Seth Godin on When You Should Start Marketing Your Product, Service, or Idea

What is marketing?

Is it a process of gathering as much money as you can, throwing it to the “creative” winds, and hoping something will come back?

Is it a practice of interrupting as many people as possible with a message they don’t care about, and never asked to receive?

Is it a performance you frantically stage around your product, service, or idea, in the final moments before launching it into the world?

Or is it something else entirely? And if it is, how and when do we employ it?

Seth Godin has been asking, answering, and living out these questions for decades. In the process, he’s written thirteen best-selling books, built dozens of companies, and crafted one of the most influential blogs on the planet.

He’s on the show today, delivering a fast and elemental definition of marketing, and what it means to engage an audience in the post-industrial era. Don’t miss this …

In this episode we discuss:

  • Seth’s definition of marketing
  • When you should start marketing your product, service, or idea
  • Why running a ton of ads just doesn’t work anymore
  • The most important element of good marketing
  • The most dangerous element of bad marketing
  • How the Internet builds trust, and why you must get it
  • A stunning example of breaking out of the old marketing system

Hit the flash player below to listen now:


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Please note that this transcript has been lightly edited for clarity and grammar.


Robert: This is Internet Marketing for Smart People Radio . I am Robert Bruce and today Seth Godin is on the line. If you don’t know Mr. Godin, he is the author of more than a dozen worldwide best-selling books. He is an accomplished entrepreneur and a legendary independent online publisher. You can grab all the details of his storied career by Googling just one word, “Seth.”

And, Seth, since I blame you for the idea of giving my stuff away online back in 2005 and, therefore, indirectly creating my current professional situation, it’s a very real pleasure to be talking to you today.

Seth: Well I am pleased that it ended that way. I thought you were about to blame me for something that was out of my control, so thank you.

Robert: If you’ll give me just one moment for a short word from our sponsor and then we will get right into your definition of marketing, when we should start marketing our product, services and ideas, and quite a bit more.

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Seth, you wrote a deceptively simple blog post back in March of this year that stopped me cold. It’s titled “When Should we Add Marketing”and I think it addresses and challenges some commonly held beliefs about marketing that most folks who are trying to spread a product, service, or idea hold.

It might seem an elementary question to some, but in order to meaningfully frame the next few minutes, let me ask you, what is marketing?

Seth Godin’s definition of marketing

Seth: Well the easy answer is that it’s not advertising. A lot of people have trouble right there because for fifty years it was advertising.

Mad Men was all about this notion that if you ran enough ads, they didn’t have to be good, just had to run enough, they would pay for themselves. It was a perpetual motion machine of money.

That ended a few years ago, and I would like to describe marketing as the art of telling a story that resonates with your audience and then spreads. That story better be true, which means that implicit in marketing is making something for which, or about which, you could tell a story that resonates.

This is almost diametrically opposed to what every big company marketer in the world does and lots of little company marketers who think they are supposed to copy big company marketers. They think their job is to “get the word out” and that they have a moral right, and a professional obligation, to interrupt everyone they can to talk about their average stuff for average people.

How the Internet builds trust, and why you must get it

Robert: I’ve heard you tell it before but I love your description of why this has changed. Some of it’s obvious, you know the change in media, the change in the world with everything or most of media coming online, but why has this changed so radically from the old Mad Men era that our culture is leaving behind to this new culture that you describe?

Seth: We all grew up learning about the industrial revolution; every revolution then brings an age behind it. The industrial revolution created the industrial age and what was hard about the industrial age was making stuff. Henry Ford didn’t get rich because he ran good commercials, he got rich because he made a better car for the money than everyone ever had before and so for half a century, making stuff was key.

Then, once you got factories up and running making stuff, there is a demand for mass media.

We invented television to make advertisers happy not the other way around.

In the second era, the mass media era, we’ve got lots and lots of attention, because television manufactured attention and we needed to grab that attention and turn it into money.

The thing that is going on now is that attention is now scarce, it’s not abundant anymore. There are a million or billion channels to choose from, not three. There is a store one click away that sells every item ever made as opposed to the local store where shelf space was scarce.

All of those things undermined the importance of making average stuff because it’s easier than ever before. You can design something on your computer, send an email to China, and a month later it comes back and you didn’t have to do anything. The hard part isn’t getting shelf space because everyone gets the same amount of shelf space on Amazon as everybody else. The hard part is earning attention and trust and nothing that Henry Ford did was about attention or trust.

Why running a ton of ads just doesn’t work anymore

Robert: One thing seems to be carried over from that older era, it’s very popular to do, and that is the practice of interruption. Why doesn’t interruption work?

