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Ideas That Unlock the Future for the Arts
Episode 78

Ideas That Unlock the Future for the Arts

CI to Eye with Seth Godin

This episode is hosted by Erik Gensler.

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In This Episode

Seth Godin—one of Erik's heroes—shares his ideas for arts leaders in crisis and beyond. Please listen to these ideas carefully, think about them, and share them widely to unlock the future for the arts.

Erik Gensler: Thank you so much for joining me today. I’m really grateful to have you. You’ve been an inspiration to me for such a long time and it’s just an honor to have you as a guest here. And we scheduled this talk before this crazy time we’re in, so I’m grateful you could still make the time to talk with us.

Seth Godin: Let’s rock and roll!

Erik Gensler: All right. So, your parents were arts people, your dad was the volunteer head of the Studio Arena Theatre in Buffalo, and your mom was on the local art museum’s board. Curious, what is your art participation look like, maybe as a kid and now? Do you still go to the theater or to art museums?

Seth Godin: Well, it wasn’t just a local art museum. It was the Albright-Knox-

Erik Gensler: (laughs) Oh!

Seth Godin: … which probably, painting-for-painting, is the best contemporary art museum in America and the fact that it’s in Buffalo is this weird coincidence. The person who put up most of the money founded Woolworth’s Five-and-Dime and had been there for a really long time, quietly buying up Clyfford Stills and Andy Warhols and Frida Kahlos and I grew up thinking it was normal to look at abstract, contemporary or modern art. I was in the museum every couple of weeks for many years and I learned a lot from conceptual art, from understanding how to get the joke of an idea without it being telegraphed too obviously. I also went with my parents to a Sam Shepard play when I was probably too young-

Erik Gensler: (laughs)

Seth Godin: … to be able to understand why there was someone standing on stage with a live lamb that was bleeding to death but I had my share of encounters with, sort of, avant-garde, thoughtful, contemporary art. And my mom died too young and my dad died later than that but fairly young, as well, and I’ve tried to, at least a little bit, follow in their footsteps. One of the highlights of the last five years for me was, the Albright-Knox had me come back and be a guest docent and lead a tour, which I prepared for for weeks and the whole thing was organized around ending up in front of a Marcel Duchamp I got off the plane and I got there just in time to do one quick run-through and I get to where I’m going to end my entire pitch and the Duchamp’s not there!

Erik Gensler: (laughs)

Seth Godin: And I said to the curator, I said, “Where’s the Duchamp?” He said, “Well, it’s in storage.” I said, “Here’s the deal: from now on, anytime you want to put a Duchamp in storage, keep it in my house instead-”

Erik Gensler: (laughs) Yeah.

Seth Godin: … “because the insurance will cover it just as well and I’ll take good care of it. I’ve also given informal tours at the Museum of Modern Art and people have been known to follow me around the Museum of Natural History because if I’ve got a kid with me, I’ll start pontificating so much that people get into it. For me, good, live jazz, which is super hard to find, even from famous people, is an example of what happens if we build a cultural foundation that enables people, in a small setting, without being famous, to do something that can change us in real-time. And so, I try very hard to do that. Patricia Barber’s, a friend, Cyrille Aimée … I had a wonderful chat with Christian McBride a couple months ago, so I can’t believe I’m lucky enough to A) live in a time when civilization can support that and B) be able to actually talk to these people, as well.

Erik Gensler: Hm (affirmative), I love that. In 1999, you published the book, Permission Marketing, which personally, fundamentally changed my worldview of marketing and made me, even more, want to be a marketer. And, as a marketer, I find myself when asked questions about marketing, just return to that foundation, even today.

Seth Godin: (laughs)

Erik Gensler: 1999 was before half of America was even using the internet or email, social media didn’t exist yet, and in a way, I just look at that book and I think, “He predicted the future.” (laughs) How did you see this coming?

