Reading with Steve: Positioning by Ries and Trout

Reading with Steve is a regular feature at Read product marketing and content marketing book reviews.

Positioning: The Battle For Your Mind is comprehensively outdated. And it is singly essential.

The 1981 classic by Al Ries and Jack Trout proves that the most important ideas in marketing do not change, even if the examples illustrating them do.

Positioning by Ries and Trout a strategy classicRies and Trout define the tenets of positioning, the art of influencing how prospective customers perceive a product. As a marketer, you can position your own product, a competitor’s product, or a whole market category. Your successful strategy may include all three elements. The authors use many broadly accessible case studies to show how to position.

The key tenet of positioning is to find a hole in the market – which the authors call a creneau – and to exploit it. The first step in exploiting a hole is to know where you stand in the marketplace. If you are not the market leader, you cannot market like the leader: determine what makes you unique and shout it. Above all, don’t attack an entrenched position held by a competitor.

The authors say much more and say it much better than I can. Simply put, Positioning is the Principia Mathematica of marketing strategy. It is revolutionary, yet as time passes a few of its topics begin to need further elucidation. The authors admonish that no position is forever secure, as markets and tastes are constantly changing. Just so, the rules they lay out for positioning have shifted in at least one notable way.

What’s In A Name

The rules of product and company naming have evolved. The authors write that a descriptive name, such as Taster’s Choice coffee, is better than a coined name. A name without intrinsic meaning can only work “when you are first in the mind with an absolutely new product”, such as Coca-Cola.

In the past generation, descriptive names tend to get lost in the marketplace because they don’t have the memorability of a good coined name, particularly if the coined name can extend an existing product category with a new standard of service or quality.

Consider Starbucks, for example. It is a meaningless name in a crowded coffee market. But Starbucks established a new category of premium product and service, and so could position its nonsense name in the market. With the explosion of companies and brands, evocative-but-made-up names are often highly successful. And few consumers under age 30 would know what Taster’s Choice is.

Many failed dot-coms followed the logic of descriptive naming and failed. If a descriptive name held any intrinsic advantage, would have bested In the digital age, it turns out, people have a more complicated mental model for the signals of desirability contained in a name. Ries and Trout’s advice on naming is not wrong, just too simplistic for the 21st century.

Some Things Can Never Change

The biggest change in business life since 1981 is the rise of startups, which now dominate the landscape of imagination as IBM once dominated computing. Ries and Trout almost exclusively draw their examples from large companies in established markets. They have little to say about how these brands came to become so dominant. If you are an entrepreneur, you may be tempted to conclude that these examples don’t apply – as many recent successes have claimed to part with past history.

The case studies are universally out of date, yet if anything this slim volume is more powerful for its archaic examples. Cited companies have folded and quoted ad campaigns are long over, forcing the modern reader to generalize the lessons.

Alcohol as a product marketing example
One possible inspiration for great writing.

I was struck that many of the examples use alcohol, beer, and wine. One imagines the authors, casting about for illustrative cases, opening a desk drawer to pour two fingers of inspiration. I found the constant booze examples surreal, but they in no way detract from the value of the case studies. What once worked for scotch and Schlitz can also work for websites.

You would ignore the rules of Positioning at your peril. In my next post, I’ll discuss two startups that failed to consider positioning first and may pay for it later.

Buy Positioning.


The Permission Revolt and Interruption Entertainment: A New Era For Marketing

A permission marketing revolt

This post is the second in a series inspired by Seth Godin’s Permission Marketing. For the first part, go here.

A rebellion is brewing all around us. You may be a part of it.

Many marketers follow Seth Godin’s permission method, yet the evidence shows a permission revolt against all marketing. Consumers are rejecting Internet marketing that feels intrusive, and we are entering an age of mistrust from a significant slice of the most coveted demographics. Marketers today are following permission rules to the letter, yet they’ve lost sight of the meaning behind these rules. The concomitant rise of interruption entertainment points to what consumers really want to pay attention to. Modern, savvy consumers demand a higher standard for their attention. Marketers can respond by rereading Permission Marketing and using modern tools to renew their commitment to Godin’s rules.