Seth: Well interruption does work unless your interruptions are being interrupted. Interruption works when … if you stand up in church and start screaming and yelling, everyone will notice you. They may not trust you, but they will notice you.

What has happened is that the amount of interruption, the amount of noise, has gone from getting two emails a day to 450. So you can interrupt my email box all you want, it’s not going to work.

So we replaced this idea that you could steal my attention with an idea that you could earn it and I have to pay it to you. I can’t get it back cause once attention is gone it’s gone forever, but the person who owns attention has built a worthwhile asset.

I would say to your listeners, name one company that has gone on the internet and built a brand, a jingle, a slogan, or a logo and the answer is, “none.” The internet doesn’t build those things the way TV does.

What the internet builds is connection. Every successful internet company and every successful internet marketer is successful for that and only that reason. They have earned attention, built trust, and turned it into profit.

The most important element of true marketing

Robert: Alright, I am going to ask you a little bit later for an example or two of folks, individuals, or companies that are doing that well, but even good marketing, real marketing as you’ve described earlier, gets a bad rap from people in certain corners of the internet. It’s a word that’s called all kinds of inaccurate things and associated with all kinds of people and practices, but I think you are arguing something very valuable here, and that’s that we’re all already marketing, for better or worse, and that true marketing, almost by definition, lies at the very core of dreaming up and making astonishing product services or ideas. Is that about right?

Seth: Oh yes, it’s totally right. The problem, given how good we are at making up words, is that we don’t have a word for the other kind of marketing to distinguish it from this kind of marketing.

I’ll accept partial responsibility because I haven’t thought of a good one yet, but the guy who is selling, get rich quick, $99 a month PDF’s that are exclusive to you, blah, blah, blah, and then slams some extra charges on your charge card tells his mother-in-law that he is a marketer.

I don’t see how he could be any more different than the marketer that brought us the iPad, but both guys are marketers, and you are correct, that there are a lot of people who look askance at it but if you ever went on a first date, or if you every tried to raise money for your charity, you are a marketer too.

When you should start marketing your product, service, or idea

Robert: To be very clear then, according to your post and the major point that you bring up in it, when should we start marketing our products, services, or ideas?

Seth: Well before you have your product, service, or idea, how do you decide that running a service that’s going to help homeowners lower their property taxes is worth your time and effort? The decision to do it is a marketing decision, right? The implementation of it isn’t difficult anymore. The implementation of importing rugs from Turkey or the implementation of deciding to build a new kind of social network, the coding isn’t hard, the hard part is marketing it and telling a story about it that people choose to listen to.

I did a post shortly after the “When should we add marketing” post about sea monkeys. Anyone who grew up reading comics knows about the sea monkeys. If you ever ordered them, you didn’t get the king and the queen and the little happy kid monkey thing, you got microscopic brine shrimp. If you turned off the lights, and used a flashlight, millions of them would swim around, that’s how you train them.

Well clearly the marketer had nothing to do with the guy who put the brine shrimp in the packet. They said to the marketer, “we got a bunch of brine shrimp in a packet, come up with a way to sell them.” If your job is to sell somebody else’s sea monkeys, it’s an interesting intellectual problem, but it’s not the marketing I am talking about.

Robert: That can’t exist today.

Seth: Well I am not sure that I am ready to buy that. I think there are lots of people who are successfully selling average stuff to average people because we love a story, we like to be entertained, and we’re going to buy stuff.

My argument is, given the choice, the purest form of marketing starts from scratch and that if you are an ad agency, your big win is to let your clients have you sit in on the product development meetings. Then you can help them design products that don’t need advertising, but if all you are going to do is sit there and wait for them to bring their average stuff, you’ve made your job much harder.

What good storytelling marketing looks like

Robert: What does this look like Seth? What does this storytelling look like digitally online today? Give us an example of one good way to tell a story over time about your company, about your idea, about your product.

Seth: A lot of times what is going on is that you are not telling a story about what the industrialist would have thought.

If I think about TOMS Shoes, Blake tells a story that if you buy this pair of shoes, you will be part of a hip group in your community, plus you will have a story that you can tell everyone, which is an identical pair, went to someone who doesn’t have shoes. Right? So he doesn’t tell a story about the fabric or the workmanship, he tells a story about what your act of buying did.

You do that year after year after year and you end up selling literally millions of shoes that way. That’s really different than saying, I can prove my shoe is better than your shoe and if you don’t buy it, you’re an idiot.

