Innovation & Design

Seth Godin: Profile of a Marketing Guru


How the author of Permission Marketing used online savvy and smart self-promotion to become a speaker, writer, and blogger in demand

Thousands of authors write business books every year but only a handful reach star status and the A-list lecture circuit. Fewer still—one, to be exact—can boast his own action figure. Last December, the Seth Godin Marketing Guru, a 5-inch plastic likeness of the well-known marketing maven, joined a line of similar kitschy collectibles that includes Einstein, Mozart, and a popular Seattle librarian named Nancy Pearl. In the nearly 10 years since his first best-seller, Godin has become a marketing phenom with a string of titles, including Purple Cow, Unleashing the Ideavirus, and his newest, Tribes—written at a pace of almost one per year (not counting e-books).

But Godin didn't reach guru status through his books alone. A five-year stint as a columnist for the magazine Fast Company helped raise his profile, and his blog, sethgodin.typepad.com, which consistently ranks in Web-tracker Technorati's top 20, helped him reach beyond business readers. Across these media, Godin delivers his combination of counterintuitive thinking and a great sense of fun. "He's a born entertainer," says author and consultant Tom Peters.

Godin's overarching theme is simple: Companies can no longer rely on mass-media advertising to sell average products to average consumers. Instead, they must create remarkable products and services and let consumers do the marketing themselves to generate a buzz. In the "new marketing" landscape that Godin chronicles, the balance of power has shifted from companies to consumers, thanks to TiVo, spam filters, blogs, and YouTube (GOOG).

Dissed by Academics

No one, including Godin, would consider this a totally original thesis. Patrick Barwise, a London School of Business professor of management and marketing, tut-tuts that while Godin's writing is "very readable with lots of examples, it's not grounded in research. His arguments are oversimplified and overstated."

But his followers don't seem to care. While entrepreneurs are his core audience, Godin's readership stretches up the corporate ladder, around the globe, and outside the business world. That Godin's books appeal to readers like Amy Curtis-McIntyre, a former vice-president for marketing at JetBlue Airways (JBLU), and also to Jeffrey Reed, an orchestra director, and Anne Jackson, an evangelical author and blogger, is both impressive and curious.

Godin's secret to resonating with such diverse readers: He has mastered marketing in the Digital Age. His blog and books invite readers to join his e-mail list, through which he lets them know about new publications or workshops. He offers free e-books—Unleashing the Ideavirus was downloaded 2 million times before it was published. Between books, he also spreads his ideas through speeches and workshops.

The Ultimate Self-Promoter?

Still, given all the business writers competing for attention, how did Godin reach the top tier? How, in the lingo of his new book, has he become the leader of such a large tribe? Was it through remarkable ideas. Or has he just been remarkably good at self-promotion?

Godin, 48, works in a light-filled, loft-style office in Irvington, N.Y., 20 miles north of Manhattan. Wall-to-wall windows facing the Hudson River offer a calming view. But Godin himself is hyperkinetic—his mind spins through 70 RSS feeds and 300 e-mail replies a day. He posts once or twice daily to his blog and reads five books a week. In 2001 he wrote Unleashing the Ideavirus in five days. "I clearly have ADHD," he says. "Lucky for me the world kind of organized around me rather than the other way around. It's such an asset."

He shares the space with the four-member staff of Squidoo, a Web startup he launched in 2005 that allows anyone to create a page on a topic of their expertise. There's no receptionist, and visitors enter a public area with brightly colored furniture and an open kitchen. One shelf is lined with toys familiar to any Godin reader: the plastic baby figures from the cover of Small Is the New Big; the wooden Pinocchio that inspired All Marketers Are Liars, as well as the Marketing Guru action figure.

A Stanford MBA

Godin has deep roots in marketing. After graduating from Stanford Business School at 23, he worked as a brand manager at a software company, and in 1992 founded Internet marketing outfit Yoyodyne. The company had some big-name clients such as MCI and American Express (AXP), but was spending too long—up to six months—to make a sale. "So I thought, what if I write a book about what we do?" he explains. In his first hit, Permission Marketing, he argues that because attention is increasingly scarce and traditional mass media ads reach thousands, perhaps millions, of people who aren't interested in what's being sold, companies need to engage in more personal conversations with consumers who agree—or give permission—to accept direct communications, including special offers and new product announcements. Considered radical at the time, his notion of "turning strangers into friends and friends into customers," as the book's subtitle promises, is only more relevant today as companies grapple with how to market within social networks.

In late 1998, Yahoo! (YHOO) bought Yoyodyne for $30 million in stock and made Godin its vice-president for direct marketing. "My job was to teach people to think the way we did," he says. He soon decided he preferred writing books, which allowed him to play the change-agent role on a larger scale. Since then, through trial and error, he has developed a winning formula: brief, simple books with eye-catching covers and provocative titles—and no business-speak. Tribes, for example, is a 147-page, anecdote-filled call to readers to become leaders of a movement, or "tribe."

"He's successful in part because of his breezy style," says dean Roger Martin of the University of Toronto's Rotman School of Management. "People want 'edutainment,' not some dry content that reminds them of university."

Learning From Experience

Most of Godin's ideas are based on his own background, from his days running a temp service as an undergraduate at Tufts University through a (failed) subscription-based record label to his years at Yoyodyne. Many of those experiences involve the early use of new technology: He recognized the opportunity of Web-based marketing before most people had even heard of the Internet and launched his blog in January 2002. This hands-on experience makes his insights particularly valuable in a period of tech-driven change.

Godin's ability to synthesize and combine topics helps account for his broad influence. "Some people want a deep dive; they want metrics. But if you want someone to take a complicated topic and boil it down to the core, that's Seth," says John Moore, a brand consultant and former Whole Foods Market (WFMI) marketing director. Godin finds patterns of behavior and general problems that exist in seemingly unrelated fields. He sees Mary Anne Davis, a potter at one of his seminars, grappling with the same problem as executives at Boeing (BA): How do you market effectively when your products aren't the kind people buy based on an ad? And this focus on the general rather than the specific explains part of Godin's wide appeal. "The big win is when I say something that's just vague enough that it's useful, but people think I wrote it just for them," he says.

Not everyone joins in the Godin lovefest, of course. Editors at The Journal of Marketing Research complained that Permission Marketing "overpromised" and didn't adequately explain how marketers should gain permission. Others charge he simply repackages old ideas in colorful language without offering enough substance. And some argue his writing celebrates the obvious. "So he has a concept that you offer something different," strategy consultant Donald Mitchell says of Purple Cow. "Every person who's taken a basic marketing course already knows that. But how do you do that? The devil is in the details."

Godin's fans contend his approach is valid, even if nontraditional. "There is plenty of room for a Clayton Christensen and a Jim Collins and a Seth Godin," says consultant Peters, citing two other marketing mavens. "So Seth doesn't have as many charts and whatnot. So what? He doesn't promise to."


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