Business Leaders: Seth Godin

The first in a series of introductions to major business theories, Growing Business dissects the thought leadership of ethical marketing pioneer Seth Godin

Name: Seth Godin
Born: 1960
Expertise: Named ‘America’s greatest marketer’ by American Way magazine and the ‘ultimate entrepreneur for the information age’ by Business Week, Seth Godin is a bestselling author, a notable blogger and a renowned public speaker on marketing, direct marketing, new media and emerging trends
Known for: Pioneering the use of ethical direct marketing in the late 1990s, a practice Godin calls permission marketing
Best-known titles: Permission Marketing: Turning Strangers Into Friends, and Friends Into Customers (1999); Purple Cow: Transform Your Business by Being Remarkable (2003); All Marketers Are Liars: The Power of Telling Authentic Stories in a Low-Trust World (2005); Small Is the New Big: and 193 Other Riffs, Rants, and Remarkable Business Ideas (2006); Tribes: We Need You to Lead Us (2008); Linchpin: Are You Indispensable? (2011)

Who is Seth Godin?

Seth Godin is one of the most respected and influential thought leaders within marketing today. He has written 13 books on marketing, entrepreneurialism, bucking the trend, leadership theories and change, which have been translated into more than 30 languages. Many of the terms popularised in Godin’s bestselling books have become part of marketing vernacular. In many ways ahead of their time, Godin’s observations and ideologies have broken new ground and inspired change.

What is Godin known for?

After graduating from university in 1979, Godin pursued an MBA in marketing at Stanford University and worked as a brand manager for a software company. After three years at Spinnaker Software, Godin left the company to launch a start-up book-packaging business, which he ran from his apartment in New York.

It was during this time that Godin launched a company called Yoyodyne, one of the first online marketing companies, which pioneered the use of ethical, permission-driven online marketing.

A previously unknown concept, Godin’s theories on ’anticipated, personal, and relevant’ permission-based marketing formed the backbone of his most celebrated book, Permission Marketing: Turning Strangers Into Friends, and Friends Into Customers. In 1998, Yoyodyne was acquired by Yahoo! for a jaw-dropping $30m and Godin was appointed VP of direct marketing. However, after the publication of Permission Marketing in 1999 Godin’s profile as an author and thought leader soared and he left Yahoo! in 2000 to pursue a full-time career as a writer and public speaker.

Marketing guru, orator, blogger, celebrated internet wunderkind, above all these things Seth Godin is best known for the concepts he expounds in his books and his unique approach to publishing and distributing them.

Godin’s hypotheses are not only influential but are constantly one step ahead of the curve and, as such, they have played an intrinsic part in moulding the ‘now’.

The concepts

Permission marketing, tribes, ideaviruses, purple cows, remarkable rifts, meatball sundaes and sneezers are just some of the concepts that Seth Godin has popularised through his books, but behind these catchy monikers there is a hefty dose of substance that hinges on a simple concept he introduced in his book Permission Marketing.

Godin’s overarching belief is that marketing techniques that rely upon interrupting the consumer, such as TV and billboard advertising, are dead and that marketers don’t have the leverage they once had to command the attention of an audience.

Instead, he believes that power has transferred to the consumer and that marketers must have a respect for their increasingly savvy ‘potential’ audience. To succeed in our high traffic, media dominated world, marketers need to be transparent, honest and must work hard to engage their audience by delivering relevant, targeted and timely messages (and NOT SPAM) that the consumer wants to know about.

Godin believes that only the most remarkable ideas deserve to be spread (just like viruses) by ‘sneezers’, earning their right to popularity through merit alone.

Today, with the proliferation of ‘search’, online social networking and video sharing this does seem rather obvious, but in 2000 when he released his third book, Unleashing the Ideavirus, Mark Zuckerberg was still at high school, YouTube was five years from formation and even internet super-giant Google Incorporated was in its infancy. Released online and free to download and share, Unleashing the Ideavirus is purported to be the most downloaded e-book of all time and proves Godin’s theory that customers sharing content and marketing with each other works better than interrupting them.

