August 26, 2006

the global microbrand: 10 questions for seth godin

smallis673.jpg

Seth Godin and I had a recent e-mail exchange. I asked him ten questions:

1. QUESTION: Your latest book, "Small Is The New Big", is not a narrative or a thesis in any sense, but a collection of your favorite writings from your blog and your old Fast Company column. A collection of synapse-firings, the way I see it. Is it important to you to have your work "immortalized" on paper? Do you find the internet and magazines just too ephemeral, and wanted to created something more "lasting"? Or was it just simply because, as you say, you wanted your ideas to reach beyond the blogosphere?

ANSWER:
It's important not to underestimate the totem value of a book. The same way a white lab coat makes a placebo more likely to be effective (or a witch doctor's hat for that matter), a book delivers an impact that a blog can't.

While there's certainly some ego in wanting your thousands of posts not to disappear, there's also a real desire on my part to give my existing readers the ability to taunt their co-workers by handing them a book instead of emailing them a link. If my job is to make change, I need to use the best tools that are available.

It's also hard to read a blog at the beach.

I want to be clear about something I just discovered though--that there IS a theme. The title really captures what the book is about. I've been amazed that reviewers (professional and pro-am) have seemed to find something that I didn't when I was busy writing it... that acting small, treating people like people, changing like an individual, not an organization... these are attributes that are essential now, and they're on every page of the book. I think I picked the right riff for the title.

2. QUESTION: As a cartoonist, I find myself quite surprised that very few of the more prominent bloggers out there are in the "Arts". It seems we have lots of business thinkers, technologists, entrepreneurs, consultants etc, but why do we have so surprisingly few filmmakers, playwrights, novelists, musicians, painters etc at the top of the pyramid? I have a few theories myself as to why this is, but may I ask what may be your take on it?

ANSWER: They're coming, for sure. Postsecret is one of the three most popular blogs in the world. I think mainstream artists are rarely the first to embrace a new medium (silkscreening, for example, took a long time to get its Andy Warhol), but they're coming. It's going to be a new generation of artists that embrace the nature of the medium, and they're just getting started.

3. QUESTION: Let's imagine, for whatever reason, you had decided not to start blogging, and keep on exclusively writing books instead. How different do you think your career would be today?

ANSWER: My books would be longer, more appreciated by critics and less popular. I'd have notebooks filled with unfinished sentences and people wouldn't mail me bermuda shorts. Thanks for the shorts, by the way, I love them.

What your readers already realize is that blogs aren't just a way to waste time at work. It's a big shift, a change for a generation.

4. QUESTION: From what I can tell, you make a pretty good living from your books and public speaking gigs. One could intelligently argue that you don't really need to set up other enterprises- Squiddoo etc- in order to maintain your current standard of living. But you do so anyway. So assuming I am correct [I may not be, but hey, it's not like it's any of my business either way], that you're not doing these enterprises primarily for the money, what do you think motivates you to increase your workload in this manner?

ANSWER: It's not a workload! Look, there are 8 million millionaires in the USA. Why do these people go to work every day? Why not downsize appropriately and just sit on the beach? Because they're too smart. They realize that the purpose of living isn't to bake in the sun until you die. I write and speak and experiment because that's what I do. I'm thrilled to have the chance to do it every day. Any day I'm not thrilled, I'll stop.

As a result of the transparency of blogging, a lot of people have realized, almost as an aside, that people do what they love to do. It's just now you get to see it on your screen. Sometimes those things appear to have no financial incentives (raising goldfish) and sometimes they do. But let's be clear... unless you work for Goldman Sachs or are selling drugs on a street corner in Topeka, you're almost certainly not in this, whatever this is, for the money.

Most of the time, for most people, in most industries, it's not REALLY about the money.

5. QUESTION: A lot of people read your books and speak highly of them. But is there any particular part of your body of work that you think is misunderstood by a surprisingly high percentage of your readers?

ANSWER:I'm not surprised that a percentage (not so big, though) of people who read my books use them and misconstrue them to justify their own strategies. Permission Marketing is not about spamming people just by claiming you have "permission." And a Purple Cow isn't purple because you think it is... it's up to the market. But in general, I'd say that the ideas are traveling pretty well.

