Seth Godin is a bestselling author, entrepreneur, and change agent. He is author of Permission Marketing, an Amazon.com top 100 bestseller for a year, and it spent four months on the BusinessWeek bestseller list. Godin is also a columnist for Fast Company, writing about change and how corporations and individuals can successfully deal with the tumultuous changes our economy is facing. His latest book is Unleashing the Ideavirus. More than 100,000 people downloaded the digital version of the book during its first week of Internet publication.
tompeters.com asks Seth Godin ...
What's an ideavirus?
SG: The idea is really simple. For 100 years, marketers marketed to people. And the way you got rich is you bought a bunch of ads, you interrupted a lot of people, and if you interrupted enough people with enough offers, sooner or later you made money. That doesn't work anymore. Now, what works is helping people market to each other and getting out of the way. And so, an ideavirus is a concept, a service, a product, something neat and noteworthy that people tell other people about.
And right now, people can find out about an ideavirus in a number of different places. You had an article in Fast Company magazine in August. You've got a site, ideavirus.com, and if you go to the site, you can download the book for free or you can go to Amazon.com to buy the physical book.
SG: Well, let's take a step backwards. What I say in the book is that friction is the enemy of the ideavirus. If you slow down the transfer of the idea from one person to another, it will fade out over time, and with enough friction, you don't create an ideavirus. And the job of the marketer is to transfer the idea as smoothly as possible from person to person.
I decided to take my own advice. Rather than taking Simon & Schuster's offer to have them publish the book, waiting nine months for it to come out, having them charge people money to find out what the ideas in the book are, and basically building an old-fashioned, slow idea, I decided to follow what I wrote in the book, and take it to an extreme. So I gave away the entire book for free on the Internet at ideavirus.com. And then, in order to infect the hive, hive being community, I have the most powerful sneezers—sneezers being people who are likely to tell their friends. I went to Fast Company magazine and I said, "Here, take this 20-page excerpt from the book and put it in your magazine." Which they did.
The book went live online July 17th. Five thousand people downloaded it the first day. In the last ten or eleven weeks, 500,000 people have read the book. And that's the whole book that I gave away, not just an excerpt. And a lot of naysayers said, "Well, you just gave up all your book sales, because everyone who read it for free isn't going to buy the book."
And so, to continue proving them wrong, we published a hardcover souvenir edition. And I call it a souvenir edition because it costs 40 bucks. It's discounted to $32, but it's still expensive for a small business book. And my answer to those people who complain about the price: "Fine, read it for free."
And if you go to Amazon, and type in ideavirus, not only will you get to the page where you can buy the book, but right there, you can get the book for free, too. Your choice. So the book went on sale September 15th, and on the second day, it was the number five best-selling book on Amazon.
And the reason for its being the number five book is really very straightforward. Five hundred thousand people read the book in digital form, but many of them want to hold the souvenir edition, many of them want a book they can give to a friend. And because my idea was out there, the souvenir edition becomes worth so much more.
It's simple. A Mickey Mouse souvenir t-shirt is worth more than a Huckleberry Hound souvenir t-shirt, because more people know Mickey's idea than Huckleberry Hound's idea. And so, the implication for authors of all stripes is, if the reason you wrote a book is to get the idea out there, don't let the paper become friction.
And ironically enough, you end up making more money, I made more money in the last two weeks then I would have made with Simon & Schuster during a year and a half.
So now, to finish the whole loop, spreading the ideavirus without gaining permission to follow up with people is only going halfway. Because once people know who you are and what your ideas are, having the privilege of talking to them in the future becomes an extremely valuable asset.
So there are now 10,000 people who, through my web site, have given me permission to email them, whenever I have a thought that might be interesting to them. Well, if you think about that, 10,000 people who want to hear my next idea is the ultimate asset that you can build as an idea generator. Right?
If I was obsessed with it, and wanted to grow it to 100,000, which I think wouldn't be that difficult, then I would be a really powerful sneezer; I could start my own book publishing company. I could do all sorts of things.
