This Is Marketing: How Seth Godin Is Changing the Way I Think About Business

Photo by wu yi on Unsplash

I just read This Is Marketing by Seth Godin, and it’s changed the way that I think about business.

I’ve come across Seth Godin a couple of times in the last few years, and from just disparate enough people (one business podcaster, one filmmaker, one songwriting teacher, and most unexpectedly, one home-cooking YouTuber) that I finally decided to actually buy some of his books instead of just jumping onto his blog, reading a couple of decent if maybe insubstantial posts, and wondering what all the hype was about.

So I read, and absolutely loved, The Dip.

The Dip is tiny. Its hardcover edition is 87 pages long. This is why it was my starting point — the “safest” investment. It took me two seatings to get through it, and I think this is its greatest strength.

The most interesting and actionable insights in the three Seth Godin books I’ve read (The Dip, The Practice and This Is Marketing) all also live on his blog. I assume that most of them live there first, in what Godin seems to treat as a testing ground for ideas, and then when they’re deemed strong and sticky enough, they move into a book.

Some of his most popular blog posts share startlingly practical advice: one post is a numbered check-list to go through before sending emails, another is a short breakdown of why writing an e-book is a great idea for almost any creative or entrepreneur in the modern age. Some posts, on the other hand, are quippy, abstract thought exercises. “Don’t Shave That Yak!” implores you not to get distracted, basically.

I loved The Dip because it felt like the very careful distillation of many years’ worth of testing and refining ideas into a few hours’ worth of reading. That is, word-for-word, the reason that I read books (and write these pieces), and The Dipmanages to shave off about a third of the usual reading time required for ideas of such significant impact. It reads like a field guide to one very specific topic: when and when not to quit.

This Is Marketing, though, feels like a bible for the business world.

The Dip’s argument is that being the best in the world is exponentially better than being the second, or anywhere else down the ladder, but that “the best” has a number of different definitions, and “the world” is not necessarily the planet. The “dip” in question is the period when most people give up — the hardest part: the learning of new and difficult skills, the patient waiting for novel ideas to feel safe, and so on. The kicker is that the dip signifies a gap in a market — if it’s the place where most people give up, not giving up for long enough is a pretty decent path towards being the best in the world. My favourite example is the guy with cheese-grater abs on the cover of the men’s magazine: he gets paid because he stuck it out longer than most other guys, and that makes what he has rare.

All of that book is excellent advice — the kind of thinking that’s so sharp and logical that you can’t believe you never saw it yourself, and now you can’t un-see it everywhere you look. This Is Marketing does the same on a much deeper level.

I never wanted to be in business. I never saw business as anything other than a systematic attempt to make as much money as possible, and I truly believed that anyone who put a significant amount of thought or effort or time into getting “better at business” was selfish, driven only by capital gain, whether they knew and admitted it or not. This scared me away from thinking about marketing at all, let alone as thinking of it as possibly being a net positive.

This Is Marketing makes me think otherwise. The book covers a lot of ground, from the definition of marketing itself right down to how to think about logo design. But everything — every single chapter, every single nugget of advice or wisdom — is driven by a desire to serve. Seth Godin’s M.O,, at least as far as the little of his work I’ve read tells me, is to convince the world that generosity works. His free, decades-old daily blog is proof that he believes it, and This Is Marketing is the proof that made me believe it.

There’s so much great thinking in the book that it seems almost redundant to try to separate just one concept from the whole, but the idea of targeting your smallest viable market is probably what made me mobilise the various recommendations and finally read Godin’s books.

The smallest viable market is the idea that the internet age allows us more than ever to target an increasingly niche, specific market of consumers, and therefore develop more specific products and services that better serve those people.

In Godin’s own words:

“Organize your project, your life, and your organization around the minimum. What’s the smallest market you can survive on? Once you’ve identified the scale, then find a corner of the market that can’t wait for your attention. Go to their extremes. Find a position on the map where you, and you alone, are the perfect answer.”

— This Is Marketing.

Not only does this lay out a more actionable path to success for marketers and creators, it proposes a way of thinking about business and marketing that is truly generous. If you’re dedicated to finding the people who love what you make, and you focus on making more of what they love, you’re so, so much less likely to waste the time of those who don’t want or don’t need what you’ve got. You can serve those you’re meant to serve, and by making a genuine effort not to steal the time and attention of everyone else, you can serve them too.

Authors like Seth Godin signal a shift in business thinking from the win-at-all-costs mentality to a place of generosity. This shift is, in large part, possible because of the argument that generosity-focused marketing and business is not only morally and ethically more favourable, but, especially in the modern age, it’s more effective. Being generous is not just generous. It’s a path to success, too. Maybe the only one that’s truly sustainable.

It could be blind optimism, but I believe Godin, and even if he’s wrong, I’d prefer to get it wrong this way than to get it right the other way.

Alleged creative practitioner.