Seth Godin and How to Create Change

A conversation about what matters in marketing and business.

I was delighted to be able to catch up with our friend and one of my favorite teachers, Seth Godin. In this 19-minute conversation, we talk about:

  • The fundamental shift in how Seth sees marketing differently
  • His thoughts on fake news and the “post-truth” online environment
  • The stories we tell in business without realizing we’re telling them
  • An approach when you don’t feel you have the authority to try something different
  • The reason most marketers are drowning, and a different approach

The Show Notes

  • If you’re ready to see for yourself why more than 201,344 website owners trust StudioPress — the industry standard for premium WordPress themes and plugins — swing by for all the details.
  • Seth will be re-opening his 200-day The Marketing Seminar project later this summer. You can sign up here to be notified when they re-open. Disclosure: After Seth and I recorded this podcast, he was kind enough to offer me complimentary access to the seminar. This is not, however, an affiliate link. If you happen to see me there, say hi!
  • Seth’s blog has been a source of counterintuitive insights, interesting questions, and different approaches to marketing for many years now.
  • I’m always happy to see your questions or thoughts on Twitter @soniasimone — or right here in the comments!

Seth Godin and How to Create Change

Voiceover: Rainmaker FM.

Sonia Simone: Copyblogger FM is brought to you by the all-new StudioPress Sites, a turnkey solution that combines the ease of an all-in-one website builder with the flexible power of WordPress. It’s perfect for bloggers, podcasters, and affiliate marketers, as well as those of you who are selling physical products, digital downloads, or membership programs.

If you’re ready to take your WordPress site to the next level, see for yourself why more than 200,000 website owners trust StudioPress. You can check it out by going to Rainmaker.FM/StudioPress.

Hey there. Good to see you again. Welcome back to Copyblogger FM, the content marketing podcast. Copyblogger FM is about emerging content marketing trends, interesting disasters, and enduring best practices, along with the occasional rant.

My name is Sonia Simone. I am the chief content officer for Rainmaker Digital, and I like to hang out with the folks who do the heavy lifting over on the Copyblogger blog. You can get additional links, additional resources, and a complete show archive by pointing your browser to Copyblogger.FM.

I am attempting to have some dignity here and not overly fangirl myself. But I am super charmed that our great teacher and friend Seth Godin is here today to talk with us about stories, marketing, communication, and all kinds of good stuff.

Seth, welcome. I’m so pleased you’re here.

Seth Godin: Well, I’m not shy. I’m getting all fanboy over being with you. So, it’s a pleasure Sonia. How’ve you been?

Sonia Simone: I’ve been wonderful. I hope you’re well.

Seth Godin: Things are good, yes. Thanks.

Sonia Simone: Anyone who pays any attention to me knows, because I always try to give credit where I get ideas, that your work has had a lot of influence on me. And specifically on how I think about marketing, and what I think marketing actually is.

How we define it in a world where marketing is, in a lot of cases and for a lot of people, essentially synonymous with telling lies that you may or may not get caught out on.

I would be interested to ask you, what do you believe about marketing that most other people don’t seem to believe about marketing?

The Fundamental Shift in How Seth Sees Marketing Differently

Seth Godin: Well, I think the fork in the road is, are we doing marketing to people or are we doing it with them?

When the Internet started to show up 20 years ago, 30 years ago, what heartened me about it was that there was going to be a fundamental shift in power. And that humans were going to have the ability to take back their attention, to take back their privacy, and to take back their choice. That has been at the heart of my work all this time.

There is a large contingent of people who want it to be the other way. They want marketing to have victors and to have victims, and they want to take what data they can and just take it. They want to trick people, hype people, scam people. Go for the short-term, play the behavioral economics game, and generally play a game to win.

For me, marketing isn’t that. Marketing is an infinite game. It’s something that we get to do. And if we do it well, it’s something that makes both sides glad they engaged.

Sonia Simone: I think that’s very resonant for me, certainly.

I’m curious to digress a little bit. We’re in such an amazing period of time with the Internet, with how it has shaped how we talk to each other, how we broadcast, and the kinds of things we share. Any thoughts on this insane, crazy, post-truth, alternative-fact environment?

I started out online with a lot of idealism that we were all going to be able to know and no one was ever going to be able to tell a lie because the Internet, just the crowd, would crowdsource the truth. So that didn’t turn out.

Any thoughts, any reaction to this kind of amazing and challenging time we’re in?

Seth’s Thoughts on Fake News and the ‘Post-Truth’ Online Environment

Seth Godin: Well, I think it’s worth noting that the dominant media narrative of any given moment rarely is accurate. It’s just the dominant media narrative. So if 50,000 people had voted differently in November, the narrative today would be totally different even though the world would not have … the underlying sources would not have changed one bit.

There’s always been a division between civil scientific method discourse on what’s right and what’s not, the motion and belief, and what we want to have happen.