What's the future for the publishing industry?
SG: The publishers don't realize this, but they are venture capitalists for ideas. They find someone with a clever idea for a novel or a book or a cookbook. They pay the author an up-front advance. They promote the book, and if it works they make a royalty on the back end.
The problem is, their business is fundamentally broken. Once an idea catches on, the originator, the author, makes all the money; and the publishers just get a little bit of a royalty. The future is people who are going to become idea editors. Powerful sneezers who go out and find the next big idea, go to the person with that idea, and say, "Let us pay you an advance, let us propagate your idea in all its forms, but we're not going to take a royalty on just book sales. We want to be your partner, we want to be your speaker's bureau, we want to sell the movie rights, we want to do everything we can to exploit the idea forever."
Those sorts of people won't need very many employees. It's a very virtual sort of thing; they have to be very fast. But they could add an enormous amount of value, because someone like me had to spend tons of time worrying about each one of these little subprojects within the idea. The future is going to belong to someone who already has a base that they have permission to talk to. I mean, what's the Harvard Business Review? The Harvard Business Review is a subscription list. If you had the subscription list and permission to send them a journal, you wouldn't need the HBR, you would be the HBR.
So the future is going to be a Tom Peters or a Simon & Schuster, someone who decides to take action, acquiring 100,000 or 500,000 people who want to hear from them on a given topic, and spending their time doing outreach to find the next big idea, and "publishing it" to those people in whatever form they can make money out of. So I don't think that job is going to go away; that job is going to get bigger. The job that's going to go away is printing lots of dead trees, waiting a year, and then taking returns.
On page four there's a line that reads: "The number one question people ask me after reading Permission Marketing, 'So, how do we get attention to ask for permission in the first place.' This manifesto is the answer to that question." It seems the big trick here is that first step of figuring out how to get someone's attention to begin marketing to them in this way in the first place. How do you do that?
SG: Let's take a look at the Razor scooter and the people who make it. If their goal is to make one scooter and be done, then they've done a fine job. If their goal is to build a real company, they're doomed, because in six months this scooter fad is gone, and they're dead. So what they needed to do was say to the world, "Do you want to hear about other cool products we make in the future? Do we have permission to follow up with you?"
So that six months from now when I get an email from the Razor guys, I think, "Wow, I need to read that, because I love being cool. I loved the last thing; what do they have now?" If they actually built that asset, and they had a million or two million people, they could change what they do for a living. Right now, what they do for a living is make products and try to find people to buy them.
In the future the model will be reversed. The winners are going to be companies that have people and then try to find the products for them. It's backwards. It's about farming instead of hunting. And then the idea is to come up with a really cool, powerful idea that spreads and spreads. It could be Dump the Pump, the thing that just went down in the UK that closed all the gas stations. That was an idea that spread on the Net.
But once you spread it, ask the people you spread it to if they want to hear about the next thing you're working on. Because then you can bypass all the risk, all the uncertainty, and instead of finding customers for your products, you can find products for your customers.
So, in effect, you need to find your community first?
SG: Well, it's not first. See, the thing about the ideavirus is, you have to have, you can't raise your hand and say, "I'm thinking of writing some books, what do you want to hear about?" You write your first book, you invent your first scooter, you come up with your first invention or service or whatever it is. Now, what used to happen in the old days is you either got lucky or you didn't. Either the book sold a lot or it didn't. Or your Razor got popular or it didn't. But now, you can plan in a little bit more organized fashion. You can say, "What are the steps I need to go through to maximize the chances that this first thing becomes a hit?" You mentioned a massage as an example of something, a product, that doesn't spread, or an idea that doesn't spread easily. It's hard to describe what it is physically, we don't have the language for it. And it's hard to describe the benefits. Why massage?