Seth Godin: I’m not going to take credit for everything you just said because Kevin Kelly saw the future before me. He wrote a book that laid out all of it, including social media and everything else. What happened for me was, I didn’t just write a book. I lived the ideas in that book for eight years before I wrote it and I started my first internet company in 1990 or ’91, before there was a worldwide web. And figuring out, when the stakes were high, how to interact with people who had a choice was a privilege that very few marketers had because most marketers were coming from an age of, “If you spend money, you can buy attention,” and on the internet and by email and with online services, you couldn’t do that. You couldn’t spend money to buy attention. And so, I was in the business of selling something to marketers but I had to figure out how to build it without any money and doing that, day after day, when the stakes were so high, for eight years, writing the book was pretty straightforward after that.

Erik Gensler: I’ve heard you say before, what you’re really good at is observing and paying attention and we now know that you’re prescient, in a way, if I said that right. We are in a moment of so much change, with … the world is obviously always changing; we’re in a dramatic moment, I would say, right now, and the world on the other side of this, certainly our stay-at-home orders, will certainly be different in many ways than before this. I’m curious what trends in human behavior that you see as particularly notable right now and on the other side of this crisis and particularly how it will affect those listening to this podcast, which is cultural and arts administrators.

Seth Godin: Okay, well let’s break it down into pieces. First, for those who are wrestling with a health problem or a frozen economy, my heart goes out to you. This is a tragedy unfolding and it finally has earned the word, “crisis,” which so many things the media likes to talk about aren’t crisis; this is a crisis. But I think we have to begin with this: there have been more changes in my lifetime than in anybody else’s lifetime in history. They just didn’t all happen all at once and they didn’t happen to everyone at the same time. So, the birth control pill, television, women choosing to work outside the home, shifts in the political dynamic, the idea that anyone with $149 can fly somewhere across the world; on and on. If any of those things had happened in a two-week period of time, we would have been just as whiplashed by it. But it took television 25 years to completely remake the culture and while it was going on, you could feel like an innovator for making the Batman TV show or you could feel like an innovator by making The Sopranos but because it didn’t happen all at once, we had time to understand it. So, if you’re an arts administrator, if you’re a leader in the nonprofit arts world, a whole bunch of things that used to be foundational structures, building blocks, of what you do all day are gone, perhaps forever and you don’t have to like it but it’s also not clear that fighting is going to change anything. So, for example, from 1850 to 2020, people in a civilized town needed to show their status compared to the other people in that town. That status signaling, which goes back to Shakespeare and beyond, is something that we do in theater all the time but we needed an organized way that did not involve dueling pistols for people of means to show other people of means that they had something. And one way to express that is by endowing a theater or having a subscription to the Philharmonic or … you get the idea. Well, after the economy gets through this slog, the rules will probably be different and the methods of signaling will change and the very idea of something being alive and being out of home will change. Now, that doesn’t mean they go away, but they will certainly change. And so, what does it mean to be a member of a museum? What does it mean to be a subscriber? What does it mean to go to opening night, or even a gala? All of these things are going to be disrupted for years to come. And what we learned from Schumpeter is that you don’t have to like destruction for it to feel creative. And the question is, “Who will step into that void?” And we’re not going to step into the void by taking the collection of the Museum of Modern Art and making it free online because no one’s going to look at it. Celebrity art doesn’t count as celebrity art if you’re not in the same room as the art. So, it’s going to be something else and I don’t know what it is. The question is, “Are you resilient enough to invent it?” because that’s sort of your job.

Erik Gensler: I think that’s what … really, the gut reaction for everyone was, “How do we make this this experience that used to be in-person now online?” and I fear it’s just going to be an overflow. And the problem is, we have business models that are all about selling tickets and if you can’t sell tickets, we haven’t figured out how to make money, yet … or, maybe some people have, not that I know of, but, like, make the same amount of money by doing what you’re doing at the institution, through the computer.

Seth Godin: Right, and, in fact, you can’t because scarcity creates value. Scarcity is something that should not exist for healthcare or for nutritious food but it is essential that it exists for any commerce-driven form of arts because if there’s no scarcity, then you can have it for free. So, what is scarce? Well, it’s scarce to be in that room with the Mona Lisa and the people who are taking selfies there are not disrespecting Leonardo da Vinci; they are celebrating themselves, and they’re celebrating themselves by saying, “I am here and you are not.” But anyone can look at a picture of the Mona Lisa at home for free and almost no one does because there’s no scarcity associated with that. So, here’s what’s scarce going forward: connection, belonging, being an insider, being in the circle. Being in the circle is scarce and you are used to selling that to people on the Board. You’re used to selling that to people who want to be part of a thing when there are outsiders. This tribal behavior is why Harley Davidson was a $1 billion company. So, the question is, “Who is going to be the impresario, the organizer, the assigner of status and connection in whichever community you serve?” because that’s what you’ve always been selling; you just thought what you did was have a building.

