Permission Marketers: Did We Blow It? By Seth Godin
By Seth Godin, 9/16/2001
Ten years ago this week, my colleagues and I launched GUTS, which,
at least for me, inaugurated a new era online. For the first time, online services
(the world wide web didn't exist) could motivate large groups of consumers to
behave in a way that benefited both consumers and the service. Millions and millions
of people played GUTS, and Prodigy (remember them?) was able to learn a great
deal about what people wanted and how to get their users to do stuff.
Over the next few years, you and I were all lucky enough to be around for the
birth of a mass medium. It's only happened a dozen or so times in the history
of civilization, so naturally, they were exciting times. Alas, I think with all
the rushing around, our industry didn't take a deep breath and stop to think about
how our decisions would influence this medium for years or decades to come.
Looking back, I think the industry blew it.
Short-term pressure led to bad decisions--strategies that seemed smart at the
time, but led to dead-end outcomes. Just as PBS is sorry that they became addicted
to on-air begathons, it's obvious that the Net will regret many of its short-term
decisions as well.
Wall Street said, "If you make your content sites work like TV shows, we'll fund
you." So content interrupted by annoying advertising became the standard. The
venture capitalists kept their end of the bargain, but after the market crashed,
these sites were left with nothing -- no cash in the bank and no big revenue deals
on the horizon. Now, their only plan seems to be to make the advertising more
annoying, more intrusive and less respectful. And still the big advertisers are
Wall Street said, "If you make your commerce sites work like Wal-mart, we'll fund
you." So stores that carried everything and sold nothing were the order of the
day. The venture capitalists kept their end of the bargain, but after the market
crashed, these sites were left with nothing. Not enough traffic, too few sales
per customer. Now, the only plan of the remaining online commerce guys seems to
be to do more of the same and hope to last long enough to eke out a profit.
I was having lunch this weekend with an old friend. He told me that his company
(a top 10 internet site) still doesn't measure which content and which promotions
influence behavior. They basically guess, and after they run something, they don't
bother to figure out whether it worked better (or worse) than what they did last
We could have built software that was organized around the user -- web sites that
naturally changed based on what they knew about the user. Instead, most sites
are static, showing a first-time user the very same thing that we show a loyal
We could have built simple sites that were direct in their presentation and marketing.
Instead, the standard is a complex mix of multimedia, site maps, fancy programming
and little of value.
We could have stamped out spam forever five years ago by building accountability
into e-mail, but we couldn't get a quorum to agree and we missed our chance. Is
it my imagination or is it getting worse?
We could have created web companies that understand why they're in business. "To
make money for our advertisers!" Instead, we're stuck with "information delivery
platforms" and "wireless portals."
We could have created online retailers that focus on finding products for customers.
Instead, virtually everyone selling online offers catalog-ware, working overtime
to find customers for products. Why do retail stores still exceed online stores
in sales per customer?
We could be measuring lifetime value of a customer, but we're still focused on
traffic and (god forbid) hits.
We could be building remarkable products that follow a natural progression from
unknown to ideavirus. Instead, we try to jury-rig "tell a friend" promotions on
top of boring stuff that no one wants to share.
We could be building risky business models really cheap and seeing what works,
but we're getting more and more conservative instead. You and your colleagues
are working way too hard for anyone to settle for a mediocre experience.
href="http://www.thebigredfez.com">The Big Red Fez I tried to outline how the approach
we take to building a site drives almost all of the poor results web sites are
wrestling with. It's not that we're not smart enough to do it right -- the basic
architecture fights against success! The combination of software, funders, media,
consultants and programmers that we work with seem to conspire against a desire
to build simple, measurable, testable and effective sites. Sites that make users
happy at the same time they earn money for the people who built them.
Is it too late?
I'm not sure. Once the templates are set, most forms of mass media resist change.
Radio and magazines, for example, have a business model and delivery mechanism
that's the same as the one they had twenty or thirty or forty years ago. One ray
of hope is QVC. Not only did they challenge the status quo of television, they
are the single most reliable generator of revenue, profit and consumer joy on
the air today. They test. They measure. They reject what doesn't work. It's a
fascinating concept and it could even work online. Go figure!
I'm an optimist. I know that there are really cool technologies that embrace this
thinking. That there are very neat (and underfunded) web sites that are going
to bootstrap themselves to the top of the heap. I think it might not be too late.
I hope we have the will to turn this medium into the commercial (and useful) success
it can be.
Okay, I'm changing my mind. IT'S NOT TOO LATE. Ten years from now, this medium
will still be here. It'll be radically different, unrecognizable in some respects.
The pop up ad will be a dismal memory. The focus and hard work and insight of
a small group of people who are working to change the Net into a viable commercial
medium will have long-term impact. Don't give up... don't give in.
href="http://www.thebigredfez.com">The Big Red Fez
in hard to use ebook reader format
href="http://www.permission.com">Would the world
be a better place if everyone bought PERMISSION MARKETING?
A final aside: as the summer ends, I'm starting to put together a
schedule for seminars in my office outside of New York City. If your company is
interested in getting more details about coming for a day of lateral thinking,
outside the box strategy and whack on the side of the head marketing and change
insight, please let me know. AND, if you or someone you know might be interested
in a career change and wants to consider helping in the marketing and execution
of these seminars, I'd love to hear from you as well. It'll be different, that
I can promise.
Thanks for reading.
Seth Godin is a direct marketing consultant and best-selling
author of Permission Marketing. After selling his marketing company, Yoyodyne,
to Yahoo, he served for a short sojourn as Yahoo's VP of Permission Marketing.
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