SG: There's a whole school of thought that's been around for 15 or 20 years, about memes. Richard Dawkins coined the term. He and others at Oxford were heavily into evolution, and had been playing with the fact that genetic evolution among human beings is dramatically slowing, but memetic evolution, the fact that ideas are in people's brains and get transferred from one to another is rapidly increasing. And I could go into a whole memetic thing for hours, but I won't.
But it raises the question: Why do some ideas spread fast and some ideas spread slowly? And it's not because the idea is good or not, it's because the idea is smooth. And the reason I use massage as an example is, given all of the benefits, from short term well-being to long term health benefits, to just joy of massage, compared to its cost, one would think that lots of people would get massages. But in fact, there's plenty of people out there who have never had a professional massage in their whole life. And you say, "Why is that?" And the reason is that massage is unlike farming, which was the meme that spread rapidly, because people saw that their neighbor was farming, and said, "We're not going to go hunt deer anymore, let's plant some corn." That spread really fast.
Massage can't spread fast, because you can't see someone getting a massage and you can't feel the joy they just got. People rarely bring up massage in conversation. There are no corporations that have an incentive to getting everyone to have a massage, so there are no real commercials about massage. And so, for all those reasons, massage is a quiet ideavirus, and it's not really an ideavirus, because it hasn't spread.
That's sort of why I bring up the thing, and so if you're a business about to start something new, you have to say to yourself, "Is this a Razor, that everyone is going to see, that's self-explanatory, that people want it the moment they see it. It's smooth. Or is this like massage, which is a valid thing, it deserves to exist, but it's not going to take off like wild fire?"
Malcolm Gladwell, author of The Tipping Point, has written the foreword to your book. There's some conceptual similarity in your two books. Yours is from a marketing standpoint; his is from a societal/cultural point of view. What's the relationship?
SG: Until I read his book, I had the problem, but I didn't have the answer. The same way, until I had read Don Peppers' first book, I knew that I needed to write Permission Marketing, but I didn't know what to say. It just unlocked a key for me. The same thing happened with Malcolm. As soon as he started using a couple of words, I said, "Wow, that is exactly the type of stepping stone I needed to write the whole thing." And after reading page 10 of his book, I wrote my book in a week, because I just understood that the whole idea of memes, of virus thinking really needed to be brought into the business world. And so, I was so thrilled when he agreed to write the foreword, because at least one chapter of my book is an homage to what he was saying.
He writes about mavens, connectors, and salesmen, people who propagate ideas for one reason or another, because of their personalities, their behaviors. You use the term 'sneezer.'
SG: I mixed the three together, because I thought his distinctions weren't useful to the average marketer. You know, I don't care as a marketer about the difference between a maven and a salesperson; they're both powerful sneezers. That's Malcolm's terminology. I do care very much about the difference between a promiscuous sneezer and a powerful sneezer. Because if I've got to pay people off to spread an idea, I want to know who those people are and what kind of payment they want.
And when you've got a new idea, you've got a product, you want to get it out there, how do you determine which to use?
SG: Well, you start by saying, "Which is the hive that's most likely to have this thing spread?" Let's take the music business. People in the music business—it took them a long time to realize this—discovered that college students are an amazing hive for spreading new music. They buy a lot of music, and they listen to a lot of music. Two good things.
So then you say, "Okay, what does it take to get new music out there, to get to the sneezers in a certain college?" There are programs to pay certain kinds of kids in college to listen to music and tell their friends about it. Those kids are promiscuous. They're doing it because you're sending them free CDs, because they're getting free concert tickets. You've bought their attention, at least momentarily.
