Seth Godin – creator of ‘Permission Marketing’ – talks Apple, Google, Facebook, Snapchat and more

With 17 books to his name, a number of companies built and sold plus a cerebral blog read by one million people every day Seth Godin is somewhat of a marketing guru – he talks candidly to Mumbrella Asia’s Dean Carroll across a diverse range of issues

For those few out there who don’t know about your concept of Permission Marketing – the title of your famous book published back in 1999 – why don’t you tell us what it is and how it works from a practical perspective in the age of the internet?

“Well, marketing was magic for 80 years because you could spend money to get attention and that attention was worth more than it cost. So entire businesses were built on that simple formula: interrupt people, make more than it cost to interrupt them and then repeat it.

“During the dawn of the internet in 1989 I saw a flaw in this because email is free. And if you have direct mail with free stamps, then the profit maximiser will send an infinite amount of junk. I theorised that what would happen was that attention would become priceless and you would no longer be able to buy it. I was proved correct, that’s exactly what happened.

“As a result, the value of advertising has consistently gone down and the ability we have to interrupt large numbers of people productively has gone down. Fortunately for marketers, what has also happened on the other hand is that engagement – with people who want to hear from you – has gone up in value.

“If you are able to interact with people for free over periods of time when they look forward to personal and relevant messages, then you can turn that into an asset. Think of the most valuable companies out there.

“Let’s start with Amazon at $1,000 per share, where the asset is not the warehouse or the computer programming. The thing the company has that you cannot copy is the hundreds of millions of people who have eagerly enrolled in hearing from Amazon and keeping their credit cards on file with them. That is permission marketing.

“Or if you look at Google, they make 98 per cent of revenue from putting ads in places where you want ads to be when doing a search. That is permission marketing too because the ads are not interruptions.”

So how do you see Facebook’s role, given that it bombards people with ads and retargeting having at some point gained permission to do so through a like or a box ticked – or not ticked – on a terms and conditions form?

“There are two mistakes a company can make. One is going public and the second is letting selfish marketers dictate the agenda. If Facebook had better clients, it would also have a better reputation around its advertising.

“But many of its clients keep working against the edges to try and dumb the whole thing down. Facebook has an incentive to allow that to happen because it makes the company’s stock price go up. In the long run though, Facebook will only thrive if it fights back against that. The system will not fix itself.”

It is said that you sold Yoyodyne for US$30m to Yahoo in 1998. Did that financial cushion give you the creative freedom to go off and pursue the things you really wanted to work on or were you more creative when you were on the edge, and on the verge of bankruptcy for 10 years?

“It depends upon how you define creativity. Certainly, I was publicly productive when I was struggling because I needed to put on a show for people who would pay for it. That meant broad strokes and vivid colours.

“Since then, I’ve had the luxury of writing a book or putting words into the world without doing it for money. And that gives me the freedom to go deep. I’ve seen the process of starting companies and I didn’t feel like I had a lot left to explore there. So now I put myself on the spot without payroll being the driver.”

Which marketers did you give your permission to?

But even so, you’ve written 17 books. That’s a prolific rate. Where do you find the creative impetus now to go out there and do it all over again?

“You know if I don’t feel that fear that I’m about to blow everything then I am probably not doing my best work. As there is more of a reputation to worry about, it is easier to listen to the fear and just back off.

“In the same way that an athlete wants to go to the gym even if the finals are over, I find the process of keeping doing it to be thrilling. But there is no doubt that I no longer get that feeling of ‘oh my god, I didn’t die’. I’m mature enough now that I don’t need that feeling any longer.”

Tell me about your daily short-form blog. Why do you do it and how many people read it?

“I do it because I hear that it helps people see differently and do work they’re proud of so it’s a privilege and an obligation. Even if nobody read it, I would still blog every day – as it makes me a better person. But at last count, there were about a million daily readers.”

And why did you decide to turn off the comments on your blog a few years ago?

“It was one of the smartest things I’ve ever done, although I took a lot of flak at the time because back then turning off the comments was considered heretical.

“Here’s the deal, everything you do with your work should have a purpose. When I looked at the purpose of comments, I realised I was writing differently because I was expecting negative anonymous comments from 1 per cent of the readers.

“If 10,000 people are ready to write you an angry comment, then you’re probably not going to be ready to write anything. I decided the blog needed to do something for me, not for those readers who wanted to watch trolling, so I turned the comments off and my writing got better. And I sleep better as well.”

Would I lie to you?

