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July 13, 2009

Seth Godin, Blogger: An Interview

Let’s face it. Seth Godin’s blog is a wondrous thing. It’s consistently No. 1 or No. 2 on the Ad Age Power 150. More importantly, it’s pure insight. At least once a day, every day, there’s a little homily on marketing, or brands, or quality, or on something else that makes you say “hmmm” or “that’s right” or even “that’s wrong” – but something that’s worth your time.

Do you have any idea how hard this is? Nobody else does this.

When I contacted Seth to interview him about his blog, he was bemused. “I don’t know how to bottle what I do,” he wrote. “I just do it.” OK, let’s admit you cannot imitate Seth – you don’t have what he’s got under that bald head of his. But I am hoping you can learn by observing some of what he does. So here goes: an email interview with Seth Godin about blogging:

Seth godin purple cow The clarity of your posts tells me that you have a clear idea of your audience and what they will get out of it. On the other hand, from reading you for years now, it seems you’ll write on just about any topic. When you write a blog post, who do you imagine writing for?

There are things we do with words in mind. For example, it's easy to say, "I wonder what my cousin would like for her birthday, let's see, she's twelve..." and then go find something. There are other things we do without vocalizing. Tying your shoes, say, or picking out a bouquet of flowers. 

I don’t sit down and say, “I wonder what Josh needs?” Instead, I’ve carefully curated a voice in my head that blogs in a way that appears to resonate with people. I’m guessing (though I have no talent) it’s a lot like curating a sound on the saxophone. Training helps, listening to records helps, but mostly you blow a lot until you resonate and then repeat, prune, experiment, prune, repeat, prune until a groove occurs.

One reason I encourage people to blog is that the act of doing it stretches your available vocabulary and hones a new voice. You won’t get it for a while, but you’ll get it. To one person who wrote in and said he didn’t think he had anything interesting to say, I asked him whether he was boring in person too? Boring at breakfast? Boring on a date? That boring?! Probably not.

Every blogger needs grist for the mill. In looking at your posts, they’re sometimes based on current events or other people’s blog posts (like your post on Malcolm Gladwell’s review of Chris Anderson’s book Free) but more often than not, they are just some freestanding insight. Where does this stuff come from? I can’t imagine that you sit down and it just comes pouring out. What do you read/follow/think about that stimulates this stream of insights?

How come some people can visit a place like New York and see a thousand amazing things, take hundreds of great photos (like Thomas Hawk) or even write a novel... and other people visit, eat at Applebee’s and send home a John Lennon postcard?

It's not where you go, it’s what you look for.

An insight a day is an incredible pace to keep up, but you never seem to miss. Do you write ’em in bunches and dole them out daily, or do you always have a pile that you’re working on, or do you really just write one every day?

I write at least one a day. I queue up the extras, and replace ones I don’t love with a new one. This discipline does two things... first, it treats each post as a precious opportunity (which it is) and second, it cajoles me into overcoming whatever little voice in the back of my head says, “nahhhh.”

Your blog doesn’t sell ads, and you’ve resisted becoming TechCrunch or ReadWriteWeb and turning it a sort of blog/destination with multiple writers. But the blog must reward you in some way beyond the pleasure of writing. What does your blog do for you and your business?

I have a problem with the second part of the question. Two problems, actually.

First, why is it that once business gets involved, it’s assumed it’s okay to do things that aren’t fun or rewarding or kind or generous, but only things that make money?

And second, why is it assumed that people can’t do business-like activities without getting paid?

Those guys at AIG getting the big bonuses? I don’t understand the mindset that says the millions they’ve got aren’t enough, that they shouldn’t skip a quarter or two, that the work is so horrible and grinding and deadening that they couldn’t possibly consider doing it just because they’re great at it and love it...

Sorry for the rant, but the only reason I blog is because I love it. I love being able to create something that feels like a gift, giving an idea that spreads, that may improve something for someone. I’m certain (just speaking for myself) that if I figured out a way to profit from it, I’d probably be starting down the road to wondering how to maximize that profit, and if I tried to do that, I’d fail.

For example, I don’t mention Squidoo.com (a company I started) on my blog now and then because it would make me money (the mentions have so little impact as to be less than the cost of hosting), I mention it because I genuinely want to share what I’ve got, or give people a tool they will benefit from.

