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Seth Godin: embrace the idea of a smallest viable audience

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He loves writing and has published more than twenty marketing and business books. His insights are sometimes controversial and make people think. The marketing world is in a revolution that destroys the perfect and brings new opportunities. We need to find new ways to spread ideas, says entrepreneur and best-selling author Seth Godin.

He is entertaining and at the same time to the point. "Fancy Feast Gourmet cat food is a very popular product in the US. But let's be clear: cat food is not for cats, because if it was it would come in mouse flavor. Cat food is for the people who buy it and we tell a story to people that makes them happy to serve it to their cat." Storytelling will always remain, but the marketing world is changing. "The adoption of things online has accelerated. The way we are connecting to each other is revolutionary. Revolutions destroy the perfect and then they enable the impossible."

Marketing and leadership are intricately related
Seth Godin is entrepreneur, teacher and author of best-selling marketing and business books like 'Purple Cow', 'Linchpin', 'The Practice' and 'This is marketing: you can't be seen until you learn to see'. His books have been translated into 36 languages. Over the past decades he has inspired millions of marketers and leaders via his blog, lectures and online workshop altMBA.

He stresses the importance of leadership. "Marketing and leadership are intricately related." In an ongoing marketing revolution, you can't keep everything as it is. Game changing innovations are necessary when the 'perfect' way of working doesn't work anymore. "So, the first question is: are you actually interested in changing the game or would you rather have someone to change the game on you and then you'll have to struggle to catch up," he says in a presentation at Nordic Business Forum. "Leadership is voluntary. You can choose to lead and choose to follow. Leadership is this idea of finding problems and solving them."

Missing million-dollar opportunities
When everything seems perfect, people often miss opportunities. In the nineties Godin was already well aware of the emerging World Wide Web. So, he decided to write a book about it, but it turned out to be a complete failure. "No one bought the book. But during that same period of time, two guys in California named David and Jerry saw what I saw. They had fewer resources than I had. They didn't make a book about the internet, they built a website called Yahoo. They saw what was possible; I had a cloudy vision. They said: what should we do? I said: what do I already know how to make." Companies nowadays often make similar mistakes. "Our companies don't see it, because we have been blinded by success," Godin says during another talk at Nordic Business Forum.

Later Godin worked at Yahoo as Vice-President direct marketing and then the company missed a great opportunity. "When I was at Yahoo, we had a chance to buy Google. Something impossible shows up and the people who are in the business of dealing with perfect usually say no. So, I want to start with the daring assertion that I am not sure that you want to change the game. I think that many people would like to get back to normal. The problem is you can't step in the same river twice. (…) A good day is the day you make change happen."

Godin has his own definition of marketing. "It doesn't match what some people think marketing is. I do not define marketing as hype, advertising or promotion, which is what a lot of people think of when they do marketing. I define marketing as anything we do that changes the culture for the better," he states in a video talk at London Real. "Marketers make change happen. If you can make someone better, if you can open a door for someone, if you can shine a light, that's the act of marketing. Because what you do is bring an idea, product or service to someone who needs it," he elaborates in a video interview to Marie Forleo. He mentions a surprising example. "A lifeguard knows how to swim. Until you get the drowning person to hold onto that ring, you haven't accomplished anything. That's marketing. Persuasion."

In his book 'This is marketing: you can't be seen until you learn to see' Godin argues that marketing is first of all about communication and connection, not about selling things. In a world where 'mass marketing and traditional advertising have moved to the past' great marketers do not anymore pursue the masses, but aim to matter to those they serve. As he writes: 'If you can bring someone belonging, connection, peace of mind, status or one of the other most desired emotions, you have done something worthwhile. The thing you sell is simply a road to achieve those emotions.'

The smallest viable audience
Striving for a large audience is not necessarily a good idea. Godin highlights the importance of the smallest viable audience. "A lot of people have trouble with that. They say: why should I do all this work if I don't want to reach everyone? That means you have denied the people you're serving their humanity. Because you are saying: you are the masses, you are average. But you can pick the smallest viable group of people and say I live or die with you. If I can't please you, I didn't do a good enough job. (…) Embrace the idea of a smallest viable audience, not the biggest possible audience, but the audience that could sustain you."

He tries to teach it to his students as well. "When I do it we have a big Zoom call and their faces go blank. I say: I am going to push you to go more micro, to more levels than you want to use. They don't want to, because they believe that the bigger the audience the more successful they will be." But a smaller audience may be more appropriate. "Making sure that the quality of each piece is just right for a few people makes it a much bigger obligation on your part. That is where it becomes magical. If you name any artist who has stood the test of time in whatever field, what they did was they worried about a few and ignored the non-believers."

The power of blogs
Part of his daily routine is blogging and Godin stresses the importance of it. "Writing a blog is a privilege, I don't get paid for it, I don't want ads on the blog, but it is the idea that you can share what you think of this or I assert that and see how that contributes to the next thing. Why wouldn't you do that?" In his blogs he is looking ahead. "Tomorrow there is something from me on the blog and that challenges me today to think about what is the smartest, biggest, most generous contribution I can make for tomorrow. It is the way habits are created. If you do something every day then you will come to feel like doing it."

Creating shifts in our culture
Changes often come together with some tension. "Making change happen is our job, but change has an ugly brother, and his name is tension. The tension that it might not work or that you get in trouble. You can't have change without tension and this works all over the world." Sometimes changes are too sudden and that is not what you want. Godin recounts a story told by a colleague. "It was brilliant. If you are on a flight from New York to Helsinki and the plane veers half a degree every half hour you will not feel it, but you will not land in Helsinki. You will land in Rome. It's the gradual changes and shifts in our culture that end up leading to the long-term transformations that we seek."

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