Has Seth Godin Peaked?

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Venkatesh Rao, Contributor

November 21, 2008

8 Min Read

Over the last two weeks, I read two books on how marketing, like every other enterprise function, is changing under the onslaught of 2.0 technologies. One, Spanning Silos: the new CMO imperative, by David Aaker was a serious surprise. It underpromised and overdelivered. I felt educated. Though written in a classical, non-2.0 idiom, it is extraordinarily smart and analyzes its topic solidly. You can read my review/summary at the link above. But the other -- and there is no other way to say this -- just made me very very sad. It is Seth Godin's Tribes (free audio book here). Godin, long a god to his acolytes, has a well-deserved reputation as the marketing thought leader of our times. Permission Marketing (4 free chapters here) was the first marketing book I read, and I was blown away by the intellectual excitement he sucked me into (at the time I was knee-deep in one of the very few marketing gigs on my resume, crafting newsletters for a large permission email list). Though I am not in marketing, I still find myself using its ideas frequently in other, general-communication contexts. The Dip was a gem of a book that made a tough philosophical idea easy to understand.And then we get Tribes. I almost cried as I was finishing listening to it.It is clearly supposed to be a visionary book about marketing 2.0. It ends up being vacuous. All high-concept and no real substance. The basic premise is that marketing, in the world of 2.0 technologies, is about creating tribes of what Kevin Kelly calls 'raving fans' around charismatic and renegade leader-archetype figures. He isn't the first to say something along these lines (try Groundswell), but his particular take is, quite simply, fatally flawed. The book has three redeeming features, and a host of failings. Here are my lists:Redeeming Features

  1. Good Anecdotes: There are several well-chosen and interesting anecdotes about what Godin thinks are examples of tribes around charismatic leaders (for example, rock-climbers and 'people interested in improving software development'). He mis-analyzes them though.

  2. More-than-crowds argument: He makes the point, which really needed making, that long-tail micro-markets are more complex social beasts than crowds, with very complex internal structures and communication patterns. Jeff Howe gets at this very deeply in Crowdsourcing, but doesn't actually say it explicitly.

  3. His own story: There is a very entertaining story of how Godin, at the start of his career, while working for an educational gaming company, first stood out as a great leader. This anecdote is excellent, and provides valuable insight into what made Godin the phenomenon he is, as well as being a great case study in its own right.

Now for the failings

  1. Lousy 'Tribe' Metaphor: The very basic premise and metaphor of the tribe is poorly constructed. Despite his protestations to the contrary, he is talking about personality cults. His examples actually don't fit his model. Real tribes, sociologically speaking, have councils and elders more often than they do prima donna chieftains. They are more intelligent, thoughtful and economically valuable than Godin/Raving-Fan Tribes.

  2. Unnecessary put-down of managers: There is a pointless tirade against managers, and a simple-minded discussion of leadership-versus-management. Godin glibly ignores that great managers are as necessary as great leaders, and that management isn't (like he imagines) an obsolete function. For a solid and positive look at 'manager 2.0' try HBR's recent Five Minds of a Manager.

  3. Followers as chopped liver: A big and recurrent theme is that everybody can be a leader today. In this analysis, followers end up looking like chopped liver. Kelly's raving fans (his definition: people who buy any crud you produce, from t-shirts to box-sets and first-editions) was a demeaning enough archetype. Godin squeezes out whatever individualism and independence was left, in his notion of tribe member. I wish these folks would look beyond mindless groupie cultures when they search for good models of intelligent everymen/everywomen/customers/prosumers. There is a weak attempt at redeeming the follower (he talks about how he, personally, is a raving fan of some tribes), but it is too little, too late.

  4. Unicorns and Balloons? Ouch! There is probably the mother of bad business parables somewhere halfway through the book: an obscure metaphor of a balloon factory with unicorns running around in it. That passes for an analysis of why The Evil Factory Model must shut down as an economic idea. While there are good reasons to believe that organizational models are changing radically, Godin's analysis isn't among them. There is a lot of value and deep thinking to be ported to 2.0 from 1.0 enterprise cultures.

  5. No depth: The Dip had surprising depth for a little book. Tribes doesn't. The arithmetic dictates that if everybody becomes a leader with 1000 raving fans, everybody must also, on average, become a raving fan of a 1000 cults. Unless it is the same 1000 raving idiots who are in all 6 billion cults (in which case they won't have the disposable income to buy anything; they'll be too busy spending their waking hours in tribal meetups). This suggests we need a fundamental re-examination of the idea of a 'market' as a social construct. Sadly, Godin takes this idea at face value and runs nowhere with it. Somebody please do a PhD on this. The thesis should start by quoting that ironic email signature line, "Remember, you are unique, just like everybody else!"

  6. Getting Twitter Wrong: This is a biggie. For the guy who practically invented modern word-of-mouth marketing, he gets WOM 2.0 pretty wrong. Ryan Kuder has a very kindly-worded post on this that has been doing the rounds. I am no expert on WOM, so I wasn't sure who was right. Kuder's post made me seriously experiment with my mostly dormant twitter account for the first time, and within a few hours I realized he was dead-on, and that Godin didn't get it . (I mostly tend to rely on front-line experimenters like Jeremy Epstein for wisdom to fuel my armchair musings). WOM 2.0 and viral messaging is a game in its infancy, and it pays to be humble about what you don't know. Godin's benevolent blessing of Twitter actually backfired on him a bit in the twittersphere. [update comment: make sure you read the WHOLE comment thread, including Seth's response; Kuder's original post mistook a different user for Godin, but Godin's own opinion/take is evident in the comments discussion; thanks to Mark for pointing out that this clarification is needed]

  7. Trying to Declaw Criticism: This, I admit, annoyed me no end personally. Writers should, in my opinion, present their ideas and the defend them in honest debate. Godin steps towards unfalsifiability and priesthood in two ways. First, there is a preachy bit that starts, "Some of you are going to ask me exactly the wrong questions...." Second, there is a portion, pregnant with false humility and insincere noblesse oblige, that tries to pre-empt criticism. He holds forth at length about how he takes even criticism as a sign that his views had an impact worthy enough to merit response. No! the intellectually honest way to deal with criticism is to re-examine your ideas critically, and allow a healthy dose of introspection and doubt to enter your self-perceptions for a while. Putting a positive spin on criticism and effectively ignoring it is priestly arrogance. The only reason I am responding to the book is that it is by Godin, and can do damage if left unquestioned by us rank-and-filers. If it had been by a marketing nobody, I'd have dismissed it as tripe on page 3 and not bothered with a review.

Now, let me reiterate, I am not a marketer, and I try and watch and learn from great marketers (Godin definitely still included, despite this mis-step) as they go about inventing marketing 2.0 in the trenches. There is a lot of hard work and learning going on out there. Nobody has all the answers yet.Godin, unfortunately, played this exactly wrong. What the environment needed from the God of Marketing was a curious, exploratory book; a book intent on learning, asking questions and framing smart hypotheses for his legions of very smart fans to test. Instead of a front-line General, we got priestly pronouncements from a lofty peak, with fog obscuring his view of the battlefield.For me, Godin is now a fallen idol. I hope he gets up again. And oh yeah, do read Spanning Silos: the new CMO imperative, by David Aaker. We need new gods of marketing, at least temporarily.And for those of you are itching to throw stones back at my own glass house, here is my analysis (almost a year old, so I should probably do a follow-up) of Twitter.Venkatesh G. Rao writes a blog on business and innovation at www.ribbonfarm.com, and is a Web technology researcher at Xerox. The views expressed in this blog are his personal ones and do not represent the views of his employer.

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