‘You Need Editors, Not Brand Managers’: Marketing Legend Seth Godin on the Future of Branded Content

Seth Godin is the godfather of modern marketing—or, at least, the type of modern marketing we all want to be doing.

In 1999, Godin published Permission Marketing, and, in every way, it was a revelation. At a time when Bill Clinton was still in office, TLC’s “No Scrubs” was a #1 hit, and was about to IPO, Godin released a practical guide to how brands could leverage the incredible connectivity of the web to engage consumers by seeking permission to do so. His creation of the concept of permission marketing—which posited that marketing should be as anticipated, personal, and relevant, rather than interruptive—continues to echo in darn near every marketing brainstorm today.

Permission Marketing was Godin’s third book. Since then, he’s published 19 more while posting daily to his blog—which remains one of the industry’s must-read sites—and launching successful entrepreneurial ventures like Yoyodyne and Squidoo.

I caught up with Godin to get his take on the present and future of content marketing.

Everyone who interviews you describes it as this amazing, life-changing experience. What do you think makes you such a good interview?

I don’t think I change anybody’s life. I think sometimes people decide to change their own life, and if I can be present for that, that’s a nice thing to do.

Why do you think you have that influence on people, then?

Well, I think that showing up every day for 10 years or more in a row gives people a hint as to what it is you’re actually trying to accomplish. There’s a mindset by some people who do content marketing that you give a couple of times, and then it’s all about the getting. And I’m not interested in the getting—I’m just trying to make a change in the universe that we can all be pleased with.

You give a lot: You’re a prolific writer with your books, and also on your blog. Do you see your blog as a form of content marketing for everything else you do?

Not if you define marketing the way old-school marketers do, which is a chance to make noise in the world to sell more stuff. I define marketing differently. Most of the people who read my blog have never bought anything from me, and that’s fine.

But then there’s the whole obsession now with tying content to revenues—in other words, tracking whether people who are consuming your content will eventually buy something from you, and putting a hard number on each piece of content you create. Do you think that’s misguided?

Oh, I think there’s no question it’s misguided. It’s been shown over and over again to be misguided—that in a world of zero marginal cost, being trusted is the single most urgent way to build a business. You don’t get trusted if you’re constantly measuring and tweaking and manipulating so that someone will buy from you.

I don’t have any problem with measurements, per se; I’m just saying that most of the time when organizations start to measure stuff, they then seek to industrialize it, to poke it into a piece of software, to hire ever cheaper people to do it.

The challenge that we have when we industrialize content is we are asking people who don’t care to work their way through a bunch of checklists to make a number go up, as opposed to being human beings connecting with other human beings.

How does a brand care? How do you build an infrastructure where you have people who care create content?

Well, a brand can’t care. All that can care is people. So if someone in your organization—and it doesn’t have to be the CEO—decides they’d rather work in a place where you care, they can start caring. They can hire people who care, they can reward people who care, and they can do work that demonstrates that they care. What we find is that the more people care, ironically, the better they do compared to the industrialized systems of folks who don’t care and are just doing it for the money.

It seems also that that risk/reward system for caring at most brands is a little messed up. It’s a lot safer to just create one blog post a week, or one blog post a month, than it is to create 10 or 15. Because so many brands are risk-averse—if you make a mistake, your job is on the line.

I think the fear is, without a doubt, present. It turns out that, in most organizations, it’s warrantless fear, but we’re humans and we can’t help it. The number of people who have actually lost their job because they’ve created content that showed they care is very, very small. But we play into the whole industrialist mindset and act as if our job is on the line.

There’s the famous content marketing success story of Oreo’s tweet at the Super Bowl. People tell that story as if it’s the greatest thing that ever happened. They leave out that it took dozens of people to work on it, when it should have been one person who loved Oreo cookies. And it didn’t actually sell that many more Oreo cookies.

There are constantly trends and fads on the Internet, and people make a good living amplifying them. But I think that industrialized content marketing is one of those fads, and it will end up where they all do: petered out because human beings are too smart to fall for its appeal.