An example that shatters the old marketing system

Robert: Alright and to finally give a vivid picture of what this can look like, and you give a great example with TOMS shoes, but I would like to close by asking you for one more, or maybe two, examples of people or companies who are embracing marketing for what it truly is as you described it here. Adding marketing from the very beginning, and all the way through, rather than plopping it on at the very end of the sales process and bringing it to market.

Seth: Okay well I always loathe to do this because inevitably the person I pick then does something that I didn’t know about and people say, “see you shouldn’t have picked that.” I mean, poor Tom Peters after In Search of Excellence, which was loaded with great stories, 80% of the companies, had a hiccup, not his fault of course, it’s for analogy purposes.

Let me tell you about Shepard Fairey, who most people have heard of. He’s the most famous fine artist of the century. So Shepard Fairey is a talented graphic artist, but there are millions of graphic artists and they look at the fine art market where someone might get paid $50,000 or $100,000 for one painting and they say, “that’s good work if you can get it,” and they go to the old system of, “how do I get a gallery owner to recognize me?” and, “how do I get a show and then how do I get a bigger show?” They are struggling. We invented the term starving artist for a reason.

Well Shepherd did none of that. Shepard said, “I am going to make art with story and I am going to organize it to spread.” So he put it for free on the wall and he was arrested more than 30 times for putting his art on the walls of buildings in Los Angeles and in Boston and in New York. That is a real commitment to what I am talking about and that he didn’t charge a thing, in fact, he was willing to go to jail to spread the art.

Well over time Shepard builds a blog and that blog built a mailing list and then he starts doing something where once or twice a week, he will post that he has a new limited edition piece coming out and you can buy it for between $40 and $100. He has to change what time he posted because so many people want to buy it that he needs to make it sort of random.

Many of the people who buy it turn around and resell it for $500 or $1,000 to a collector because everything is limited and, over time, he built this tribe of people who identified with his art and identified with the way he spread it and started moving his way up the food chain to the point where one of his works has sold for over $100,000 for an original and he’s had a major New York City show.

It was inevitable that he would get there because, step by step, bit by bit, he spread a story. He built a tribe. He earned permission. He made connections. He did art that people recognized. It’s iconic, it’s all of these steps, built in to what he was trying to build.

Is traditional advertising dead?

Robert: You said it just now, but I can hear a small business owner out there saying, “Okay, I understand what’s going on, I see all of this, but I don’t have the time, how do I make this happen now, online? I’ve got to get my stuff out there. I’ve got to make sales. Yeah, yeah, it takes hard work and all of this but can’t I just get a bunch of money together and make something happen? Come on, what about the old days?” What would you say to that?

Seth: I am so glad you brought that up. That, in fact, is not what they are saying. What they are saying is, “I like the industrial era, I like the industrial age, I’ve got this pile of mediocre stuff, help me sell it.” Then they say, “By the way, I hate marketing.”

Well the reason you hate marketing is that you are doing it the old way. You are trying to push, and trick, and cajole, and interrupt your way into someone buying your slightly better than average stuff for slightly better than average pricing. I am like, “Great! Have fun! But don’t tell me that’s the future, because it’s not. And please don’t ask me to give you countless examples or folks who used funnels and sales pitches to get that busy average person to notice them and instead of their competitor and buy it. Not the way it works now!”

If you want the wind at your back, take a deep breath, prepare to get rich slow and you will get rich slow by emulating this connection economy process that is relentlessly successful as opposed to herking and jerking from come on to scheme to come on to scheme and in the long run you are going to get nowhere.

Robert: Would it be fair to say that you are stating that that old world is gone? Maybe not completely, of course, we still see some vestiges of it and some pretty powerful vestiges of it. But it’s gone. We don’t have a choice, right? This is not a choice between one or two. The choice is to proceed as you described.

Seth: I think that if you want to hang in there, you will be able to hang in there for a while. I think that if you want to grow, I don’t know how you can do it that way. The model is really simple. Dell Computer can’t do it anymore. Dell Computer’s model is probably more similar to yours than my model is. If you look at Dell Computer and say, “Why can’t Dell Computer grow, why can’t Dell Computer sell more of its PCs using its brand and logo, blah, blah, blah?” It’s because consumers are too smart for that and when everything is a click away, we’re just not going to give you our attention because it’s important to you.

Robert: This has been Internet Marketing for Smart People Radio . Thanks for listening everybody. If you like what is going on here, a great way to support the show is to head over to and you can see some of the work that I’ve done.

Robert: Mr. Godin, you have taught and shown a generation how to do this marketing thing ethically, artistically and remarkably. Thank you.

Seth: It’s a pleasure. Keep spreading the word, and thanks for the good work you and the rest of the guys there do.


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