On the other hand, my briefer riffs, cryptic blog posts and such, get me in trouble all the time. I make assumptions about people understanding my train of thought and my tone of voice, and I got caught. I'm trying to walk a fine line between clarity and pithiness.

6. QUESTION: Of all your books, which one would you rewrite, if the publishers would let you?

ANSWER: I wish I had another shot at "Survival is Not Enough". I'm not sure how I would change it, but I think it's a very strong book, and it wasn't a total failure.

7. QUESTION: I know for a fact that you inspire a lot of bloggers. Could you name a few of the bloggers who inspire you?

ANSWER: Joi Ito got me started. You challenge me regularly to rethink the limits. Tom Peters reminds me that I don't work hard enough.

I also read dozens of blogs a day, including: acleareye.com, Joel on Software, Brand Autopsy, Boingboing, Springwise, Buzzmachine, Presentation Zen, Guy Kawasaki, Kathy Sierra, Fred Wilson, Rick Segal, etc.

Most of my inspiration, though, comes from walking down the street, or working with the gang at Squidoo or reading my email every day. It's so easy for a blogger to try to be like other bloggers, merely because there's so much input available. Resist!

8. QUESTION: If you're a marketer, I believe that thriving in the old, top-down "TV-Industrial Complex" era, as you call it, and thriving in your new world of "Permission Marketing" and "Idea Viruses" require completely different skill sets. So although you may sell a lot of books, do you ever get frustrated that your ideas are slow to reach the people who probably could use them the most? [AFTERTHOUGHT: Possible title for a future blog post: "The best ideas are always last to reach the people who need them the most." Yes? No? Maybe?]

ANSWER: I'm astonished at how long it takes an idea to filter from the early adopters to the masses. What sort of person just read the Da Vinci Code or just discovered the iPod? I was standing in a nice store in a nice suburb and heard one 25 year old explain to a 30 year old what gmail was... it's so easy to assume that everyone already gets it.

9. QUESTION: Was your eventual transition from business entrepreneur to writer a long-held ambition of yours, or did it evolve slowly, perhaps almost happening by accident?

ANSWER: I wrote my first book in 1986... at first, I enjoyed the entrepreneurial nature of packaging books--the barrier to entry was tiny, the publishers gave you the small stake you needed, and if it worked, you could run with it. In fact, it was just like blogging, except it cost more. I have no doubt at all that if there had been blogs in 1986, I would have skipped a whole bunch of intermediate steps along the way.

Five years from now, there are going to be at least 2,000 (maybe 20,000) freelancers who have turned blogging into a technique to leverage a successful media business. First in have a head start.

10. QUESTION: Last year I asked you what effect having a blog has had on your book writing career. Would you mind repeating your answer here, for the benefit of my readers?

ANSWER: A year ago, I told you that blogs had killed my interest in writing books, because they relieved the pressure of ideas building up. My blog got me quick, good feedback and made it easy to spread ideas without resorting to a dying industry.

Since then I've learned that books reach a different population in a different way. I really need to do both. Live and learn!

11. BONUS QUESTION: What is your definition of a "global microbrand"? And do you consider yourself to be one?

ANSWER: A "global microbrand" is a little like a jumbo shrimp, I guess.

Brand is an old-fashioned word that was invented for marketers who couldn't measure connections between people. Brand is a collection of notions and hints and desires and wisps that allow a consumer a shortcut when thinking about an organization, product or even a person. So, I don't really know Sumner Redstone, but he has a brand, at least in my mind (scary thought).

The thing about these shortcut and placeholder ideas is that they are always slightly inaccurate, different for different people and not as subject to manipulation as most marketers would like. As a result, talking about them as a monolith is silly.

So, if you're a brand, Hugh, then I'm a brand. But we're people, too, and our only option is to paraphrase the great groupies of the 60s and reply, "I'm with the brand."

