“This Is Marketing: You Can’t Be Seen Until You Learn to See” by Seth Godin
Not Mass, Not Spam, Not Shameful…
The effective kind of marketing is about understanding our customers’ worldview and desires so we can connect with them. It’s focused on being missed when you’re gone, on bringing more that people expect to those who trust us. It seeks volunteers, not victims.
It’s easier to make products and services for the customers you seek to serve than it is to find customers for your products and services.
Marketing is the generous act of helping others become who they seek to become. It involves creating honest stories — stories that resonate and spread. Marketers offer solutions, opportunities for humans to solve their problems and move forward.
The Marketers Learns to See
The marketing that has suffused our entire lives is not the marketing that you want to do. The shortcuts using money to buy attention to sell average stuff to average people are an artifact of another time, not the one we live in now.
Marketing in five steps:
- The first step is to invent a thing worth making, with a story worth telling, and a contribution worth talking about.
- The second step is to design and build it in a way that a few people will particularly benefit from and care about.
- The third step is to tell a story that matches the built-in narrative and dreams of that tiny group of people, the smallest viable market.
- The fourth step is the one everyone gets excited about: spread the word.
The last step is often overlooked: show up — regularly, consistently, and generously, for years and years — to organize and lead and build confidence in the change you seek to make. To earn permission to follow up and to earn enrollment to teach.
Marketers make change happen: for the smallest viable market, and by delivering anticipated, personal, and relevant messages that people actually want to get.
Marketers don’t use consumers to solve their company’s problem; they use marketing to solve other people’s problems.
Marketing Changes People Through Stories, Connections, and Experience
Marketing isn’t a race to add more features for less money. Marketing is our quest to make change on behalf of those we serve, and we do it by understanding the irrational forces that drive each of us.
If you can bring someone belonging, connection, peace of mind, status, or one of the other most desired emotions, you’ve done something worthwhile. The thing you sell is simply a road to achieve those emotions, and we let everyone down when we focus on the tactics, not the outcomes. Who’s it for and what’s it for are the two questions that guide all of our decisions.
We tell stories. Stories that resonate and hold up over time. Stories that are true, because we made them true with our actions and our products and our services.
We make connections. Humans are lonely, and they want to be seen and known. People want to be part of something. It’s safer that way, and often more fun.
We create experiences. Using a product, engaging with a service. Making a donation, going to a rally, calling customer service. Each of these actions is part of the story; each builds a little bit of our connection. As marketers, we can offer these experiences with intent, doing them on purpose.
The Smallest Viable Market
If you have to choose a thousand people to become your true fans, who should you choose?
Begin by choosing people based on what they dream of, believe, and want, not based on what they look like. In other words, use psychographics instead of demographics.
The relentless pursuit of mass will make you boring, because mass means average, it means the center of the curve, it requires you to offend no one and satisfy everyone. It will lead to compromises and generalizations. Begin instead with the smallest viable market. What’s the minimum number of people you would need to influence to make it worth the effort?
Customer development is the act of gaining traction with customers, of finding a fit between what you make and what they want. This traction is worth far more than fancy technology or expensive marketing. That, and only that, separates successful projects from unsuccessful ones.
Everything gets easier when you walk away from the hubris of everyone. Your work is not for everyone. It’s only for those who signed up for the journey.
It’s impossible to create work that both matters and pleases everyone.
The Canvas of Dreams and Desires
We sell feelings, status, and connections, not tasks or stuff.
Don’t begin with your machines, your inventory, or your tactics. Don’t begin with what you know how to do or some sort of distraction about your mission. Instead, begin with dreams and fears, with emotional states, and with the change your customers seek.
In order to dramatically increase the size of your audience or the price that you charge, you’ll need to do more than simply work more hours or interrupt more people.
It might not be about being cheaper. It’s tricky to define better. But without a doubt, the heart and soul of a thriving enterprise is the irrational pursuit of becoming irresistible.
More of the Who: Seeking the Smallest Viable Market
Our hits aren’t hits anymore, not like they used to be. Instead, they are meaningful for a few and invisible to the rest.
The critic who doesn’t like your work is correct. He doesn’t like your work. This cannot be argued with. The critic who says that no one else will like your work is wrong. After all, you like your work. Someone else might like it too.
When we find the empathy to say, “I’m sorry, this isn’t for you, here’s the phone number of my competitor,” then we also find the freedom to do work that matters.
People Like Us Do Things Like This
The smallest viable market makes sense because it maximizes your chances of changing a culture. The core of your market, enriched and connected by the change you seek to make, organically shares the word with the next layer of the market. And so on. This is people like us.