So you could watch people in 1958 have a fist fight over Ford versus Chevy. Ford versus Chevy is not a cut-and-dried conversation. It’s emotional, and it’s tribal. It’s attitudinal. And the same thing is true now.

Has there always been ‘fake news’? Yes. Has it been weaponized and industrialized like it is now? Of course not.

What we know is that human beings are still making decisions the way they always did. Some of them make decisions in certain situations quite rationally and in other situations emotionally and based on tribal alliance or their personal history. That’s how we end up with religion, and it’s how we end up with people who want to drive a Harley or anything else.

I think that as a marketer, what we get to do is understand that we can get to pick which conversation we’re about to have. Are we about to have a conversation based on facts and checklists and RFPs, or are we more likely having a conversation based on humanity and who we think we are when we look in the mirror?

Sonia Simone: One thing that I’ve seen you write about, speak about over the years is telling stories. Something that I find fascinating about telling stories is that every one of us pretty much tells stories all the time with our friends and our family.

We have all these little stories. It’s how we keep each other current on what’s going on in our day. Then as soon as we get to point where we’re trying to tell a story in a business context, we get real weird. It’s hard, it’s awkward, and we don’t know how to do it anymore.

So I wanted your thoughts on that. And do you have any thoughts on — because I know that you believe in storytelling, I think anybody who understands human cognition, just observes, storytelling matters a lot.

Any thoughts on why we get so noted up, and maybe advice on how to be less insane about this?

The Stories We Tell in Business Without Realizing We’re Telling Them

Seth Godin: I think that’s a profound insight, Sonia.

Let’s be really clear, though, about what a story is. Little Red Riding Hood is clearly a story. But there are also stories like the tone of your voice on this podcast. You sound informed, calm, and connected. That’s a story. You might have woken up on the wrong side of the bed, it might not be how you feel right this minute. But it comes through.

So we tell a story whether we think we are telling a story or not. In business, we’re often telling the story of “I am profoundly uncomfortable, and I’m going to rely on the base level of facts so that I will not be held responsible.” We don’t tell stories like that when we’re offering a four-year-old an ice-cream cone. But we feel like, in a work setting, we have been hired to just be a middle man, to not own it.

If you don’t own it, it’s very hard to find the freedom and the foundation to actually tell a story that resonates.

Sonia Simone: That’s very interesting, because one of the reasons I started a business is I got very frustrated about having a story I thought was meaningful and worth telling in an organization, but I couldn’t get the mojo right to tell that story. I couldn’t get permission to tell a story I thought was meaningful, truthful, and valuable.

Any thoughts on that? On people who are in organizations, where maybe so often, the people who do the work are so smart. And it’s hard for organizations to see how wise their own people are. So if somebody’s wise or just perceived something, has something they want to say that they think is real and useful, but having a hard time getting it approved in their organization.

Seth Godin: Well, I’m not sure I have enough time to go into all of the details. Let me try to just …

Sonia Simone: A quick answer would be fine, yeah.

An Approach When You Don’t Feel You Have the Authority to Try Something Different

Seth Godin: Short version goes like this: We want authority. We want a badge. We want a permit.

The reason we want authority is so we can tell other people what to do, and so we’re off the hook when we do it because we have a badge. But what organizations are bad at is giving out authority.

It turns out, on the other hand, we can take responsibility. And most organizations will let people take responsibility. If you start doing that, while giving away credit, you will discover that you get more of it.

If you take responsibility for the repercussions of the story you are telling, if you take responsibility for being human and having empathy as you approach someone who needs to hear from you, I think the whole game changes.

Part of it is the story we tell ourselves about what we do around here and what our job is.

Sonia Simone: Yeah, I like that a lot.

All right, I do want to touch on — you have a project that sounds like it’s been in the work for quite a while. It’s a seminar, and it is a little different. The format’s a little different.

So I do want to talk about that. Because I’m very interested in it, and I think a lot of people listening to this call would be interested in knowing more about it. So can you kind of let us know what it is, how it works, all that good stuff.

The Most Effective Thing That Seth Believes He’s Ever Done

Seth Godin: I’d be delighted.

I’m a teacher, and I’m not doing what I do to get likes or clicks or have people look at ads. I’m actually trying to make change happen.

In thinking about how online learning works, the first thing I built was the altMBA, which is an intensive 30-day workshop that takes people from around the world and has coaches and live discussion groups. You have to apply to get in.

It worked great. It’s the most effective thing I think I’ve ever done. But I also learned that a lot of people can’t make that sort of commitment. So I thought about how else could we make change happen that doesn’t just involve putting up some videos.

So I built The Marketing Seminar, which you can find at The idea is that it’s a 100-day seminar. And every other day, 50 times, I’ll post a video lesson. Then people go in to discussion groups to talk to each other, to work it out, to contribute to each other’s work. Because that’s where the real learning happens.

Thousands of people are in it.

Anyway, it’s at And I explain it there better than I could explain it here.