You coined the term “permission marketing.” Has it evolved the way you expected it to in the years since?

I think that I was naïve in thinking that it would stay true to the intent of anticipating personal, relevant messages. Many, many corporations use it as a legal loophole to spam.

The Museum of Modern Art sent me more than 18 announcements in the three days leading up to Christmas 2014. Now, I don’t think very many people, as much as they might be into modern art, really wanted to hear from the museum 18 times in three days, right? But that’s what the privacy policy says, so they did it because some brand manager probably figured, “Well, it’s going to be a whole another year before Christmas goes around. Might as well do it; it doesn’t cost me.”

The problem is, of course, it does cost. What it costs is reputation and trust.

What do you think content that builds trust looks like?

I think that it’s human, it’s personal, it’s relevant, it isn’t greedy, and it doesn’t trick people. If the recipient knew what the sender knows, would she still be happy? If the answer to that question is yes, then it’s likely it’s going to build trust.

A few years ago you said that content marketing is the only marketing left. Does that still hold?

Well, the kind of content marketing I’m talking about is people talking about something they care about.

Marketing in 1965 was the same thing as advertising. We called it marketing, but it was advertising. As advertising has faded away, marketers have tried to turn the Internet into advertising. My argument is: Real content marketing isn’t repurposed advertising, it is making something worth talking about.

It always struck me that the beauty of the Internet is that you can pretty easily create something amazing that’s worth talking about, and then distribute it to thousands or millions of people. But brands have, for the most part, done a pretty poor job of building owned digital media properties.

See, you are absolutely right here. When I think about how much money someone like Gillette spends, the question is: Why doesn’t Gillette just build the most important online magazine for men, one that’s more important and more read than GQ or Esquire? Because in a zero-marginal-cost world, it’s cheaper than ever for them to do that.

Or why didn’t Random House and Simon & Schuster start a search engine? Because after all, that’s what they wanted to do: organize the world’s information. They could have been Google—they were there, they knew how, and they chose not to.

I think part of the challenge is that we have to redefine what business we’re in. I think that most big companies come from the business of either knowing how to use TV advertising to build a mass-market product, or knowing how to build factories to build average stuff for average people. I think we have to shift to a different way of thinking.

If you were trying to build a brand media property—if you were Gillette—how would you build it? Would you just give some really smart people the resources and creative freedom to go out and make great content?

I think the most important thing is to have an office that’s not in your building. I think what kills brands who try to be interesting is to have meetings where they’re not saying to senior management, “How can we be more interesting?” Instead, they’re saying, “How can we play this more safely?” That’s not what happens when you want to make a hit TV show or a website that people care about. You need editors, not brand managers, who will push the envelope to make the thing go forward.

So one easy way to do that is to set people up in an office down the street, only visit them once a month, and give them really significant metrics—not about pageviews, but about mattering. And give them the resources—not too much, just enough—to go do work that matters.

What metrics do you think best measures the fact that you’re doing work that matters?

I think the only one that I care about is: Will people miss you if you are gone?

That’s a pretty good one. Is there any particular way to measure that?

We’ve got lots of people who are good at statistics and surveys. It’s pretty easy to figure out how to do an intent analysis, how to read what people say about you, and how to ask them. Once you’ve created something that people would miss, like, say, Harley Davidson, it’s pretty easy to figure it out.

I think your blog certainly qualifies as something people will miss, and part of that is because you’re such a prolific writer. What’s your secret?

I don’t have a secret. I just write like I talk. I think almost anyone can do it, but most people aren’t diligent enough for our trade. You know, I blogged for three or five or ten years, depending on how you measure it, with almost no one reading my work. If you show up—the same way we get good at walking, the same way we get good at talking—you can get good at it.