It’s a mistake to show up with an acorn and expect a crowd. Work that matters for people who care is the shortest, most direct route to making a difference.
Trust and Tension Create Forward Motion
Effective marketers have the courage to create tension. Some actively seek out this tension, because it works. It pushes those you serve over the chasm to the other side. If you care enough about the change you seek to make, you will care enough to generously and respectfully create tension on behalf of that change.
When you arrive on the scene with your story, with the solution you have in mind, do you also create tension? If you don’t, the status quo is likely to survive.
Status, Dominance, and Affiliation
If you look closely at decisions that don’t initially make sense, you’ll likely see status roles at work. The decision didn’t make sense to you, but it made perfect sense to the person who made it.
Status is our position in the hierarchy. It’s also our perception of that position.
Status protects us.
Status helps us get what we want.
Status gives us the leverage to make change happen.
Status is a place to hide.
Status can be a gift or a burden.
Status creates a narrative that changes our perceived options, alters our choices, and undermines (or supports) our future.
And the desire to change our status, or to protect it, drives almost everything we do.
When the marketer shows up with her new idea, her opportunity, the offer to make change happen — every time, it’s a challenge to our status. We have the choice to accept (and move up or down, depending on the story we tell ourselves) or to turn down the offer and live with the tension of walking away.
Six things about status:
- Status is always relative. It’s about the perception of status relative to others in the group. 6 is bigger than 4, but lower than 11. There is no highest number.
- Status is in the eyes of the beholder. If you are seen as low status by outsiders but as high status in your own narrative, then both things are true, at different times, to different people.
- Status attended is the status that matters. It only matters when the person we’re engaging with cares about status.
- Status has inertia. We’re more likely to work to maintain our status (high or low) than we are to try to change it.
- Status is learned. Our beliefs about status start early. And yet the cohort we are with can influence our perception of our status in very little time.
- Shame is the status killer. If we accept the shame someone sends our way, it undermines our entire narrative about relative status.
We adjust our status constantly, intuitively playing with it based on the situation. And when you bring your work to the market, nothing is considered before status roles.
Affiliation: The questions that someone who cares about affiliation asks himself and those around him: Who knows you? Who trusts you? Have you made things better? What is your circle like? Where do you stand within the tribe? Can’t we all get along?
Dominion: The questions and statements that someone who cares about dominion offers to himself and those around him: This is mine, not yours. Who has more power? I did this myself.
My family needs more of what we already have. My side dominating your side means I don’t have to be in charge, as long as my leader is winning.
Within competitive markets, there is a race to be the dominant voice, but among the customers that make up that market, the position of leader works because the customers desire to be affiliated with one another.
The way you see the world isn’t nearly as important as the worldview of those you seek to serve.
Semiotics, Symbols, and Vernacular
The logo you use, the stories you tell, and the appearance of your work all matter. Your words resonate with us, not only because of what they mean, but because of how they sound and how you use them. It’s not just the stuff. It’s even the way you set up the room for your company off-site.
It’s important to remember that it doesn’t matter what you, the marketer who created it, is reminded of. Semiotics doesn’t care who made the symbol. The symbol is in the mind of the person looking at it.
Send a signal that feels like a sign we already trust, then change it enough to let us know that it’s new, and that it’s yours.
If you want to build a marketing asset, you need to invest in connection and other nontransferable properties. If people care, you’ve got a brand.
Treat Different People Differently
Lazy marketers try to buy enrollment with flashy ads. The best marketers earn enrollment by seeking people who want the change being offered. And they do it by connecting people to others who want the change as well.
Always be wondering, always be testing, always be willing to treat different people differently. If you don’t, they’ll find someone who will.
Reaching the Right People
If you tell your competition your tactics, they’ll steal them and it will cost you.
But if you tell them your strategy, it won’t matter. Because they don’t have the guts or the persistence to turn your strategy into their strategy.
Your strategy is the long-lasting way you’re investing in reaching that goal. Your strategy sits above the tactics. A strategy might be to earn trust and attention. A strategy might be to be seen as the best and maybe only alternative. A strategy might be to have alliances and partnerships that enable you and your message to reach exactly the right people. The way you use stories, status, and connection to create tension and forward motion is a strategy.
A noticed ad is noticed by some people, not everyone. And, if it’s noticed by the right people, it creates tension. The tension of not knowing and needing to know more. The tension of being left behind. The tension that things might get better (or worse).
People seeking to make change happen are often in a hurry, and advertising feels like a shortcut. But without persistence and focus, the investment is wasted.
If you’re buying direct marketing ads, measure everything. Compute how much it costs you to earn attention, to get a click, to turn that attention into an order. Direct marketing is action marketing, and if you’re not able to measure it, it doesn’t count.