Basically, I believe that humility, empathy, and effectiveness are significant factors in marketing that almost everyone in the traditional marketing world has overlooked in favor of clicks, numbers, and false metrics.

My hope is that people from nonprofits, big companies, and entrepreneurs and freelancers will engage in this community. Because I’m in the business of making change happen, and this is my best shot at doing that.

Sonia Simone: That’s interesting. I was just looking at the description of the project, and I found some words, and I thought they were intriguing. So I thought I would ask you about them.

“This is a seminar about building a machine, a marketing machine. A process and a practice that produces value daily.” Again, I thought that was fascinating, because I think I have a decent handle on the humility and empathy part of your message. Effectiveness is always something that I can put some more time on. But that machine, I thought that was such an interesting metaphor for you to choose. And so I was curious about where that was coming from.

Seth Godin: The first year I had my blog, 200 or 300 people read it. And the question one would ask is, “How long should you keep doing that before you stop?”

If you think about Airbnb during its opening months or you think about Facebook during its opening years, the question is, “What did you add to the asset today? What did you add to the asset yesterday?” Because if you’re counting on winning in one swoop, you’re playing a short-term game. And if you’re playing a short-term game, you cannot possibly have humility. You cannot possibly have patience.

So the only way to be able to present to the market with both the enthusiasm, the confidence, and the humility that’s going to be necessary is to realize you have to build an asset. Day by day, drip by drip.

Too often we miss that, because everyone’s always promising us the secret and the shortcut. I believe that the most direct shortcut is the really, really long way. That is what happens when you get a virtuous cycle.

So the idea of a machine is that every day, we are layering something on top of the thing we did yesterday. And over time we move from the early adopters, who are eager to dance with us, to the people in the middle of the market, who are basing their decisions on what the early adopters told them. If we look at the arc of Copyblogger, that’s exactly what you guys have done.

Sonia Simone: For sure. It’s interesting. My attempt, some years back, in channeling Yogi Berra, I once said that, “Don’t take shortcuts, they take too long.”

Seth Godin: There you go.

Sonia Simone: I have consistently found that to be absolutely, literally true. That the more shortcuts you take, the more you just delay getting to the point that you want to get to.

Seth Godin: It’s so hard for people to hear that.

Sonia Simone: It’s hard.

The Reason Most Marketers Are Drowning — and a Different Approach

Seth Godin: I’m so glad you said it so cogently, because many people who do marketing are drowning. We’re drowning because we’ve made big promises to people.

The average CMO lasts 18 months before she gets fired, because they’ve expanded those promises in their head to come to the conclusion that if they just make average stuff for average people and give the marketer some money, all problems will go away.

Faced with trying to keep that promise, marketing is super stressful. So I think we have to begin by making a different promise. And once we make that promise, we can follow your insightful advice and stop looking for shortcuts.

Sonia Simone: Yeah. I’m gonna ask you a goofy question, because I don’t think that humility lets us, in a way, think about this.

Assuming you were okay with just changing what people think with a magic wand, and you had a magic wand, is there some belief that you would at least invite people to consider? If you could just wave a magic wand and people would think about something differently, what do you think it might be?

What Seth Would Change about How People Think

Seth Godin: Can I have two?

Sonia Simone: Yeah.

Seth Godin: I’m gonna take two.

Sonia Simone: That would be awesome.

Seth Godin: The two are: One, this is a revolution. We’re standing on the precipice of it, and we’re likely to waste it if we just keep doing what we’re doing.

Two, in order to move forward, we have to own our words. We don’t get to say, “Well, I was just parroting the company line.” Or “Well, that’s what my party needed me to do.” Or “It’ll all work out.”

It’s on us, that our name is on it. It wasn’t true when you were the 800th highest-ranking person at Ford Motor Company. But that’s not the case anymore, that there’s so much leverage for every individual. We need to own it.

If you knew you had to own it, what would you do? That’s what I would like people to understand.

Sonia Simone: That is really cool. That’s very interesting.

All right. Well, I will end with the thing we always end with. Which is, let’s say somebody finds this. Not that we’ve been obsessively focused on the seminar, which actually sounds like a really cool project.

But let’s say somebody finds this interview in six months. Seminar’s not an issue anymore. Do you have some little piece, like a small evergreen question or a small evergreen touchstone, that people might take away with them on their day and maybe do something different with their day?

Seth Godin: Would they miss you if you were gone? If your email didn’t show up, if your memo didn’t arrive, if your meeting was canceled, if you couldn’t offer your service and they had to buy it from a competitor — would they miss you?

Sonia Simone: Oh, I love it. Wonderful.

Thank you so much. This is been such a delight. I really enjoy the way you think, and I really enjoy the way you teach. And I’m excited about your project.

Thank you. This had just been a delight.

Seth Godin: I hope we can do it again soon, Sonia. I miss talking to you, and I wish you a ‘buona sera.’

Sonia Simone: Ah, grazie. Grazie mille.

Seth Godin: Very good. See you later.

Sonia Simone: See ya.