lower price, even the people who were happy to pay more--who wanted to pay more, in fact.

Important distinction: if you say to someone, "if I give you a discount, will you buy it?" the answer will almost certainly be no. No, because lowering the price is almost never sufficient to change non-interest into interest.

So, empower your staff, all of them, to take 10% off the price of anything if someone asks or seems concerned. "Oh, don't worry. I'll just take $20 off the price of the room if you can book it now." For retailers or personal selling situations, you can give your staff a pile of "manager's coupons" that they can just whip out... peel one off and quietly hand it to the waffling customer. It needs to have a date on it, probably hand written. Even better, let them write in the discount (up to x%, and of course they'll always write x, which is fine, because that's what you planned on.)

Is this something you want to do? Probably not. Almost certainly not. But it might be something you have to do. The alternative are shoppers who walk out of the store and leave you with nothing.

Don't know what you've got till it's gone

IWantSandy is folding, as are a number of web companies. So is that restaurant you loved down the street. Users are outraged. Outraged!

When you find a service or establishment or product that gives you joy, it's tempting to keep it to yourself. Perhaps it's uncomfortable to recommend it to a friend (after all, you might seem silly) and even more uncomfortable to recommend it to a stranger (after all, you might seem like a shill).

Plenty of people hesitate before spreading the word about a political candidate or a business or a medical device. We're worried that we'll look silly, or that the place will end up being too crowded and now we won't be able to get in. Or perhaps we're concerned about losing our uniqueness...

Anyway, the outcry that accompanies the closing of one of these businesses should be enough to remind you that your hesitation has a cost.

It's simple, I think. In a world where consumers have so much power, we now have two responsibilities:

  • If you don't like what an organization stands for, work actively to spread the word and force them to change

and

  • If you will miss a product, a service, a book, a site or a professional when they close up shop, stand up, speak up and bring them masses of new business.

We get what we promote.

Thanksgiving

This has always been my favorite holiday. No gifts, no guilt, no doctrine.

For me, the holiday celebrates people who contribute with no expectation of anything in return. Online, the rules are no different. There are plenty of people typing as fast they can, all in expectation of what they'll get in return for that link or that shoutout or that flame. And then there are the superstars, the folks who have found a great platform for generosity.

Why be generous?

Why go out of your way for someone who can't possibly pay you back?

I hope the answer is obvious. It is to me. The benefit is in the fact that they can't pay you back. The opportunity to instruct or assist when you can gain nothing in return is priceless. It creates meaning and momentum and structure.

If you've been reading my blog this year, thanks for giving me the chance to teach.

If you've been helping at triiibes or Squidoo or on Twitter or on your blog or your social network of choice, and doing it without regard for repayment, thanks. We appreciate it more than you know.

And if you've dedicated your life to helping real people in real need, not just doing it when it's convenient, then you have my deepest thanks. It's not easy and it's not always fun, but it's vitally important and it matters.

Thank you.

Holiday shopping guide

The decisions you make with your hard-earned money this year will have more impact than ever before. So put your money where your mouth is.

Here are a few ideas to consider:

1. Buy handmade items from people you like.

2. Don't buy gift cards. It's lazy and sort of dumb.

3. Don't buy from big brands or big stores that don't care about you, or that act in ways you don't applaud. There are very smart alternatives in almost every category.

4. When in doubt, buy digital items. Even better, give a donation and make many people happy.

5. Realize that when you're going to buy from Amazon, buying from a lens with a red ribbon on top will earn significant money for charity with no effort on your part.

Hugs are an underrated substitute.

Death of the personal blog?

A quick look at the list of the 'top' blogs in the world will show you that almost all of them are written by teams of people. There isn't one in the top 10 that's personal.

The best way to increase your ranking as a blogger is to post very often and to have teams of people doing the work. If that’s your strategy, of course you can’t have it be a solo blog. The strategy for showing up on this list is to have lots and lots of posts, so your tactic needs to be to have a team of people doing the work.

Personal blogs aren't going anywhere, though. There’s a difference between a blog about YOU (I call this a cat blog) and a blog about the reader. Guy Kawasaki’s blog, and my blog for that matter, are not about us, about what we ate yesterday or how great we are. They are about you, the reader.