Let’s go back a little bit to the ideal brand newsroom—or whatever you want to call it—where you set up people up in an office and give them creative freedom. That kind of feels impossible at a lot of brands right now, simply because there isn’t that attitude towards content within the organization. How can marketers who agree with your vision convince people to make that kind of commitment?

I think that if you want to keep whining about the decline of advertising and the stress that retailers are being exposed to, by all means, feel free. If you want to find a way out of where you are stuck, you may have to do something that’s uncomfortable, that’s organizationally difficult, and worst of all, that is frightening. And I don’t know how to tell you how to do it, other than to point out that it might be frightening.

Any advice on talking points marketers can give higher ups—maybe some lines of reasoning?

Yeah, see, I don’t think that’s why they’re not doing it. I don’t think we can litigate and argue and debate our way out of this one. My new book, What to Do When It’s Your Turn, is all about the fact that what we get paid to do for a living is to expose ourselves to fear. That’s our job. If the people we work for aren’t up to that, then maybe we should go work somewhere else.

That’s pretty good advice. You talk a lot about making art. Do you think brands can make art?

I think that humans in almost any job can make art. What I mean by art is the human act of doing something that connects us to someone else. We see great brands, which are nothing but human beings doing things under the same name, do something that feels like art all the time. It doesn’t have to be a luxury good, it doesn’t have to be a physical good. If it’s something that makes us sit up and notice it because we care, it probably qualifies as some form of art.

That’s really interesting, the idea that the sponsorship of a brand doesn’t tarnish the work you do. That’s often how it’s presented in the media.

The word “brand” is problematic. Is Bob Dylan a brand? Bob Dylan has been a multi-billion-dollar company over the course of the last 40 or 50 years. Is Apple under Tim Cook a brand, or is it the work of a half a dozen leaders who are pushing themselves to do something that they’re proud of?

Where do you draw the line? If you’re talking about big, impersonal, insensitive, historically large packaged goods companies, yeah, it’s going to be really hard for them to dig their way out of their reputation. But I don’t think it’s impossible.

There’s sort of a parallel there with the debate over the ethics and merits of native advertising. How do you feel about sponsored content?

There are two kinds of native content: There’s content I want to read and content I don’t. If you’re putting content I don’t [want to read] in front of me, it doesn’t really matter how much you got paid for it—I’m probably not happy.

How do you think that the connection economy will evolve in the next five years?

You know, part of the challenge of this search for the next big thing is it takes our eyes off of this big thing. I think that we will see changes that stun us and surprise us, and I’m not sure it matters. I think that we probably don’t want to wait for next thing, because the thing we’ve got right now is that important.

What’s the big thing right now?

Well, for the first time in the history of humanity, any human being with a hundred bucks has the ability in which any other one of the several billion people that are online. We can connect to people who are outside of our geographic region and we have the chance to do great work, and to do it in a way that makes an impact. I think that’s astonishing, and I couldn’t imagine a more positive and bigger change to our culture than the one we’re in right now.

Final question, and it’s a question I ask a lot: Who’s your favorite wizard?

Wow. I’ll confess that no one has ever asked me that. I think there are so many reasons why The Wizard of Oz is my favorite wizard, even though you might get that answer a lot. I can talk about it for hours.

I’d love to hear your opinion on it.

Well, the most important thing about that movie, is that it’s one of the only movies ever made in which the hero—the person who makes almost every decision, the person who propels the action forward, and the person who demonstrates the most bravery—is a young woman. It’s astonishing to me that it’s so rare for that to happen. It was 1939 and we’re still talking about how, 75 years ago, putting a woman in that situation was important.

The second thing I would say is that if you read the annotated Martin Gardner edition of the book, you learn an enormous amount of gossip, the background of the wizard himself, and what he stood for and what he didn’t stand for. I think his redemption at the end of the movie is extraordinary. It’s very, very rare that we find human beings who are willing to speak up and say, “You know, I was wrong. But I’m going to do the right thing now.”

This interview has been edited and condensed. 

For a recent Contently interview with martech leader, Scott Brinker, click here.

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