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Figuring out the words: The Seth Godin interview

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Key Points

  • Story-telling is important in modern marketing but you've got to remember that nobody learns everything all at once. The story has to begin with something compelling enough that you want to learn more - the story must unfold. The mistake marketers make is that they tell all the story at once, take it or leave it.
  • A perfectionist doesn’t do things quickly, it takes them too long to shift. It is better to be very focused on doing the best you can quickly and then later fix it to make it better.
  • SEO is not a black art. It's often clients who want shortcuts rather than hard work that are the problem. The best SEO is great content and if you don't create that you won't get search engine traffic.

Our reporter Rachelle Money managed to connect with Seth Godin - probably one of the most famous and prolific modern marketers - in a cab on the way to LA Airport at seven in the morning. Author of ‘Permission Marketing’ and ‘The Idea Virus’, Godin has just published his latest book, ‘Meatball Sundae’ and so he’s a pretty busy man.

When you wrote Permission Marketing did you know it would be such a success?

"I would say I have no idea if what I am working on is going to succeed. I assume that it’s going to reach some people but I am insecure and neurotic enough to be sure it will fail."

Do you ever re-read your books and think, that could have been better?

"Sometimes I’ll read something on the web that someone is quoting and I don’t know that I wrote it. I will be reading it and saying to myself, wow this is pretty good and realize it’s something I actually wrote."

You seem to have a real passion for story-telling - where does that come from?

"I don’t think I spent a lot of time telling stories until I wrote All Marketers Are Liars. The inspiration for that book was the political campaign because I saw how effective storytelling was for some politicians, and how it messed up others."

How can someone tell a simple story which keeps someone interested in your product?

"Nobody learns everything all at once. The story has to begin with something compelling enough that you want to learn more about the story. The mistake marketers make is that they tell all the story at once, take it or leave it. People need to realize they have to ensure a unfolding dialogue."

Are there any companies out there who you feel do a good job at creating this kind of dialog?

"If we look at Richard Branson and what he has done with Virgin, on the surface the story is almost trivial, but when you get deeper into it it becomes more rich and evolves. The idea of having a masseuse so they can give you a massage in first class is on the surface a story you don’t even know about until you’re on the plane. But then it gives you something to talk about once you get off the plane and that dialog becomes a commodity."

You are renowned for coining phrases now used widely by marketers, how do you come up with them?

"The way creativity works for me is that I work very hard on establishing the boundaries, making a nice level area for my ideas to live. Like in Permission Marketing, it only took me a minute to come up with it, but it took six months for me to release it. When I coin these phrases I want to have a word to explain a phenomenon but the word is not always obvious. It can take a long time to figure out."

"I am not a perfectionist. I think that I am very focused on doing the best I can quickly and fixing it to make it better. A perfectionist doesn’t do things quickly, it takes them too long to shift."

People look to you for inspiration and direction - do you feel under pressure to come up with new ideas?

"I do it because I want to do it. Every time I am interacting with the outside world I’m thinking about why that interaction happened, whether it was a good one or a bad one. In the same way that people go to the movies and think about whether they liked it or not, that’s how I am looking at marketing - why did this work or why did that fail?"

Do you come from a family of entrepreneurs?

"I started my first company when I was 12. We sold computerized astrology reports and when I was 16 I started a ski club and I never really looked back. I've always wanted to do this."

"My father owned a factory in Buffalo in New York, and my late mother ran the store at the museum, so I grew up in a very independently-minded house."

Why is it so important for you not to make mega-money out your ideas?

"I really don’t remember the time I decided to go down this path but every time I do it it makes me feel better. Ideas that spread win. The only reason I do what I do is because I enjoy watching them spread. Charging for them brings it down."

How does the little guy spread an Ideavirus?

"If you type Ideavirus into Google you will find it. The idea is that it’s not that simple - if it was then everyone would do it. There's actually a lot of thought and time going into doing it without holding on to sheer luck. The principles are universal and that’s what’s unique about this medium. There are only a few companies that can use television commercials or radio commercials, but spreading ideas is working for everybody."

Is online marketing becoming too competitive for a marketer to do well in?

"Almost everyone is mediocre at it, so if you can be good at it then you will provide yourself with plenty of opportunities."

What can newspapers do to become successful online businesses?

"Newspapers are going to go out of business in the next ten years all around the world. There are two problems in the United States newspaper industry. One is that you make a living from cutting down lots of trees, making the paper and hiring trucks to deliver the newspapers to stores. That’s not how information travels anymore."

"The second problem is that newspapers make their money from classified ads. Now those ads work better and cost less online so I think there’s no question that there will be organizations like newspapers, but they’re not going to be in paper form. The sooner that people who make newspapers realize that and get into a different business the happier they’re going to be. They need to concentrate all their efforts online."

What’s next?

"The next book is out in two weeks - Meatball Sundae - and it’s about collision between the internet and traditional marketing."

In the past you have called SEO a 'black art', but is there a good way of using these tools?

"My position is that the clients are the problem, not the consultants. That's because they want shortcuts, not hard work. The best SEO is great content. Don't do that and you don't get much.

Social Networking sites are incredibly popular - what are the benefits of this new medium, and is it set to continue to rise in popularity?

"Social Networks - if you try to glue a brand on top of a social network, you get a meatball sundae. Once again, the networks make it easiest for those who actually have something to say."

To find out more about Seth's latest publication visit;

Meatball Sundae at

Meatball Sundae at

For more on creating great content have a look at the Wordtracker Academy web content page

About Rachelle Money

Rachelle Money is a freelance journalist based in Scotland, UK, who worked for Wordtracker from 2007-2009. She wrote extensively about keyword research, search engine optimization and link building

Rachelle is a contributor to The Web Content Recipe book

Nowadays, Rachelle is Communications Manager at Scottish Renewables.

She graduated from the Scottish School of Journalism in 2005 where she was awarded an internship with two national publications - The Sunday Herald newspaper and The Big Issue magazine.