Permission Marketing by Seth Godin is critical product marketing readingA prospect or customer will not allow a marketer to speak to them unless the message the marketer provides has three characteristics. To build and maintain a relationship, Godin writes, a marketing communication must pass three tests:

  • It must be anticipated. The recipient is expecting to receive a message and is even looking forward to it.
  • It must be personal. The message must speak directly to the receiver, and show respect for their time.
  • It must be relevant. The message must address a need or desire of the recipient. It must speak their language.

These characteristics lie at the heart of permission marketing. To first reach a prospective buyer, however, the marketer must use a traditional interruption technique (TV ad, direct mail, banner, etc.) to get the prospect’s attention and ask for permission to build a relationship.

Down The Rabbit Hole

Reading the last sentence, perhaps an objection is forming in your mind. Marketers don’t have to interrupt their customers at all, you think. What about search engine marketing? You are exactly right.

Technology has accelerated since Godin published his book in 1999, leading marketers on an ever-faster chase to reach their markets. Yet in their quest to smooth and perfect the permissive techniques they use, marketers are leaving consumers behind. Some consumers are in open revolt.

Ad blocking. Consumers are increasingly refusing advertising on the Web, using ad blockers to prevent marketers from reaching them. One study found 15% of US Internet users blocked advertising as of this summer, a share that has doubled in two years[1]. A different report released at the same time showed 10% of US users blocking ads, but also noted that these consumers were younger, wealthier, and spent more time on the Internet than those who did not block ads[2].

Adobe PageFair 2015 Ad Blocking report

When Apple’s recent iOS 9 operating system allowed ad blockers on iPhones, paid ad blocking apps immediately became the most popular downloads on the App Store [3]. The mass refusal to view Web ads is fast picking up steam.

Retargeting unease. Consumers have quickly turned against retargeting, a tactic solely designed to give Web users information they want to make a purchase. A 2013 survey found just 11% of Internet users had negative reactions to retargeting, compared with 30% positive reactions[4]. A year later, a different survey found a range of mostly negative reactions to retargeting, ranging from annoyance to anger, and clear evidence that repeated retargeting discourages future purchases[5].

Retargeting is not popular

This promising technique appears to find trouble only months after consumers first become aware of it.

Privacy. Some consumers do not trust the often-anonymous organizations that track their Web activity, and are choosing service providers that promise not to provide personalized marketing. One visible company riding this trend is the anonymous search engine DuckDuckGo, which has seen its search traffic more than double year-over-year while Google’s traffic has reportedly grown at a 10% annual rate[6, 7]. Granted, Google still would not consider this a threat to its search business: DuckDuckGo traffic represents about 0.3% of Google’s volume. Anonymous Web use is an imminent risk to marketers and publishers.

Escape from email. Even email, a favored opt-in channel, may face a reckoning. Thirty percent of email users change email addresses annually. Twenty-one percent of email users will report opted-in email as spam, presumably because it is easier than trying to opt out[8]. A different survey finds that 70% of spam reports are for offers the recipients simply don’t want to receive anymore. Just 40% of consumers say they enjoy getting email from their favorite brands[9]. Email users are overwhelmed and tired of commercial messages.

Marketers have fine-tuned their methods to build detailed dossiers on everyone they speak to. We should be entering a golden age of perfect audience engagement. If marketers can seamlessly provide the information consumers need, consumers ought to be thrilled. Yet the very opposite seems to be occurring. Why?

I Know What You Did Last Summer

Consumers are wary partly for reasons completely outside of marketers’ control. Recent revelations about government data collection have eroded trust in any organization that tracks individuals, certainly in the US. But this is not a full explanation.

Godin intends for permission to mean a customer “raising their hand” to start a relationship with the marketer. This acceptance is explicit and mutual. Yet marketers are often following the letter of Godin’s rules without observing their spirit. Above all, many marketers have forgotten that reaching consumers is a privilege rather than a right. This leads to engagement experiences that can be bothersome, creepy, intrusive, and unwelcome.