I guess there's an easy analogy:
Your blog could be like a newspaper (written by a staff)
or it could be like a book (written by an author)

9 times out of 10, newspapers outsell books. No surprise. But they’re different. And we need both.

Who cares that you're not writing a mass market newspaper? The point is not to show up on a list, the point is to start a conversation that spreads, to share ideas and to chronicle your thinking. That's the work of an author, and I think rather than kissing author blogs goodbye, someone should just start a new list.

The You Show

A friend was telling me about some job interviews she went on. She enjoyed them.

Of course she did, I thought. She was starring in a show, a show about her.

I wrote about this five months ago, but it's worth boiling it down to the interview or sales call level.

One approach is to be reactive, to sit where you're supposed to sit, have your resume appear just so, wear what you're supposed to wear and answer each and every question in the safe and secure way.

The other approach is to put on a show. To be in charge, to lead.

When you go to Las Vegas, Penn and Teller don't ask you what sort of lights you want, what tricks you want to see and how long the show should be. They put on their show. If you don't like it, that's fine. Plenty of other people do. As a result, they win. They get to do their work, their way. And they profit from their confidence.

Some bosses don't want to hire people who have a vision, a personality and a shtick. That's okay. You don't want to work for them anyway.

How to answer the phone

31wzdkmpl_sl500_aa280_ The KitchenAid tea kettle (adorned in bright Squidoo orange, of course) in my office melted, leaving hot orange plastic on my thumb. Yes, it hurts as much as you probably imagine it does.

But that wasn't the worst part.

I called 1-800-334-6889 to whine a little bit and to hear why they made a meltable teapot. I counted how many prompts I had to press in order to talk to a human being. It was NINE.

Nine! Try it. I'll wait.

The last step was a recording that they were closed and I should call back after 10 am. Click.

I know you've heard this before, but it's really simple:

The only reason to answer the phone when a customer calls is to make the customer happy.

If you're not doing this or you are unable to do this, do not answer the phone. There is no middle ground on this discussion. There are no half measures. Saving 50 cents a call with a complicated phone tree is a false savings. Think of all the money you'll save if you just stop answering altogether. Think of all the money you'll make if you just make people happy.

Your choice.

You will be misunderstood

Fortune I typically write posts that are three to six paragraphs long. I try to be clear and direct. And yet, just about everything I write is misunderstood by someone. (Not the same someone, alas). They write to me and I try to explain.

It's hard to imagine how one could write something that 100% of the recipients will understood as written. If you overwrite to satisfy the last 1%, you're going to bore the rest to tears

All of which is a way of warning you about [a potential pitfall of] microblogging (Twitter, etc.). If you've got 140 characters to make your point, the odds are you are going to be misunderstood (a lot). There may be nothing wrong with that, but you should be prepared for it to happen. And most of the time, people won't take the time to ask. They'll just assume you're an ignorant jerk and move on. [Please understand (yes, I was misunderstood!) I'm not throwing the baby of microblogging out with the bathwater... I'm merely pointing out that the medium has to be appropriate for the message. Using microblogging (like Yammer) to share your quarterly review or to fire someone or to make an important, nuanced announcement is just sort of dumb. Using it for keeping in contact with an ever-widening circle of friends and colleagues is brilliant].

If it's important, or controversial, I don't think I'd obsess about making it short.

Watching the Times struggle (and what you can learn)

Page by page, section by section, the influence of the New York Times is fading away. Great people on an important mission, but their footprint is shrinking and the company is losing stock value and cash and power and the ability to have the impact that they might.

Today's Sunday magazine has a cover story on Jennifer Aniston. Of course!

"All the News That's Fit to Print" is the heart of the problem. It was never that, of course. It was "All the News That Fits." The entire mindset of (every) newspaper has been driven by the cost of paper, the finite nature of paper, the cost of delivery and the cycle of a daily paper. You run enough articles to fit as many ads as you can sell.These are artifacts of a different age, one that today's consumer doesn't care a whit about.

Lots of organizations go through this analysis. How do you leverage your brand or your customer base to get to the next level, to enter new markets or new technologies--and do it while running your old business. And almost without exception, organizations are run by people who want to protect the old business, not develop the new one.