Erik Gensler: Mm (affirmative). It’s just, it’s tied to your human identity or your humanity, yeah. When you spoke at Digital Marketing Boot Camp two years ago … I should also say, you spoke at the first Digital Marketing Boot Camp for the Arts. In fact, I had the idea, really, by thinking of, “How can I get Seth Godin to do this?” and you were kind enough to do it for free 10 years ago, when we only had 52 people in the audience, and then you were kind enough to come back and 2018 and I was just so amazed at how much time … the same way you prepared to give those museum tours, you prepared for this presentation and you took so many of the ideas that you talk about in your blog and on your podcast and you presented them through the lens of an arts administrator and I’m just so grateful for that. And there were 378 people in that room and I just want to ask you, for this podcast audience that is larger than that, if we can revisit a couple of those ideas.

Seth Godin: As long as you remind me what they are cause I’m completely-

Erik Gensler: (laughs) Go! Just kidding. I have some of them listed. The one thing that you kept going back to and that I keep revisiting … Remember, I said, “Permission marketing is something … when I get asked questions about marketing, if I don’t know the answer, I just put on my permission marketing cap and it’s like, ‘Oh, yeah, that’s the answer.’” I think the same was true when you started talking about the minimum viable audience and it’s so funny when I talk to executive directors and leaders; they’re always putting on the hat of the industrialist and it’s so hard for them to take the industrialist hat off and put on the “minimum viable audience” hat. So, can you frame the minimum viable audience versus the industrialist mindset?

Seth Godin: What does it mean to have a viable audience? A viable audience means it’s enough people for you to keep doing your work. Now, what almost everybody who goes into the arts does, influenced by Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney and everyone who’s come since then, is, “How can we get the word out and tell everybody? Cause this is good stuff and we need more of it.” And the thing is, if your museum can let 2,000 people in a day or your theater can seat 350 people or your hockey arena has 15,000 seats, by any form of math, we have to round that to zero. Zero percent of the tourist population of New York City goes to the Metropolitan Museum of Art every day. Not one percent.

Erik Gensler: (laughs)

Seth Godin: Zero percent. It’s 0.00-something but it’s closer to zero than one. That doesn’t even count residents; that’s just tourists. So, in order to have a line out the door, a waiting list; in order to be busy, all you need is zero. Maybe one. Let’s go for one. So, if all you need is one percent, what that means is, you would benefit by actively ignoring what 99% of the people say they want. Do not compromise anything for them because if you compromise something for them, the ones who weren’t going to come anyway, the ones who might’ve come aren’t going to come, either. And this is the myth of the Broadway show with a TV star in it because the Broadway producer says, “I don’t have a TV star; I can’t get people to come to my show,” but when you do the math—and I’ve seen the report—more than half the people at a Broadway show on any given night go to several Broadway shows a year, maybe 10. So, you’re not actually trying to get someone who is so unaware that they’re only willing to come if it’s a TV star. You’re trying to get someone who’s going to come because it’s good; it’s important for them and people like them. If we’re going to be in the arts, as opposed to being in mass media, something that’s almost gone, then what we have to be willing to accept and embrace is that we need specifics, not generality.

Erik Gensler: And that ties into this idea of … you mentioned Harley Davidson, right? I don’t think I’ve ever seen an ad for Harley Davidson because I’m not part of their minimum viable audience, right? I’m not in their tribe.

Seth Godin: Well, it goes beyond that, which is that, if they’re smart, they’re not paying money to show an ad to you; but if they’re really smart, they realize that what sells a Harley is not an ad, but it’s another Harley rider. It’s Harley riders that sell Harleys. And what can you do for Harley rider number one to insist that his or her friend come along? And I’ve been outspoken about the silliness of the full-page ads in The New York Times for the Philharmonic, for museums, for Broadway shows. That’s not what gets the right people to come. The right people come because the early birds, cause their status goes up because they got to see it first, and then everybody else, because the early birds said they had to go. So, the hard work isn’t defined the money to run an ad; the hard work is to make a piece of art so extraordinary that people say, “You gotta go.”