Posted by hugh macleod at August 26, 2006 12:47 PM | TrackBack
Comments

another post that i loved reading—thanks.

i feel very strongly a need to comment on question number 2. there is a another fundamental, basic reason why artists do not blog. they are busy making art!
most artists have to work pretty hard to turn their craft. if they ARE well-known, they also MUST particiapte in a public life (the kind where you actually physically mingle with the public), in addition to working long days.
if not well-known yet, they must work all day at a paying job and then work all night at art.
people who invest in artists want to see, touch, and be with the ARTIST—the artist's thoughts are not as marketable, as say, seth grodin's, until they are turned into art.
let's face it, blogging takes time and energy. many artists just can't spare it.

Posted by: anne at August 26, 2006 2:20 PM

I have two arty blogs: a poetry one and a dance one. I would consider myself a poet but not a dancer, in the sense that I don't know much and I don't intend to be a professional dancer, ever. Both are small, especially the poetry one (few readers, few links). I think some of the reasons why there are so few of us and why we have such small blogs is your often-mentioned "the reader wants to know what's in it for them". I mean, we do things that not a lot of people care about. Haikus, as much as I like them, aren't going to change the world or anyone's bank balance.

In this I see a difference in my two blogs. Even though the dance one makes it clear that I am not an expert and that all I say are my very judgemental opinions, and it is in Spanish only which limits readership, it has twice as many readers as the other one (older and bilingual). There are people out there who want me to review their seminars, recommend their teachers, give them advice, or simply give them comment space so that they can flame if they feel like it. There's money, self-esteem, and prestige involved.

Posted by: Nia at August 26, 2006 4:21 PM

Nice interview with Seth whose writings and videos are always worth stopping what you are doing to read/watch.

As an artist who attempts to blog, I find a real conflict of interests about what I should be blogging about, and what I feel people are interested in. If I concentrate on my art, it feels "bogus" (although I am free to admit that it's probably my own insecurity there). If I talk about what is happening in the art world, it's extremely difficult to not sound too much like a Guardian art critic. The area that I feel most comfortable blogging about is where art meets technology, and there does seem to be sites out there doing OK on that score (http://www.we-make-money-not-art.com and http://www.coolhunting.com) although I agree its a drop in the ocean compared to all the tech sites.

Posted by: Pete Gilbert at August 26, 2006 5:52 PM

"but why do we have so surprisingly few filmmakers, playwrites, novelists, musicians, painters etc at the top of the pyramid?"

Whoah. this is freaky. I just did a visual last night that shows different levels of bloggers in a kind of "human pyramid"

http://darmano.typepad.com/logic_emotion/2006/08/levels_of_influ.html

And good interview. It's a reminder that people still like to read books. Though, to Seth's point about taking blogs to the beach, I actually did just that on my summer vacation—using my mobile phone. Then again, I have blog addiction issues.

Posted by: David Armano at August 26, 2006 7:53 PM

Hugh, I completely agree with your observation in question #2. I am working on a project that goes in that direction. Launch planned for November, let me know if you are interested to have a sneak peak a couple of weeks before. I would love to have your feedback. It is not about technology though, but you gave me some inspiration and I will you back the credit...
tls

Posted by: tls at August 26, 2006 8:36 PM

Nicely done Hugh. I remember reading one of Seth's early books, published in 1995 (it's on the bookself next to me now) called "Wisdom, Inc.; 26 Busines Virtues that turn ordinary people into extraordinary leaders." I discovered Seth via his work with Jay Conrad Levinson and Guerilla Marketing. I would encourage people to go back and read Seth's books before he became popular. It's interesting to see his thinking at that time.

Posted by: Jeff Risley at August 26, 2006 11:33 PM

Playwright is not spelled playwrite.

Posted by: pedant at August 27, 2006 12:17 AM

Seth always makes me feel so far behind the curve.

My hope is to somehow find a way to make my work relevant in a world gone wonderfully mad.

"If at first the idea is not absurd, then there is no hope for it." - Albert Einstein

Posted by: Allan Wallace at August 27, 2006 12:55 AM

i got an art blog

30dayartist.com

Posted by: ming at August 27, 2006 8:01 AM

Hugh,
I started my internet life while at art college. I've been blogging as an artist for years, for the last two and a half at blog.ivanpope.com
I'm also an internet entrepreneur - I find the two go very well together, but not so much at the same time. I always thought artists should blog, that it is so rare to hear the real voice of an artist unmeditated by media and manager. I started my artist blog to talk about my life as an artist.
Since I started it I've seen many artists start to blog, but so many of them miss the point somewhat. A few are brilliant. And we'll see lots more of this as we just learn to let go a little ...