  • Do you look forward to hearing from brands? You may when it is a few companies that contact you, however most consumers hear from dozens of companies. Often marketers seek permission to begin marketing in subtle ways: you will receive email unless you uncheck a box, or even as a term of use. Technically the marketer received permission so you should expect to receive marketing materials. But you will not welcome them. The effect is multiplied by frequent mailing list rentals. In the end, you are more likely to tune out all marketing rather than pick through the pieces for a few items you really want.
  • What do you think when an advertisement has your name on it? In the age of postal mail all letters came addressed to us personally. In the age of the Internet we are more likely to be irritated to see our name in flashing lights and subject lines. We know perfectly well that the message is not individual, it is just tailored by a piece of software that can insert our name (and other details) into the message. Personalization means a card on my birthday – yet even this classic keep-in-touch technique is cheapened by the ease of automation. The Internet has debased the personal so that a veneer of individualization is no longer special.
  • Do you think Google knows too much about you? How about the hundreds of corporations that have a profile on you? These dossiers in theory should allow for more relevant product offers and experiences than even before. In practice, they also lead to persistent tactics that become intrusive, such as retargeting that continues after a consumer completes a purchase and makes that consumer less likely to repeat the purchase in the future. Offers can even be too relevant, leading to fear and mistrust. How would you feel being outed by Facebook or learning that your daughter is pregnant from Target?

Think of the Internet as an endless series of blind dates. On a good blind date, you meet your partner at the appointed time (anticipated), your date remembers what you spoke about over email (personal), and you start to build a relationship on things you have in common (relevant). Good permission marketing can feel just as positive.

A bad blind date is what bad marketing is likeFor many consumers, modern Web marketing feels like a nightmare blind date. He rings the doorbell at a random time, maybe five minutes after you first agreed to meet or maybe five months later. Your date can recall everything about you, but inserts each detail into an obvious shell story that has nothing to do with you. In fact your date knows far more about you than you told him. He shows up with your favorite kind of chocolate, tries to take you to your favorite restaurant and movie, and even offers to pick up your friends on the way. How would you feel about that interaction?

You’d flee. After several experiences like it you might reject dating altogether.

The B2B Impact

Business-to-business marketers are just as impacted as are consumer marketers. Even though many B2B companies do a better job of cultivating and educating buyers, they are still prone to send thinly personalized and irrelevant information at the wrong time. What’s more, they are equally harmed if a prospect decides to start ad blocking or to spam-button every commercial message. The permission revolt will not spare B2B even if it comes more slowly.

Market-Us Interruptus

Many marketers are trying very hard to follow Godin’s prescription, and you might argue that the examples of failed anticipation, personalization, and relevance aren’t fair. If these tactics don’t meet the standard, how could anything?

Perhaps existing tactics could receive a better reaction if marketers stop depending on the seamlessness of modern technology, start seeking more explicit permission, and understand that consumer expectations have risen.

As Godin originally conceived it, permission is an explicit opt-in step. The consumer first indicates a willingness to receive marketing messages, usually in exchange for some benefit. Today’s Internet no longer demands this explicit agreement. Instead, marketers often seek permission through terms of service that no one reads, through hard-to-see opt-outs, and through list sharing. Customers may technically agree to these terms, but if they had been asked most would not have granted permission. (A few would, representing the motivated audience permission marketing is designed to build.)

Even more subtle are sitewide terms of use that authorize tracking which consumers implicitly accept the moment they enter a website. Web users no more accept this arrangement than air travelers accept going through security screening. It is presented as an option, but in reality it is mandatory – and thus permission is not granted at all.

Marketers like these tactics because they don’t create an interruption. If consumers are stopped by a pop-up window asking for permission to market to them, won’t most refuse? It’s far better to skip this step and put permission in the background. (The one major advertising channel which avoids both asking for permission and creating an interruption – SEM – unsurprisingly wins the largest share of online ad dollars. But this method cannot in itself build a relationship.)

Yet Godin conceives of interruption as the essential first step to gaining permission from the consumer. Though this step is no longer technically necessary, it is still important. Implicit permission is hardly permission at all. Without an initial interruption, the subsequent marketing will always feel like an interruption to consumers – who will respond accordingly. Marketing from implicit permission can lead to sales but cannot lead to relationships with consumers. When the messaging assumes the relationship, consumers turn away.

Marketers who offer good value in return for the consumer’s attention – and who appreciate the need for anticipation, personalization, and relevance – will still build trusted and profitable relationships. Modern tools do not absolve us of this requirement, and in fact elevate it further. Our personal habits on social networks and mobile phones tell us why.

Angry Birds and Happy Customers

Back in 1999, when Seth Godin first differentiated interruption marketing and permission marketing, an interruption was typically considered a bad thing. Today we don’t perceive it the same way at all, at least if we are interrupting ourselves.