Now, if they talk about everything you send them, they won't have any credibility. So they are selective, they are picky. But the point is, at some level, they are promiscuous, you could buy your way in. And so, you have to determine which hive you need to talk to, and what's it going to take to get the sneezers in that hive to talk on your behalf. If you believe that the hive is The New York Times readers, and you try to send a check to Saul Hansell [business writer at the New York Times], he can say it's not going to work, right? You've got to use other techniques to get the powerful sneezers at the New York Times to talk about your product. So one of the things you have to think about as a marketer is maybe you can't entice the powerful sneezers to talk about how much they like your product—for instance there's Alladvantage.com. Alladvantage.com came up with the idea of paying people to look at web pages and look at Web ads. And they realized that they weren't going to spread because they were going to get written up on the cover of Yahoo Internet Life, or because they were going to get featured in all the obvious places that web ideas spread. They were going to spread by paying people to recruit their friends, you know, Amway style. And for a long time, it worked great. They grew very, very, very rapidly, on the strength of people telling their friends because there was something in it for them.
You use the Toyota Prius as an example of a marketing disaster. Can you talk about that?
SG: It's a hybrid car, gasoline-electric. Gets about 50 miles to the gallon. By almost any measure, it's a good—with a capital G—idea. For all those people who say only the ideas that deserve to win should win. I picked it for that reason. It's a worthy idea. And I would like it to win and so would a lot of other people, because if we all start driving cars that get twice the gas mileage, good things happen to the world. Toyota then did every single thing wrong according to the ideavirus formula. Number one, they have a name that's hard to pronounce, so how am I going to tell my friends to go buy one? I'm embarrassed to even say it, because I don't know how. The people at Toyota say it rhymes with 'genius.' That doesn't help me much.
Compare this to the VW Beetle. When Beetles started showing up in my neighborhood, I noticed. Everyone noticed. Every time a Beetle drives by, it's selling you the ideavirus of a Beetle. Every time a Prius goes by, it's invisible. You don't notice that they're starting to spring up in your neighborhood. I would have only sold the first 10,000 cars in bright purple and bright yellow, because you would notice them. Right? Or I would have designed them with big fins at the back or something, so that they would be noteworthy.
Number three, I would propose that the best way to sell this thing is to sneeze it as it drives. So I would put on the bumper an LED display that shows current gas mileage. So now, you're driving down the street, and this purple car cuts in front of you and it says, "I'm getting 45 miles to the gallon, how are you doing?" You'd remember that, right?
Now, the only people who are going to buy the first 5,000 or 10,000 are the deeply committed. That's fine. But then, when you come out with the next model next year, everybody's heard of it, because it's been sneezing itself everywhere it goes.
And the last thing I would do, I wouldn't buy ads in Fast Company and Time magazine. I would only sell the thing by sending direct mail pieces to members of the Sierra Club. Because those are the people, the hive, where you are most likely to start the first virus. And then it will leak from that hive to the rest of the world.
Let's compare that to the Razor scooter. When a Razor scooter goes by, what does it say on the most visible part of the thing? It says the word Razor, or it says Sharper Image. Number two, the more people have them, the more you see them. Number three, the word Razor is easy to say and easy to tell a friend about. Number four, they started with a hive of gimmick lovers, people who shop at Sharper Image. So every step along the way, they did it right. Prius did it wrong. And it's not rocket science, but no one's ever written down before that there are clever, thoughtful ways you can spread your idea.
One of your section headings reads: "The Sad Decline of Interruption Marketing," by which you mean TV ads, billboards, all those commercial messages out there vying for our attention. You seem to be happy that the decline is happening, yet you allow as how it's still going to be necessary?
SG: Well, I use the word sad partly tongue in cheek, but the point I'm making is, a whole bunch of people are dependent on interruption marketing. A whole bunch of people are comfortable with it, want it to continue, are scared that it's going away. And those people include all mass media outlets, all companies that rely on mass marketing to succeed. People at Procter & Gamble are sad it's dying, the people at NBC are sad it's dying.
And, over time, when TV starts to get even worse than it is today, the American public is going to be sad that it's dying, because there are no more "Seinfeld's" in the pipeline, because without all that advertising revenue, they can't afford to make them anymore.
What about the fact that we've got magazines like Wired, Fast Company, Red Herring, and Business 2.0 that are so full of ads they're too heavy for carry-on luggage? Somebody is spending a fortune on ads, and you're saying, "Listen, it's not really working."
