The dizzyingly prolific marketing expert Seth Godin has two symbiotic goals. First, to make entrepreneurs and others into great marketers. Second, to save everyone else from having their time wasted by lousy marketers. His new book, This Is Marketing: You Can't Be Seen Until You Learn to See, treats marketing as a holistic activity that spans every aspect of a business and relies on empathy and insight rather than money and cleverness. Inc. spoke with Godin about going small but deep, and the singular beauty of exclusion.

Inc.: You want marketers to ask the questions "What change are you trying to make?" and "Who is this for?" Those seem like they belong at the earliest stages of a company's conception. Are entrepreneurs by definition marketers?
Seth Godin: Historically, advertising was a bargain that you could take stuff you made, apply money and effort, get attention, and sell it. The world has completely changed. Consumers have retaken their attention and are jealous with their trust. As a result, you can no longer say marketing is what I do at the end. It is what you do at the beginning. It is the product you design. It is the people you design it for. It is the supply chain. It is the waste stream. It is the way you answer the phone when you do customer service. The advantage entrepreneurs have is they are nimble enough to put marketing into everything they do, as opposed to leaving it to the marketing department at the end of the day.

Is another advantage that entrepreneurs are often their own best customers? They can't find something they need and so create it for themselves and, in the process, for others like them?
Every once in a while that works out nicely. But not often. Something like Slack is a wonderful exception. That team made it for themselves because they had a problem to solve. But you don't have to be a woman to make and market pantyhose. What you need is empathy: understanding that the person you seek to serve doesn't know what you know or want what you want. If you can be OK with that then you can adopt the posture of someone who is there to make positive change for other people as opposed to doing it to other people.

If the person you serve isn't you, then who is it?
The place to begin is with the smallest viable audience. Not the biggest possible audience. The art to being an entrepreneur is in caring enough and being discerning enough to say this group of people--maybe there are 100 or 1,000 of them--these are my people. It is for them. Once you commit to that group, they have a voice. Then you are way more likely to make something remarkable and useful than if you just say, well, everyone will find me.

How do you then demonstrate the appeal to more people?
If you get a really good haircut, your friends will say your hair looks great, and you will tell them where you got it cut. If you get a really good massage, no one says, "Wow, you look so calm and well rested. Who gave you a massage?" So, if you run a massage therapy place, you have your work cut out for you. You have to start building elements into the experience that make it easier to talk about.

Canyon Ranch said instead of just building a day spa, let's build an entire facility that, when people get back to work, they can't help but talk about it for days until someone tells them to shut up. Another way to do it, if you are a very small massage therapist, say to your customers on November 15, here are four gift certificates. Anyone can use them except for you. Use them as Christmas gifts. Now they have the incentive to say to the mailman or their friends, this is the greatest place ever. You have given them a good social reason, a status-based reason, to share the word.

Why does status matter more than, say, utility?
Status does not mean fancy expensive goods. Status just means who gets to eat lunch first. We as a species have cared about that for a very long time. It is about how does this act, this thing I bought, this service I use, make me look and feel compared to those that I see as my peers? Status has always been at the heart of culture. So the question is, do you have status on offer? Most of us help people who already have enough. So, if we are going to make change happen, it will be by offering people what they want. And what many people want is to be able--within their circle--to eat lunch first.

How does that translate into a business-to-business setting? Isn't that about utility?
What people in businesses like to buy is the story to tell their boss. To be able to say, I am so good. I got this. And here is why. That can be expressed in terms of utility. But that utility is usually part of a feeling on the part of the business that they bought status. That they bought safety. That they bought opportunity. You can't just sell utility, because probably they already have something that is good enough. The alternative is to figure out how to say, if you don't move forward with this, you will be left behind. This opens doors you can't currently open.

Say you ask the founder of a startup about their marketing strategy, and they say Instagram or Facebook. What do you say?
I start by pointing out that that is not a marketing strategy. That is a media tactic. The marketing strategy is who is it for and what is it for. What change are you trying to make? What story will you tell those people? And after they engage with your product, what will they tell their friends? Those are the questions I would challenge them to begin with. 

What would you say to an entrepreneur preparing to hire a chief marketing officer?
I would say they should go to a shelter and get a German shepherd. And any time they are going to get on the phone to hire a chief marketing officer, the German shepherd should bite them. Because with a chief marketing officer you are saying, "Please use marketing tools to solve our problems." There are no marketing tools that will solve your problems. If you are willing to let the chief marketing officer be in charge of product development, customer service, and all the rest of it, then she can probably accomplish something. But you know what we call the person who does all that? We call that person the president or the CEO. If you are an entrepreneur, then it is your job to market your vision to your employees and your prospects. It is the hardest job you have.

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Published on: Nov 13, 2018