Questions for Seth Godin

Are all marketers liars? That’s what Seth Godin says in his new book. His last two, “Purple Cow” and “Free Prize Inside,” evangelized the big, crazy idea. Now Godin explores the central role of the fib in all advertising. He’s been promoting “All Marketers are Liars,” due this spring, on his blog with anecdotes about the deceit underlying various marketing strategies.

ClickZ recently reached Godin to discuss his best personal lie, the value of blogging, and why he stands by his endorsement of controversial buzz marketing firm BzzAgent.

Q.What’s a favorite lie you tell about yourself?

A.The lie that’s particularly effective for me is that I know what I’m doing. That’s a story that people want to believe, and so it’s effective in helping people get what they want — find the ideas they want, make the changes they want, etc. If you go to a restaurant with a group and someone says, “Hey, I know what’s good here,” it’s easier to order and a lot more fun.

Q.What sorts of lie do you think interactive media is great at telling? Which lies does the Web fail at?

A.The key word is “interactive.” The Web is particularly bad at the vernacular of solidity and trust. You can’t do with pixels what you can easily do with marble and pillars and arches. On the other hand, when the Web connects one human to another, it’s quite powerful. Send an email to a powerful blogger or author or executive or politician and get a note back in ten minutes… that has an impact that will last forever.

Q.How has the blog served you in the promotion of this book, and of your books and your brand in general? What do you like about it? What do you hate?

A.For five or six years, my job has been spreading ideas. Things like books are time consuming and slow and expensive, and you don’t know for a year if your idea is going to spread or not. Blogging helps me a great deal because I can find out in five minutes if I’ve got something or not. One of the reasons I’ve been successful at blogging is that is all I’m trying to do. I’m not trying to make money or sell something or prove something. I just want to spread my ideas.

What I don’t like about the Web in general is anonymity, and particularly the bad behavior anonymity brings out in some people. It’s like at Disney World, where people (even adults) pinch and hit and swear at the folks wearing the character costumes. Even though these people aren’t wearing masks, they act that way. So now at Disney the characters have guards. Sometimes the posts and mail and stuff is just stupid and mean. I hate that.

Q.You were caught up in some blogosphere controversy in recent months over an endorsement of BzzAgent, which has faced criticism. What’s your take on this company and its lies?

A.It wasn’t controversy. It was uninformed spin and self-promotion.

BzzAgent doesn’t pay people to pimp their friends. Evangelical religions like the Mormon Church do a great job of making it easy for the committed to spread the word — just for the satisfaction of doing so. That’s what the BzzAgent I’ve worked with does. They send out materials and samples, and if people get a kick out of spreading the word, they do so.

In the parlance of my new book, BzzAgent makes it easy for people to tell a story.

If you don’t like the fraudulent agencies (I sure don’t) that hire supermodels or send out street teams or spray paint the street or set up false storefronts, then that’s fine. Don’t like them. But it’s a misunderstanding to lump BzzAgent in with those guys.

One thing that’s happening online is that bloggers in search of traffic can manufacture controversy by “going after” someone. My response is to have no response.

Q.If all marketers are liars, where do you draw the ethical line between a decent lie and a horrible lie?

A.Fibs and Frauds. A fib is a story that makes us feel better about doing something. If we find out it’s a fib later on, well, it’s okay, because we’re still glad we did it. A nightclub tells a fib. So does perfume.

A fraud on the other hand is a story that attracts us but it turns out to be the opposite. SUVs are a fraud. They’re not only not safer, they’re less safe. They kill people. Once you find that out, it’s not okay.

Q.What isn’t a lie?

A.The smile on a kid’s face when you give him a hug.

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