You wrote a book titled All Marketers are Liars. Are they and, if so, do you include yourself in that category?

“First of all, it’s the worst title I’ve ever given anything I’ve ever written because it’s very clever and I explain it, but people that don’t look into that just get offended because they don’t think of themselves as liars.

“What I mean by lying is that we tell stories. Stories are a human interpretation and bad marketers tell stories that aren’t true. While good marketers tell stories that resonate and that we are glad we heard – stories that change us for the better and that we want to hear again.

“So Harley Davidson markets its product as something that will make you feel a certain way and enable you to be part of a certain tribe. All they sell is a motorcycle right and the story they are telling is a lie in that until we believe it, it’s just something someone made up.

“That book explains what marketing really is, but the idea is challenging because most marketers actually believe that people buy features and benefits, and do checklist analysis.

The Journal of Wine Economics did a study where they gave wine experts and non-experts a $10 bottle of wine and a $100 bottle of wine. When they couldn’t see the label, almost everybody prefered the $10 bottle of wine. When they could see the label, the experts preferred the $100 bottle of wine.”

And what are your thoughts on the Apple story?

“The Apple fanboys and the apologists are happy to talk about how well the company is run and all its great products. But even though it’s the most highly valued company in the world, they haven’t done any scary and important work for five years.

The Apple tribe is strong

“But these people are talking about ‘Apple is me, I am Apple’. So it means that to criticise Apple they have to criticise themselves and that’s not happening. If you’re an insider, you’re an insider. There’s not a lot of difference between that and a supporter of the Republican Party or the Catholic church, or the Hell’s Angels.”

I know you’ve got pretty strong views on Twitter and Facebook, but what do you think of Snapchat – which seems to be more aligned with your thoughts on experimenting and failing with creativity, given the amateur nature of the content produced there?

“Let me be very clear, I don’t use Twitter and Facebook for a very specific reason. And that is because it would ruin my life. Facebook and Twitter have successfully turned their users into the product that they sell. They have engineered the products, using behavioural economics, to make them addictive.

“That addiction is a release of negative feeling. You check it and then you’re not worried anymore until you need to check it again. That cycle would completely undermine my work. It doesn’t mean I don’t think they have a function or that they are not companies that are effective. It just means that I made a choice not to give up that much of my life to a system that wasn’t going to help me.

“Snapchat is different, it doesn’t feel as fraught with personal emotion in that you don’t feel like a bad person just because someone doesn’t like something that you posted. It feels a little more passive to me.

“But for 20 years, we built an internet that gave everybody the chance to be a publisher. It gave everybody a voice. And it pains me to see that being used to watch cat videos or to bully other people or to just be a ditto head. We should ignore corporate behemoths telling us that we should be an audience.”

Photographer credit: Bjorn Amundsen

You’ve also said your methodology for efficiency and productivity is not watching TV, not going to meetings and doing things you’re scared of. Would you advocate this approach for all marketers though, don’t they need to be plugged in to all of this stuff?

“I don’t think David Ogilvy spent all day reading magazines and watching television. I think that you can be in marketing and get the joke or the lay of the land in an hour, not in eight hours. You can watch one episode of Game of Thrones, without watching the whole series, in order to understand what the memes are and what the niches are.

“Advertising has long been a place where men and women go to put on a show. It’s also where people that are into media can find a place where they can be into media for a living. What has shifted was that you used to be able to know everything that was on television in an hour or two a day. Now if you really want to know everything that is going on on the internet, you are doomed.”

Staying with the internet, Facebook and Google deny that they are publishers even though we all know that they are. Should they be held to the same standards as the more traditional gatekeepers, like newspapers, in terms of the content they distribute?

“Without a doubt. It’s easy for people who live in a truly civil-supported society to say let’s strip it all down and be Ayn Rand activists. Those people have never spent a week in the slums. It’s so easy to say ‘we’ll be fine, the market will find a way’. I just don’t buy it.

“I think that part of what made our culture great was that there were just a few people who could stand up and say ‘my magazine is not going to run that article’. The social pressure and the lack of algorithms meant they were on the hook.

“Yes, Google is responsible when a search engine pushes people to do things that are dumb and shallow. And yes, Facebook is responsible when it allows people to make a living lying and hating. If they don’t take responsibility, they will not have a culture to be proud of.”

And how do you view the big holding companies that now own most of the marketing and advertising industry?

