Selling in a Post-Meatball Era

The quest for 'social objects' that create their own Web buzz

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Author Seth Godin's own "marketing guru" action figure.

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Marketing guru Seth Godin has been launching pithy missives at conventional sales tactics since the Internet ran on free AOL disks with business bestsellers including The Dip and Purple Cow. His latest book, Meatball Sundae: Is Your Marketing out of Sync? posits that staid firms making average products for the masses (or meatballs) are in for nausea-inducing results when they adopt whipped cream-and-cherries marketing tools like YouTube, MySpace, and blogs. Interview excerpts:

This book seems to predict that the huge number of new ways to spread ideas online will force a lot of tried-and-true business practices to take an evolutionary step.
I think it's a revolutionary step, actually. Most people don't realize just how much impact factories and television have had on the world they live in. The mind-set of a factory is to make a standard unit and make it cheap. The mind-set of television is to reach the masses and persuade them to buy the stuff your factory makes.

Why won't that work as the Internet's influence expands?
The medium won't permit that [old model] because it isn't just another way to broadcast commercials. It's a fundamental change in the way people interact with organizations. In a few years, Internet is going to be everywhere all the time. It's going to be about walking, talking personalized video all the time. The opportunity is to look at what's changing and realize that if you change with it, you'll have a head start that will last a generation.

How should old-line companies approach these technologies?
First, companies have to decide: Either they're in or they're out. You either make meatballs, or you're part of this new regime. But if you only want to use the regime to just sell more [meatballs], you're going to fail. Gillette invented the safety razor on the back of two things: a really good factory and aggressive mass marketing. And they're really good at it. The question is: Why do we think Gillette deserves to succeed in this new medium? My answer is: They don't. There's nothing about what Gillette does that makes them worthy of conversations online, that makes their ads in Google clickable, that makes you want to visit their website.

So how do you sell in this new landscape?
You make what my friend Hugh MacLeod calls "social objects"—things that people want to talk about. That's what the iPhone is. People say the iPhone was superhyped, but Apple didn't hype it. People hyped it to each other. The challenge is not "How do I spend $50 million on advertising?" The challenge is "How do I spend $50 million on product development, so I can make a product people will talk about?"

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  • Kirk Shinkle

    Kirk Shinkle is a senior editor for U.S. News Money and manages the Best Funds portal. Follow him on Twitter @KirkS or email him at kshinkle@usnews.com.