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A marketing maharishi preaches
salvation in trustworthy content

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By Eric Wolferman

S

eth Godin appears so relaxed in front of an audience you’d think he was chatting at the dinner table.

Perhaps he feels at home on stage because he’s been there so often. There is no exact count of the presentations he’s delivered, but triple digits would not be inconceivable. Google him and you will find an endless list peppered with speeches, interviews, videos and profiles.

With shaved head and round-rimmed spectacles, he embodies the classic new age spiritualist. Indeed, in marketing circles he is regarded by many as a modern-day maharishi.

He took the stage yet again last week at Copyblogger Media’s Authority Intensive conference in Denver, where he was the keynote speaker, a role he has played before at scores of marketing confabs around the country.

Godin’s resume undeniably commands respect. He has written 17 books, several of them best-sellers. He holds an undergraduate degree in computer science and philosophy, and an MBA from the Stanford Graduate School of Business. He birthed several businesses, one of which – Yoyodyne – he sold to Yahoo! for a reported $30 million. He has launched a slew of Internet-based projects and, as noted earlier, has delivered countless speeches championing his marketing philosophy.

While Godin’s message doesn’t change much, his performances are always crowd favorites. On stage, he blends all the ingredients of a skillful communicator. He is funny, poignant, incisive, affable, passionate and perhaps most of all, inspirational.

Many of his talks revolve around the centerpiece of his philosophy, which he espouses in his book Tribes. The Internet, Godin exhorts, has provided the perfect breeding ground for spawning distinct groups of enthusiastic disciples — tribes — who share common concerns and interests. It is these tribes that marketers in a congested and overcrowded Worldwide Web must court, either by cultivating their own or appealing to those already established.

The Authority Intensive conference was aimed at writers, bloggers and marketers seeking to expand their audiences and enhance their reader appeal. More than 400 content marketers turned out for the show, which featured two dozen speakers covering design, content and traffic generation issues. The “authority” in the conference title reflects the quest of marketers to establish an authoritative voice in order to sustain an engaged and persistent following.

The problem is that we've branded ourselves to death ...

Godin was an early proponent of quality content, and he is passionate about what it takes to build a loyal constituency. The critical elements of “authority” have become familiar themes in his sermons – individualism, authenticity, relevance and, of course, the tribe phenomenon.

“When I look at most of the content marketing that I see online,” he says, “I see two things. Number one, it is industrialized. As bigger and bigger organizations decide this is the way to get attention and this the way to grow, they’re hiring people to churn out stuff that isn't helpful. And number two, that stuff is banal. It’s boring. It has very clever headlines that lead to nothing much.”

The alternative, he says, “is to make what I call art.”

“The key question we need to ask ourselves,” he tells his audience, “is ‘do you get authority by industrializing the process of creating content?’”

Godin is keenly aware of the difficulty of standing out in the immense ocean of the Internet. At least part of the answer, he believes, lies in building a rapport with an identifiable group.

“It turns out that people like doing what other people are doing,” says Godin. “We are organized at the molecular level to be in sync with the people around us.”

To make his point, he flashes a slide of triathletes gathered for a competition in Hawaii. “These guys pay $15,000 to go to Hawaii to compete in the Ironman triathlon, and they don’t even like the swimming part,” he quips. “Why go? You go because the other guys are there. People like me, are doing something like this.

“If you can figure out how to connect to tribes around what you do, commit to where they are going, be clear in how you speak to them, and communicate to them, that becomes irreplaceable,” he says. “That is where authority comes from. If people like us believe people like you, then of course we’re willing to believe you and follow you ... because we want to be connected. We want to stand for something.”

In the end, however, just finding a tribe is not enough. For Godin, the holy grail of Internet marketing is still meaningful communication.

“The problem is that we've branded ourselves to death,” he says. “It used to be that you could say something so outlandish, or say it so loud, that people would look at you. Now we can’t. The shortcuts are harder and harder to find.

“Is this work we’re doing going to increase the amount we matter to the people we are able to talk to,” he asks, “or is it part of a daily industrial ‘drip, drip, drip’ in which there is no trust whatsoever? You must decide as a religious, ethical decision: Am I in the business of talking to people who would miss me if I’m gone, or am I in the business of just figuring out how to get people to look at me? Are you going to be a meaningful specific or a wandering generality?”

According to the Content Marketing Institute, three-quarters of all business-to-business marketers are creating more content than they did just a year ago. With that kind of momentum, it’s a good bet that Seth Godin will be taking the stage a lot more in the months ahead.

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