Marketing CliffsNotes: What I Learned From Seth Godin

Back in 1999 at the height of the dot-com era, I was lucky enough to land a job at an Internet startup. As a newbie with an MBA, I was tasked with trying to make sense of online marketing — which, at the time, was in its infancy. Internet marketing was so new that the topic was rarely discussed in college, so I quickly found myself poring over every book I could get my hands on about this new marketing channel.

One book stood out from the rest: “Permission Marketing” by Seth Godin. This book — as well as his subsequent books — became my bible, and reading his blog was my daily ritual. His words resonated with me and mirrored the changes I was witnessing as my colleagues and I tried to build this company in an evolving consumer landscape. He’s written roughly 20 books, but his work between 1999 and 2003 led the marketing dialogue like no other and shaped the way marketers now talk to consumers.

If you’re not familiar with Seth’s work, you should know his threefold marketing philosophy:

1. Consumers are in control.

As the online ecosystem evolved, consumers took control of the marketing narrative. As a result, interruption marketing — sometimes called “push” marketing — lost its effectiveness.

When Seth wrote “Permission Marketing” in 1999, he was five to seven years ahead of most businesses. Marketers were trying to apply direct mail strategies to email. Spamming exploded, and publishers sold ad space to the highest bidder, pushing marketing messages onto computer screens without any regard for what consumers were searching for.

It wasn’t until 2002 that the ad model flipped. Recognizing the need to provide consumers with relevant messaging, Google tweaked the text ad model. It started to measure interactions with ads to determine their relevance and then displayed messaging relevant to searches.

It’s hard to believe that 15 years ago, Seth told us to “turn strangers into friends and friends into customers.” This lesson still rings true for businesses today: If you want to win in the marketplace, you must ask permission to market to your audience and earn their attention.

2. You must have a great product.

Until a few years ago, marketing was the spin machine. You could convince consumers that they couldn’t live without almost any product, even when that product was so-so. But now consumers have more choices than ever and less time to decide among them. Unless your product is extraordinary, you might as well be invisible.

Even with a sizeable marketing budget, a better product could come along and erode your business without the company spending a dime on messaging. Consumers are savvy, and only great products with great value propositions will thrive.

3. Smart marketers turn customers into advocates.

Once you have a great product and have earned permission to market to your audience, you need to turn your customers into brand advocates — a concept Seth introduced in “Unleashing the Ideavirus.”

The concepts Seth covered in the book were a precursor to what’s known today as “growth hacking.” Although Facebook didn’t exist yet, Seth recognized the rise of a highly connected consumer base that was communicating through reviews, discussion groups, and blogs and he formulated strategies to take advantage of this. He knew that as more people went online to share their opinions, happy customers could become the ultimate marketing tool.

So how do you leverage your customer base to spread the word? Well, you go to a restaurant for the food, but you come back for the service. The same idea applies to all industries: Once your customers have tasted your product, it’s up to you to mobilize the people who interact with your customers.

Put your very best people in customer service. They are the ones who will create long-term brand advocates.

When marketing a product or service, take a page from Seth’s books; they’ve served me well over the years. Start with a great product or service, and then look at your offerings through consumers’ eyes. Tell them what they need to know when they want to know it, and once you’ve converted those strangers into customers, work hard to turn them into advocates.

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