Highly prolific in terms of his output, Godin’s next two books The Big Red Fez (2002) and Survival Is Not Enough (2002) were released in the same year and became global bestsellers. Godin’s light-footedness in responding to the problems of the moment gave his readers exactly what they needed: clear-headed solutions for surviving the boom and bust of the dotcom bubble and for getting the most out of their website, the demand for which was growing exponentially.

However, while these books were highly relevant and targeted it was his next book, Purple Cow: Transform Your Business By Being Remarkable (2003), which continued with themes developed in

Ideavirus and Permission Marketing and gained similar recognition by becoming an immediate bestseller.

Like his previous titles, Purple Cow begins with the premise that old-age media marketing is defunct. He also asserts that marketing channels are saturated and our product needs have been satisfied.

Therefore, to gain attention in a crowded environment, businesses need to create truly remarkable products (purple cows) and market them in remarkable ways. He proves his theory by showing practical examples of businesses that have achieved success in this manner and, being Godin, he took his Purple Cow to market in a highly innovative way. The book was initially self-published and sold online for just its shipping and handling charges, and came packaged in a purple milk carton!

In Small Is the New Big: and 193 Other Riffs, Rants, and Remarkable Business Ideas (2006), Godin looks at the benefits of being small in terms of measuring business success. His theory goes further by suggesting that being nimble and flexible in our fast-paced world (while thinking big) is a key ingredient in keeping ahead of the competition. Interestingly, the book is not as reactive as his previous titles and signals the diversification of his core theories from pure marketing to broader business/leadership strategy.

To that end Godin’s books Tribes: We Need You to Lead Us (2008) and Linchpin: Are You Indispensable? (2010) both take an in-depth look at professional evolution and leadership theories.

Ever keen to prove the relevance of his philosophies in a business setting, Godin launched an online community to promote Tribes and, instead of launching Linchpin using traditional media, he promoted it solely using social media by connecting with the online community to preview, review and feedback on his work.

A conceptualist at his core, Godin’s remarkable ideas are not only reflected in his books, blogs and e-books but can also be seen in his unique brand of entrepreneurialism, which only serves to reinforce his message.

How real companies use Godin’s concepts

The great thing about Godin’s concepts is that they are relevant to marketers, business people and non-professionals across the board. Succinct and easy to digest, Godin’s books offer practical advice backed up with case studies and his own application of the theories, proving that they are accessible to all.

In my professional capacity as CEO of The REaD Group plc, a direct marketing services provider, and chair of the Direct Marketing Association’s Data Council I’ve had the opportunity to watch the direct marketing industry change beyond all recognition in the last 10 years. Indeed, many of the business and marketing theories that are set out in Godin’s book Permission Marketing, which once seemed so risqué, now form the backbone of industry best practice and are an accepted way of life for most marketers.

I’ve certainly followed Godin’s work with interest since first encountering him and actually gave copies of Purple Cow to my staff to illustrate the shifts taking place in the marketing world.

At the time, marketers were fully in the grip of email marketing, old-age media were considered dead and it was all about new, cheap and emerging media channels. However, fast forward to now and Godin’s theories have truly come to pass, marketers have spammed the email channel within an inch of its life and they’re having to work extra hard to gain attention by marketing remarkable products in remarkable ways across the myriad media channels available.

In Britain companies such as Virgin, John Lewis and online retail brand ASOS which exemplify Godin’s theories will more likely survive a challenging retail climate amid global economic turmoil.

By the same token, our internal marketing department, while satisfying a largely B2B client base, has had to change the way it works. Instead of spending our precious marketing budget on expensive ad campaigns, we’re being generous with our ideas and innovative in the way we spread these ideas so that we become thought leaders in our field and give our clients what they want, when they want it and how they want it. We have to practice what we preach.

Validity today

Although the last decade has seen unprecedented levels of environmental, social and technological change Godin’s theories and concepts have played an intrinsic part in moulding and identifying contemporary business trends. Constantly evolving as a writer and thought leader while remaining true to his core beliefs, it would be unwise for anyone to tune out and stop listening to what Godin has to say just yet.

Business Gurus, edited by Ian Wallis and published by Crimson Publishing, is available to order now.

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