Posted by: Ivan Pope at August 27, 2006 10:35 AM

Excellent interview.

On Q2, if you click on my name you'll find a Web Network Magazine stuffed with playwrights, Shakespearean actors, novelists, artists and others of this ilk, all writing blogs. There are also technologists, entrepreneurs, consultants etc. I think the artists are probably more than a little technophobic.

Posted by: John Evans (Syntagma) at August 27, 2006 11:04 AM

I'm a musician and I have a blog. It's true though that most of my peers (in the UK anyway) don't have blogs. Blimey, half of them don't even have websites! So often I hear the age old excuses of hating technology and not be able to "work" computers.

Unfortunately unless you get signed to a record company who's gonna pay for and implement a website for you, musicians are going to have to get to grips with this.

Having said that, even if your record company takes care of the technology for you you're still gonna have to write blog entries yourself. Besides, it's fun.

Posted by: Keith Douglas at August 27, 2006 11:56 AM

There's not much "art" traffic out there yet, so some artist bloggers will have two blogs, then find ways to use technology to talk about art, or art to talk about technology.

My abstract artist interview blog:
http://www.knowingart.com/
My more techy blog:
http://www.ferodynamics.com/

Marshall Sponder runs http://www.webmetricsguru.com/
He also blogs at
http://www.artnewyorkcity.com/

I checked out Seth Godin's Purple Cow book. The cover caught my eye. There's a few good quotes, and I'm sure he's intelligent, but the writing stinks. I wouldn't want my name on a book so badly written. He should read more before he opens his mouth and makes a fool of himself. Blog buzz and a cool cover can't save a book that essentially s_cks.

Posted by: PJ at August 27, 2006 6:46 PM

PJ, I strongly disagree with you about Seth's writing ability. Technically, I think he's brilliant [whether you like his subject matter is another story, but that's not his problem]. Sorry you don't feel the same.

Posted by: Hugh MacLeod at August 27, 2006 7:28 PM

thanks for this H. Great discussion.

Posted by: Piers Fawkes at August 27, 2006 9:51 PM


Thanks for a great interview! Nan

Posted by: nan at August 28, 2006 12:46 PM

With regards to Question #2:
I'm so glad someone has brought up this issue. It's true - too few artists are blogging, or should I say effectively blogging. A good example of an effective blog would have to be Keri Smith's (http://www.kerismith.com/blog/). She's an accomplished illustrator and writer, and definitely answers the reader's question "What's in it for me". She pours her heart out in every post, getting intensely personal, revealing her creative process, her doubts, her frustrations. She gets loads of traffic AND comments. By being honest and unfiltered, readers can relate. Her audience is probably mostly artists, so it probably doesn't generate illustration gigs, but I bet it boosts sales of her books on creativity.

Posted by: Marc Johns at August 28, 2006 7:05 PM

I disagree re Q2. There are lots and lots of artists out there who blog - take a look at the blogs on the blogroll on my main blog "Making a Mark" (http://makingamark.blogspot.com ) and then the blogrolls on theirs etc. One of the great things about blogging for artists is that people who tend to work on their own develop a community of their peers who understand the nature of the process and look at their work and maybe comment on it.

What's interesting about artists blogging is the different way people choose to do it. From the painting a day people (like Julian Merrow Smith and Duiane Keiser) - who just post an image and a link to where you can buy it (recently covered by articles in tne New York Times and USA Today respectively) to those who write about the process or the creative spark alongside the image - and those who capture episodes in images as well as words - such as in my second blog Travels with a Sketchbook in... (http://travelsketch.blogspot.com).

And if you look at Squidoo you should see that there are rather a lot of arts oriented lens - although whether you can find them all easily using the main search facility has been the topic of a recent exchange between me and Mr Godin! ;)

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