“Once a company goes public, its product becomes its stock and they sell things to make the stock go up. So everyone in the company is rewarded for making the stock go up, not for the work they do. The job of the holding companies is to manipulate pieces of paper to make those pieces of paper worth more than they were yesterday.

“We can all agree, the holding companies are not making marketing or advertising better. So what can we do about it? Well, the beauty of this business is that all you need to get into it is a laptop and a pad. So I’m hopeful that clients will insist on people doing the good work.”

OK, but do you think there is a sense of those at the top just holding out until they retire because it’s too difficult to recalibrate the organisations to the way the world is now or because they have too much skin in the game to risk being bold?

“All of us only get to do this once and they will retire much later than they think. Some 15 years ago, people in the newspaper business told me they would be retired by the time newspapers died. They were wrong, it happened much quicker than that. The same thing will happen here.”

You promote the ‘instinct to ship before it’s polished’ as the approach marketers should follow, but isn’t there a risk that you lose quality with a ‘spray and pray’ approach?

“The mistake that marketers make is not making something for the smallest possible audience. If you do make something for a small audience, you will make it better and with less risk. The mistake is when people think they have to go straight to everyone.

“That causes them to dumb it down and you get things like Adweek lionising Oreo for a clever tweet. If you can find a way to ensure that 1,000, 10,000 or a 100,000 people can’t live without what you made, then you won’t have any trouble scaling that.”

So I guess you think Tesla is doing it in the right way in that they are starting small and building a loyal tribe, and a quality product without even any advertising, but with plans to go mass market around 2020?

“Yeah, Elon {Musk, the Tesla CEO} has done a textbook job. He’s using tech marketing, not consumer marketing, and started with a high-priced car that only needed 5,000 customers and he is working his way down the curve.

“He has a spectacular advantage over Ford because Ford is locked into supporting dealers and a supply chain, and a market that goes all the way from a pickup truck to a four-door hybrid car. So because Ford is required to stand for everything, it ends up standing for nothing.

“If I was an investor though, I would wonder what does Tesla do after the next three cards are turned over. However, by then Tesla may have a technical head start that enables them to be a mass-market winner.”

With Tesla, it also helps to have such a charismatic CEO in Elon Musk – who acts as a marketer and cultivates the tribe – doesn’t it?

“A tribe is a group of people that may or may not have a leader, but are aligned by their shared experience. So Leonard Nimoy was necessary for the Star Trek tribe to exist, but after he passed the tribe still existed because we are really about each other rather than him and something he did 40 years ago.

“When one Tesla driver passes another on the road, they share an experience and that has to do with them supporting this guy {Elon Musk} before other people do, but mostly it’s about themselves. They look at each other and say ‘thank you for being one of us’.

“Elon’s narrative can’t hurt unless it gets negative, which is what’s happening with Uber, but tribal connection is more likely if Tesla does things like encouraging people to customise their cars or creates car clubs. Those sort of things build a tribe.

“The Star Trek tribe really kicked in when the conventions started to fuel it. It doesn’t hurt if you can get William Shatner to come to the conventions, but that’s not what they were for. The conventions were to make people feel less alone.”

Uber CEO Travis Kalanick

So how do you see the Uber story playing out in the future, given that while the company seems to be an unstoppable force in terms of growth it is also losing billions of dollars each year – and has a CEO who doesn’t exactly have the best PR?

“What we have learned through the likes of Uber and Lyft is that information about where the customer is and where the car is, is actually worth more than the car. You have the technology ratchet where the use of technology leads to greater use of technology.

“The data and the system gets better every day. It is not going to go away. There is going to be ride-sharing of this sort. The question is – who is going to be extracting profits and where are they in the supply chain?

“Over time, I think there will be software which tells you where the five competitors are and which is cheaper, and ready to go, so brand becomes less important. The people in the Valley {Silicon} realise this and that’s why the race for self-driving cars is happening there. Soon, you will buy a car knowing that you can have it moonlight when you are at work so that it earns you a living.”

And to end, as that tech ratchet continues and user convenience heightens, will people just have to accept that privacy and confidential data are a thing of the past for those who want to connect with the ‘Internet of Things’ world then?

“People don’t care about privacy. Anyone who has a credit card gave away their privacy decades ago. People don’t want to be surprised, but after that happens a couple of times you restate your standards. Most people will sell their privacy for $50 happily, as long as you don’t beat them up too much along the way.”


Get the latest media and marketing industry news (and views) direct to your inbox.

Sign up to the free Mumbrella Asia newsletter now.



Sign up to our free daily update to get the latest in media and marketing