When you think about your business, realize that it is a combination of assets and constraints. The Times understood both, but suddenly, the constraints changed. Now, it's possible for a single individual with a Typepad account to reach more people than almost any newspaper in the country can. Loosen one constraint and the game changes. That leaves you with the assets, for a while anyway.

When in pain, the answer is not to pander to the masses and undo the very things that made you special.

Ten years ago, the paper knew what it had to do. They had a shot at inventing the future, but compromised their way to it instead of leading. Here are some simple ways they could think big instead of merely failing to defend the status quo:

1. Use their influence and brand to enable users to spread their content:
Why, precisely, aren't the Zagats guides a NY Times product? Or Yelp? That's a quarter of a billion dollars worth of value that the paper with the most influential restaurant reviews page didn't create. Why didn't they build Wikipedia? Or a platform to influence the way politicians govern?

Hiring and promoting David Pogue is a great example of expanding that base into the online world. Buying about.com was smart, but being afraid to put the Times name on it was an error... an opportunity for leverage, wasted.

2. Leverage the op-ed page and spread important ideas:
Sure, Tom Friedman and a handful of other columnists have a large reach and influence. But why doesn't the Times have 50 columnists? 500? Tom Peters or Jim Leff or Joel Spolsky or Micah Sifry or Pam Slim or Patrick Semmens or Dan Pink would be great columnists. Why not view the endless print space online as an opportunity to leverage their core asset?

What would happen if the huge team of existing Times editors and writers each interviewed an interesting or important person every day? 5,000 or 10,000 really important interviews every year, each waiting for a sponsor, each finding a relevant audience...

3. Build a permission asset:
Times readers are among the most informed cultural consumers in the world. They tend to have money to spend and are eager for new ideas. What an opportunity to build 10 or a 100 or ten thousand silos. Carefully focused free email newsletters, and then blogs, each with an editor and plenty of relevant and useful ads. Well-written ideas, delivered with authority, are as important as ever. The Times sat back and let hundreds of other micro-sites deliver this instead.

4. Keep score:
The New York Times bestseller list used to matter a great deal. It became a self-fulfilling prophecy, because bookstores discounted and promoted the bestsellers, which helped them sell more.

We still want to know what the bestsellers are, but the Times works hard not to tell us. There are literally a thousand categories of media that people want to know about (top blogs, top DVDs, etc.) and the Times abdicated their ability to keep score, to be the trusted referee and to drive the short head in almost every form of culture.

Consider this for a moment: Oprah is able to sell ten times as many copies of a book than the New York Times can. The Times abdicated their role as the leader of the conversation about books.

5. Stringers:

The Times has always used freelancers and stringers to report and contribute to the paper. But how many? Why doesn't the paper have 10,000 stringers, each with a blog, each angling to be picked up by the central site? You wouldn't have to pay much per story to build a semi-pro cadre of writers and reporters. When you organize the news (delivering unique perspectives to people who want to hear them) you influence the conversation.

6. Create new platforms for advertisers:

The Times has profited longer than most newspapers because of New York. New York is an efficient place to be a newspaper. Lots of people, lots of advertisers, lots of spending, influence all over the world. But even that isn't enough to support the failing economics of dead trees and delivery. The only reason a paper exists (from a business point of view) is to sell ads.

So, what sort of ad-rich, ad-centric media could they build? From directories to pdfs to coupons to promotions, the list is nearly endless.

• • •

Instead of building something that dominates in this century the way they did in the last, the editors at the paper are pandering to the masses (and failing). Today's Magazine not only features the aforementioned volumes of insight about Jennifer Aniston, but it also includes yet another lame Ethicist column (they run it because they always have) and a weak interview with David Lynch (which no one will talk about on Monday). It also features recipes (we don't need more recipes, thanks, we now have an infinite number of recipes) and their latest affectation, which is overdesigned typesetting that is unreadable. All of these efforts are placeholders, not bold moves to create something that matters.

The people I know at the Times are smart, driven, honest and on a mission to do great work. The people didn't fail the system, the system failed them.

Do the people running the Times know more about running a newspaper or building ideas that spread profitably online? How about the people running your organization? Odds are, they're great at yesterday's business.

I guess it's about the difference between:

  • senior management playing defense, supporting and protecting the status quo and avoiding offending the elders upstairs vs.
  • using existing momentum and clout to build assets for the next business.

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