Most consumers are using social media and mobile phones every day of their lives. In 2013, the typical consumer checked their smartphone 144 times a day, an average of once every seven waking minutes. About 50 of those checks were for reasons that could be considered entertainment, such as music, games, photos, and social media[10].

Kleiner Perkins Caufield Byers Mary Meeker phone use report

And no doubt our average consumer spent even more time with these distractions on their laptop.

These self-interruptions have become a major source of entertainment in our lifestyle. And it’s no wonder. The services we access so incessantly from our smartphones meet all of Godin’s three rules handily. They are wholly anticipated – desired, craved, even beloved. They are insistently personal, representing communication with our entire circle of acquaintances, or our selection of the one out of millions of apps that is more pertinent to our lives. They are precisely relevant, giving us tweets on up-to-the-second news and real-time photos of our friends. We are willing to distract ourselves – every seven minutes! – because the message is so intensely desirable. Social and mobile has led to interruption as a form of entertainment.

Marketers have shifted ad dollars to Facebook and optimized landing pages for mobile. These obvious reactions to this new world are just just shifts in tactics. Often they don’t recognize the full implications for marketing engagement.

Marketers hesitate to interrupt consumers and the experiences they offer are not as fascinating as interruption entertainment. Couldn’t the permission revolt be quelled if consumers feel that their permission is being respected? And won’t consumers engage if the marketing content is as interesting as an extra life in Angry Birds 2?

Godin gives numerous examples of good permission marketing in his book. They all required an interruption. And notably, some don’t quite meet the criteria of anticipated, personal, and relevant. The frequent flier program he cites doesn’t truly build a personal relationship with the air traveler. A technology company that sends offers for add-ons may be none of these, even though it asks its users to opt in. Columbia Records is lauded for negative option marketing, a tactic that is now discredited by Internet scams.

These examples of permission marketing were great then but would not be so successful now because we have become more demanding. If our glowing rectangle of entertainment can enthrall us so totally, we will only pay attention to a marketer who can do the same. If Angry Birds were reskinned as Coca Cola Crash players would like it just as much. Only many brands have not created anything so compelling.

Marketers today must accept the implications of our interrupted life and adapt their understanding of permission marketing to it. Marketers should have the courage to interrupt us, provided that the information they offer is able to capture our attention as fully as our voluntary interruptions. If they fail to interrupt us, they must accept that no implicit permission will ever take the place of explicit permission, and their efforts to engage with us later will always be treated as unwanted interruptions.

In a future post I will show how some brands are thriving with true permission marketing in a world of interruptions.


[1] The 2015 Ad blocking Report | Inside PageFair

[2] comScore and Sourcepoint: the State of Ad Blocking – Sourcepoint

[3] After iOS 9 launches, Ad blockers top the App Store chart | Naked Security

[4] Online Buyers Notice Retargeted Ads – eMarketer

[5] It’s Official: Consumers Are Just Not That Into Retargeted Ads –


[7] Google Search Statistics – Internet Live Stats

[8] 15 Email Statistics That Are Shaping The Future: Convince and Convert

[9] Email Statistics

[10] 2013 Internet Trends – Kleiner Perkins Caufield Byers


Minneapolis Scientology Protest by Tony Webster     CC BY 2.0

The 2015 Ad Blocking Report, August 10, 2015 by PageFair and Adobe. Page 4 of PDF.

Reaction to frequency of retargeted online ads, October 23, 2014 by InSkin Media and RAPP published in ExchangeWire.

Blind dates by Bruce Lanza     CC BY-SA 2.0

2013 Internet Trends, May 29, 2013 by Mary Meeker and Liang Wu, Kleiner Perkins Caufield Byers. Page 52 of report.

Reading with Steve: Permission Marketing by Seth Godin

Reading with Steve is a regular feature at Read product marketing and content marketing book reviews.

How many advertisements do you remember seeing yesterday? Think back to your journeys, from home to work, through the freeway or subway, and across the Web and the channels on your TV. Can you recall 10 ads?

I couldn’t remember even 10 – yet according to one famous estimate, the average American sees 5,000 ads every day.

Seeing this problem, Seth Godin published his foundational book Permission Marketing, which described a new way to market in an era of overwhelming noise.