I think there’s plenty of room for blogs that exist to pay the blogger, or blogs that exist to turn a profit. That’s just not the kind of blog I’m writing, and I’m not the kind of blogger that could do that.

Your blog accepts trackbacks but no comments. You respond to emails but Twitter only links to each post. I sense a carefully considered set of decisions here. Can you help us to understand why it works that way?

What works for me of course won’t work for everyone. But for me, the issues are distraction, time management, the little voice of self-doubt and the desire to push through the Dip of mattering. Comments and Twitter are like a Fresnel lens. You can use them to focus attention if you’re very disciplined and very good, or, if you’re like me, you’ll end up finding your energy and attention diffused into a maelstrom, lost to the winds of inanity, anger or trivia. It’s in my DNA. I can’t do it, just as I can’t read in the car.

For those that are succeeding (and I have to confess, the number I see isn’t as big as you’d think given all the hoopla) I say mazel tov. To those that are using it as a defense mechanism, an opportunity to stay busy while not actually doing anything, I wonder if that’s a good choice.

Like Guy Kawasaki, whose blog is also full of delightful little nuggets, you could edit and reorganize your blog into a very nice book. Ever considered it?

Where, exactly, do you think Guy got the idea, Josh?

http://www.smallis.com

If I wasn’t the first bestselling author to do this, I was close. I even won a fancy audiobook award for it. It inspired Scott Adams’ book too, which is better than mine.

I have another collection coming out along these lines, but in a different format that I hope to announce soon...

I said before that people couldn’t imitate you, because they don’t have your software between their ears. But I bet there is something you’ve learned from blogging that the rest of us might be better off if we did it, too. Which of your habits should we imitate?

Oh, I think imitating my habits is a great idea. Habits like blogging often and regularly, writing down the way you think, being clear about what you think are effective tactics, ignoring the burbling crowd and not eating bacon. All of these are useful habits.

Thanks for the questions, Josh. This was fun.

 

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Comments

Brian Hayashi

The wonderful thing about reading Seth Godin is that so much is clear and insightful.

As Jeremiah tweeted earlier today, so much of the blogosphere is based on some kneejerk reaction to some news off the wire. Godin's writing occasionally references recent events, it is true, but his insights come from years and years of innovation and hard work.

About fifteen years ago, when the Web was just starting to hit big, the interactive braintrust at Interpublic unit Ammarati & Puris directed me to meet a brilliant guy located out in Irvington, NY. Talking to Godin then is like reading his work now: another example of how an "overnight success" is really just a lot of hard work, done enough times to seem effortless to the rest of us n00bs.

In the meantime, just because there's a lot of activity is no guarantee that Twitter - or Google, for that matter - is ever going to be as successful as Redmond at creating modern-day Microsoft millionaires. A little more critical thinking will go a long way in shaping the real-time web of tomorrow.

Clay Hebert

I was lucky enough to participate in Seth's Alternative MBA program. (We're wrapping up this week.)

Seth is as generous and insightful in person as he is on his blog or in his amazing books. I feel blessed that I was able to learn from him. He has taught, inspired and most important, pushed me. For that, I thank him.

Mayank Dhingra

I like how Seth is Crystal Clear about what he is doing and why is he doing it.

Loved the interview, thanks for sharing..

Yasmin Bendror

I loved this interview. I totally agree: every time I read Seth's blog, it boggles my mind how he comes up with such insight, clear thinking, focus, on such a consistent basis! How the heck does he do it?? And he ALWAYS puts a human touch/element to it, which I think is so key. He's a man with a real heart who, I think, has deep a understanding of the human condition and how we tick. This is rare. Yes, as you can tell, I'm a fan. Thanks to both for a great interview

netinfluence

Seth's secret is concentration and specialization. By concentrating and specializing on what he knows best, not getting distracted by trendy tools and practising, daily, he has been improving, performing increasingly well.
He is applying in fact what he preaches and what marketers should do : do what you are best at and work hard to provide best customer's experience.
The good news is that everyone can do it :D

Paul Foreman

Readers may like to check out my Seth Godin Mind Map which captures many of his great marketing ideas from listening to his video talks on YouTube & Ted.com http://www.mindmapinspiration.com/seth-godin-mind-map-paul-foreman/

Jeff

Great interview!

ramen

Very good article, great interview. I really think that some people who do amazing things just can't explain it, they just do it without thinking, it's in them. They keep the audience hungry for more, only by being themselves. Great food for though, i think it's an inspiration for many!

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