The most important lesson I can share about brand marketing is this: you definitely, certainly, and surely don’t have enough time and money to build a brand for everyone. You can’t. Don’t try. Be specific. Be very specific. And then, with this knowledge, overdo your brand marketing. Every slice of every interaction ought to reflect the whole. Every time we see any of you, we ought to be able to make a smart guess about all of you.
The market has been trained to associate frequency with trust (there, I just said it again). If you quit right in the middle of building that frequency, it’s no wonder you never got a chance to earn the trust.
Step one is to make a product or service that people care enough to search for specifically. You cannot win in a generic search, but you’ll always win if the search is specific enough. And then step two is easy to understand: to be the one they want to find when they go looking.
Price Is a Story
Better to apologize for the price once than to have to excuse a hundred small slights again and again. Price is a signal.
Unless you’ve found an extraordinary new way to deliver your service or product, racing to be the cheapest probably means that you’re not investing sufficiently in change. When you’re the cheapest, you’re not promising change. You’re promising the same, but cheaper.
Low price is the last refuge of a marketer who has run out of generous ideas.
There are countless ways for you to share your vision, your ideas, your digital expressions, your ability to connect — for free. And each of them builds awareness, permission, and trust, which gives you a platform to sell the thing that’s worth paying for.
Permission and Remarkability in a Virtuous Cycle
One of the key drivers of permission marketing, in addition to the scarcity of attention, is the extraordinarily low cost of connecting with people who want to hear from you. Drip by drip, message by message. Each contact is virtually free.
Once you earn permission, you can educate. You have enrollment. You can take your time and tell a story. Day by day, drip by drip, you can engage with people. Don’t just talk at them; communicate the information that they want.
If permission is at the heart of your work, earn it and keep it. Communicate only with those who choose to hear from you. The simplest definition of permission is the people who would miss you if you didn’t reach out.
Ideas travel horizontally now: from person to person, not from organization to customer. We begin with the smallest possible core and give them something to talk about and reason to do so. What we choose to market is up to us. If the change you seek to make can’t be talked about, perhaps you should find a different change worth making.
You can fix your funnel:
- You can make sure that the right people are attracted to it.
- You can make sure that the promise that brought them in aligns with where you hope they will go.
- You can remove steps so that fewer decisions are required.
- You can support those you’re engaging with, reinforcing their dreams and ameliorating their fears as you go.
- You can use tension to create forward motion.
- You can, most of all, hand those who have successfully engaged in the funnel a megaphone, a tool they can use to tell the others. People like us do things like this.
Consider focusing on which steps to shift or eliminate. Explore what happens if people engage in your ideas or your community before you ask them to send you money. Invest in the lifetime value of a customer, building new things for your customers instead of racing around trying to find new customers for your things.
Every click between the first and the last makes your funnel more expensive, but if you get rid of too many clicks then no one will trust you enough to buy from you.
The bridge across the chasm lies in network effects. Most of the fast-growing marketing successes of our lifetime have spread because of ideas that work better when everyone knows them.
Connected tribes are more powerful than disconnected ones. Individuals who get in early have an incentive to bring others along, and so they do.
Organizing and Leading a Tribe
The story of us is the kernel of a tribe. Why are we alike? Why should we care? Can I find the empathy to imagine that I might be in your shoes?
And the story of now is the critical pivot. The story of now enlists the tribe on your journey. It’s the peer opportunity/peer pressure of the tribe that will provide the tension for all of us to move forward, together.
Your opportunity as a marketer is the chance to connect the members of the tribe. They’re lonely and disconnected, they fear being unseen, and you, as the agent of change, can make connection happen.
Some Case Studies Using the Method
Marketing Works, and Now It’s Your Turn
Good enough isn’t an excuse or a shortcut. Good enough leads to engagement.
Engagement leads to trust.
Trust gives us a chance to see (if we choose to look).
And seeing allows us to learn.
Learning allows us to make a promise.
And a promise might earn enrollment.
And enrollment is precisely what we need to achieve better.
Ship your work. It’s good enough.
Then make it better.
Marketing to the Most Important Person
If you spend time and money (with skill) you can tell a story that spreads, that influences people, that changes actions. Marketing can cause people to buy something that they wouldn’t have bought without marketing, vote for someone they might not have considered, and support an organization that would have been invisible otherwise.
If you don’t market the change you’d like to contribute, then you’re stealing.
It is the marketing we do for ourselves, to ourselves, by ourselves, the story we tell ourselves, that can change everything. It’s what’s going to enable you to create value, to be missed if you were gone.