SG: Oh, and they know it. True story: I'm sitting in a meeting with some people who have just raised $32 million. And the venture capitalists have given them six months to reach a certain number of users. "What should we do? We could spend $5 million at Yahoo, and we could spend $7 million on print ads, and maybe we'll do some TV. Will it work? We don't know, but it's the only thing we can do, because we only have three employees, but we do have all this money to spend."
Right? And if you look at the world, there's this huge, huge premium put on first movers and early winners. And in the battle to become a first mover and an early winner, patience takes a back seat. And to do permission marketing and to launch an ideavirus, it requires some patience. It requires some death-defying levitation that says, "We're going to go ahead and give this whole book away for free. We're going to go ahead and not charge for our product."
And that sort of thinking has gotten a lot of old-thinking companies in trouble, because they're trying to catch up with these people, and the only thing they know how to do is buy another full page ad in the Industry Standard.
The thing that's interesting about all of this is, I'm intentionally trying to be really simple and superficial in the way that I'm writing about this, because I believe that 98—and Tom agrees—that 98 percent of success in this field is about will and simplicity, it's not about fancy systems and detail.
So if you decide you want to make a wild product, you can. And if you decide you want to have intimate, one to one, personal, permission-based relationships with people, you can. But if you call up Arthur Andersen and ask them to build you a $10 million system, it will probably fail.
Right, but the big catch there is, those simple things are really the most complex to concoct. Simple is not easy to achieve.
SG: Exactly, because it means personal responsibility, it means failing and evolving and testing, as opposed to just saying, "Here's some money, go solve the problem." You know, one of the reasons that advertising is so bad is because it's unusual for an agency to make an ad like Apple's "1984" commercial, because the clients usually lose their nerve at the end. But if you were really out there, trying to make 1984 commercials, we would have tons of them. But people want all the good stuff to happen without taking the intellectual risk.
SG: These books are mostly about people who really look at one simple part of the equation, and just put down all they ever found. This is what worked, this is what didn't.
Being Direct, by Lester Wunderman
The 1:1 Future, by Don Peppers and Martha Rogers
Direct Mail Copy That Sells, by Herschell Gordon Lewis
Guerrilla Marketing, by Jay Levinson
Scientific Advertising, by Claude Hopkins
SG: I really don't have a list of them, because it changes so often. But one of the ones that I just talked about in a little mailing was a site called www.justatip.com. It's so funny, it's such a classic ideavirus. It's a site you go to to send an anonymous email. You send an anonymous joke to people. You have bad breath, you've got a bad toupee, you're a lousy kisser, stuff like that.
A friend of mine got one of these. It said, "You're a bad dancer." And it went into detail about just how bad a dancer he is. Well, this guy had forwarded the note to at least ten friends, saying, "Can you believe I got this?" And all ten of us are thinking, "Who do we know that we can send a tip to?" It's this goofy little thing, it's not going to last a month before shutting down, but it's clearly organized to be an ideavirus. It's organized to be smooth, it's organized to be wow, it's organized to be neat. It's not going to make the world a better place, but it's clever.
So, did you send one?
SG: No, actually, I didn't send it to anyone, because I didn't know anybody who had a bad toupee. So I was stuck. But I think that what we're going to see is, you know, you look at that and you say, "The world does not need more goofy web sites, the world needs a vaccine for AIDS." And my answer is, we're going to go through this wowing, hacking-out period, where the goofy, gimmicky promotions, virusy stuff that's easy to do, wins.
But soon after, for example, the pharmaceutical companies will realize that sending a salesperson to call on a doctor is dumb. But making it easy for doctors to tell other doctors about drugs that work is smart. And if they spent half the money they spent on their salespeople and spent it building facilities that make it easy for doctors to share news about drugs that work, they would sell more drugs for less money, plus getting more money to invent new drugs. And that's when suddenly this sort of thinking ends up making the world better.