An interruption marketing strategy attempts to grab consumers’ attention when they are not looking for product information. Consumers usually hate interruption marketing, and the performance of such techniques sinks over time. A permission strategy asks consumers to volunteer to receive marketing, and rewards them for doing so. Consumers appreciate and even enjoy this type of marketing, which increases in value as it identifies motivated and responsive customers.

Permission Marketing by Seth Godin is critical product marketing readingIt’s a testament to his influence that the techniques Godin describes have been universally accepted, particularly in a B2B setting. Classic interruption techniques such as banners, TV spots, and print ads have been in crisis for years, increasingly relevant only to mass-market brands. Newer permission techniques such as email and loyalty programs are in the ascendant.

Thus it is that a radio spot in 1995 usually concluded with a pitch to buy. Today, the ad likely will ask listeners to seek more information online. This is an example of the swing to permission: Almost no one will buy because of an advertisement, but some consumers will opt in to express their interest. The permission-based ad ultimately has a greater impact on long-term sales.

You are already a permission marketer – and that only makes it more important to understand Godin’s original philosophy. Every lawyer ought to read the Magna Carta, and you ought to read Permission Marketing.

One pleasure of reading Godin is his writing. He is a consummate stylist who fluidly weaves stories, humor, and critical observations. His tendency toward short phrases makes concepts easy to understand. And he has an effective habit of saving compound sentences for times when he must, when he is simply compelled, to create an emphasis. I enjoyed reading Godin and recommend every content creator learn from his style.

The Maturing of the Internet

Godin is frightfully prescient when describing the then-nascent Internet. “Is there something going on here,” he writes, in 1999, “or is this another tulip bulb frenzy?” He nevertheless concludes that “[t]he Internet is the greatest direct marketing medium ever invented.” Emphasis in the original.

The problems he describes with Internet marketing are mostly specific to the era – search engines are no longer an unsteady source of site traffic, and 14.4 kbps modems no longer inhibit the value of video. His prescriptions are nevertheless still valid, even though most of his case studies have long since failed (one of them is the subject of my favorite memoir of the dot-com age, also a recommended read).

If the specific issues Godin sees are now so dated, and the companies he cites are long vanished, how can his advice still be valid? An overarching theme of the permission concept is that the marketer must be nimble, attuned to changing customer desires, and adept in emerging tactics. Whatever technology is used, permission marketing must be anticipated, personal, and relevant to the prospective buyer. The maturation of the Internet since Godin’s first writing, if anything, only proves the timelessness of his thinking.

His ideas are more than momentary. They encapsulate basic truths of the human psyche, packaged for the benefit of marketers everywhere.

Yet something fundamental has changed.

Up Is Down, Black Is White

Godin could not have foreseen the changes in our habits, including the rise of social and mobile. These new technologies have altered behavior in momentous ways, and turned media consumption on its head.

There is a revolution brewing that could have a huge impact on marketing.

Interruption marketing was once the standard, but it’s now failing. Yet millions of us have embraced ever more interruptions. We often drop what we’re doing to answer text messages, read tweets, send snaps, and spend our Candy Crush lives. We embrace interruptions that are no more essential than any GEICO ad. It’s a phenomenon I call interruption entertainment.

At the same time, permission marketing is facing a new challenge from consumer rejection of modern techniques. We agree to terms that allow marketers to give us information we ought to value such as sponsored stories, SEM, retargeting, and email coupons. These modern Web marketing techniques follow the letter of the permission marketing ethos – yet the permission given is often so subtle, and the results so uncanny, that millions of us are rebelling against the outcome. I call this emerging backlash against Internet marketing the permission revolt.

In 2015, we are willing to interrupt ourselves but increasingly will not accept interruption from a marketer even if it is what we are looking for. How can this be?

Once again, marketers must be nimble, and again the permission marketing framework can offer a response to the permission revolt in the context of interruption entertainment.

In my next post, I’ll look at evidence of these changes and show how marketers can respond.

Buy the book Permission Marketing.


Stray thought: Godin and I share – in addition to certain depilatory habits – a fascination with transportation as a service, now commonly discussed in the context of driverless cars. He repeatedly writes in his book about how much he wants a subscription automobile that’s delivered clean and fueled to his driveway each morning. He is still on the case.