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.


Reading With Steve: Selling The Invisible by Harry Beckwith

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

How is a service business like a product business? According to Harry Beckwith, the question no longer even relevant – every business is a service business.

In his marketing classic Selling the Invisible: A Field Guide to Modern Marketing, author Beckwith proves this fundamental truth, and reveals what marketers must do to win and retain customers. The content is broken down into 11 thematic sections, each containing a number of very brief anecdotes that demonstrate a fundamental marketing lesson.

Beckwith has a genius for storytelling. He has selected stories that are so compelling they make the resulting lesson seem obvious in retrospect. His skill reinforces these lessons in a way that textbooks cannot, and his consistency and brevity give the lessons more power than any how-to blog. For this reason alone, Selling the Invisible should be on your bookshelf. Pick it up, turn to any page, and gain a valuable piece of knowledge.

I count 162 lessons. If there were 365, a daily flip calendar would be the perfect format (and the perfect gift for any marketer).

selling the invisible is a classic work on B2B marketingThis book is remarkable for its ability to foresee, and shape, future trends in marketing. Though published in 1997, Selling the Invisible anticipates the digital marketing future by imparting concepts we take for granted today: Set your business apart, think continuous improvement, disrupt yourself before your competitor disrupts you, marketing is everyone’s job, improving your service is improving your marketing, market to your core competency, dominate your niche, et cetera. Beckwith proves these maxims without the B-school terminology, and without digital examples. Yet the fact that these concepts are accepted wisdom today, and part of any business school curriculum, points to Beckwith’s influence and foresight.

Most powerful is the core message that every business is a service business. This means that the marketing imperatives of an electronics maker and a software designer are the same. Businesses of all kinds keep customers based on the level of interaction they provide, on their attention to detail, on the strength of their brand. In 2015, businesses also face the leveling plain of social media, with its immediate feedback and direct customer service. Surely Beckwith could not anticipate this coming technology, yet he prepares his readers for it perfectly.

I was pleased to see Beckwith spend time with concepts of organizational behavior (again, he does not use the academic term). The science of organizational behavior uses empirical psychology to show how humans make decisions. Mastery of this discipline gives any marketer a huge advantage. Beckwith uses the section he calls “How Prospects Think” to explain such concepts as familiarity bias, recency bias, anchoring, and the halo effect. He offers the best 15-minute introduction to marketing psychology I have seen.

Even in a universally strong volume, the section on positioning stands out as a tour de force. Start with a fanatical focus on the one thing that distinguishes your business, and then position outward from there. If you cannot find this one factor, look harder until you do find it. Beckwith declares that differentiation is the starting point of any communication strategy. It is hard to disagree with him.

I particularly enjoyed Beckwith’s stories about making your marketing exciting, a concept he terms “vividness”.

With very few exceptions, each story hits home and illustrates its lesson well, but a few fall short by offering a point that is too breezy. For example, Beckwith tells the story of a passionate salesman who wins every deal by being his authentic, charismatic self. This engaging vignette closes with the advice, “You should copy him”. Suppose you are not the natural salesman of this story? What if you are affectless, and not affectionate? It cannot be possible to imitate a presenter whose very power is his authenticity. The story is terrific, however the lesson does not follow so easily. Just a few of the stories fall flat in this way.

Selling the Invisible is visionary, a series of parables that have stood for 18 years with no diminution of their power. I believe this work will still be essential for future generations of marketers.

Remember, Beckwith tells us, that your first competitor is indifference. Your alternative to reading Selling the Invisible is to read nothing at all. That choice would be a mistake.

Buy the book.


Reading With Steve: B2B A To Z by Bill Blaney

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

B2B A to Z reminds us that modern marketing is not just a tweet here, a landing page there, and an optimized automation campaign to run it all. Bill Blaney is an agency director with many years of varied experience in digital and creative, yet despite all his enthusiasm for the newest tools, he reminds us that traditional promotions and trade shows can still be important – and indeed, ought to be the focus for certain types of businesses.

More importantly, Bill explains that the message is still the lynchpin of any marketing plan. Without creativity and inspiration, no amount of social media expertise will break through the clutter. The marketing world has not changed so much as diversified over his career.

When I first picked up B2B A To Z, I was expecting more of a reference guide. Instead, I was treated to a series of loosely connected thematic sections, interspersed with examples and anecdotes. While the book is comprehensive, A To Z feels like the wrong title for this work. I would have titled it Approaching B2B Marketing in the 21st Century.

Bill is at his best when providing inspirations from his career, for example, describing why and how he pioneered a social engagement strategy for Witchblade, a TV show, in 2000. He is funny too, wisecracking that how some B2B businesses approach social media is “like watching a polite vegan fill up his plate at a Swedish smorgasbord”. Unforgettable – and it certainly shines a bright light on the issue.

9_6_15 B2BAtoZWith the variety of sections in this book, one core observation stands out. Marketing is designed to speak to people’s wants and needs. Bill shrewdly dissects this basic observation into the core difference between consumer and business marketing: Whereas virtually all consumer purchases are based on wants, virtually all business purchases are based on needs. This difference means that good consumer marketing inevitably displays greater variety, authenticity, and unexpectedness – so that it can penetrate right to the amygdala and stimulate our desire. Advertising is “poison gas”, yet great consumer marketing can become iconic.

So why, Bill asks, don’t B2B companies learn more from B2C companies? We assume businesses have needs, not wants, so appeals that are based on feature lists, tout incremental improvements, or are simply the same as everyone else’s are par for the course. Yet these techniques don’t land. Can’t business-to-business companies study the consumer masters and learn how they generate their “simple, bold ideas”? I think this appeal is B2B A to Z’s single biggest contribution to the art.

Many of Bill’s recommendations will be second nature to experienced marketers. If you already plan your trade shows far in advance, follow up with webinar attendees within 24 hours, and have a process to respond to customer service issues brought to you via Twitter, you probably will not learn much from chapters 4-11, in which Bill comprehensively covers marketing tools and tactics.

There are a few moments in these middle chapters that miss the mark. Some of the book’s advice about using social media is borderline spammy, and seems too specific to Bill’s professional sweet spot of midcap manufacturers. A chapter on the Google Penguin update is dated, since a new budding marketer would never even consider the black-hat SEO techniques that this update famously neutralized. Numerous copy mistakes in this chapter are also particularly distracting.

But Bill’s batting average overall is All-Star level. I particularly recommend the final chapter about Bill’s own career path. It’s the most gripping part of the book, and I hope Bill considers a memoir for his next writing project.

This book gave me a lot to consider, and ought to be part of any serious B2B marketer’s home library. You won’t regret spending a few instructional hours with B2B A To Z.

Buy the book.