Erik Gensler: Yeah, we actually did a survey that validates that exactly. We surveyed thousands of arts ticket buyers last fall and found that recommendations from friends and family were the top influence to see a performance; and way higher than what critics said; way, way, way higher than this magical social media influencer said. Only 30% of people actually were influenced by what critics say ad when you break it down by age, people under 45, only 20% of them care what a critic says. They care way more what their friends and family say, and it ties into exactly what you’re talking about.

Seth Godin: But let’s break this out just a little bit more because friends and family don’t talk about something because you want them to. They only talk about something cause it helps them. Why should they talk about it in a way that will help their status go up, their reputation go up, their sense of being generous go up? And that’s the key, that … when I went to see David Byrne on Broadway and the only reason I went is because a colleague in Boston, David Meerman Scott, said I had to go. David Meerman Scott didn’t say that cause he knows or likes David Byrne; he said it because it raised his with me to say it before I went and it doubled it after I went. He had a selfish incentive to talk about it and that’s going to be true for anybody who talks about any piece of art you make. They have to have a selfish reason that helps them with their goals, or else they’re not going to talk about it.

Erik Gensler: One of the other things that you talked about that I thought was so smart, for someone who doesn’t work specifically in the field, you actually said, “Marketers have to be in the room with the programmers.”

Seth Godin: Yeah, yeah. And I’ve learned this firsthand from my parents. If you have disdain for the people you are seeking to serve because you say, “I am an artist,” then you have a hobby and I love it if your hobby is art. We need that. It makes you a better person. But you’re not a professional. What it means to be a professional is, you are showing up with your art to serve someone else and that is what we call marketing. And so, John Cage knew exactly what he was doing. So did the painter Susan Rothenberg and fast-forward all the way up to Nobel prize winner, Bob Dylan. They all are doing it on purpose. They might not be narrating it with language like I use, but they are well aware that there is someone out there they are doing this work for; they’re not just in their shower singing to themselves.

Erik Gensler: And it also ties into the thing that you’ve said for so long, which is, “The show is the marketing. The art is the marketing,” right? It’s not something that you do after you’ve made the show; it’s part of the experience

Seth Godin: And the thing that amazes me is that that’s at all controversial.

Erik Gensler: (laughs) Right, the product is the marketing. But I think, in a lot of cultural institutions that are … not all, certainly, but a large number are very siloed and the programming department and artistic department sit on one side of the building and the marketers sit in a completely separate office, far away, and the fundraising people sit in another corner and the way it works is, the artistic director picks the season, hands it down to the marketing, who then makes the brochure and tries to get people in the door, and you talked about how that that system just does not work.

Seth Godin: And it comes back to this idea of the smallest viable audience. You, as a marketer, have to make it so that going to Carnegie Hall is worth $100, worth the hassle, worth all of it because, I got to tell you, staying at home and listening on a decent set of headphones, you’ll actually hear a better performance. That’s not what’s on offer at Carnegie Hall. What’s on offer is an experience, surrounded by other people, in a room that has a very scarce amount of space. That’s what you’re selling and I don’t think we have to program pops in order to get people to come; I think what we have to do is make it stand for something to even go. And as we’ve seen media consumption shift, it’s harder and harder to sell seats at Carnegie Hall because there are other choices that have less scarcity, that are an easier way to spend our time, or that deliver the status hit that people are looking for when they decide to consume art.

Erik Gensler: Carnegie Hall has definitely moved more towards … it’s funny you pick them, because I can see examples, particularly in their social media, where they’re showcasing the experience of going to Carnegie Hall, where they’re doing more shots from the audience, more shots of other people, and less of, you know, an artist and a headshot holding a violin cause I think they’ve been listening to you, which is good (laughs). I think that it does go back and to what you’re saying about people’s identity. There’s been some research done that shows, two of the main reasons people go to see the arts is the intellectual and emotional reward of the art itself and then, the second reason is to spend time with friends and family, which are both really personal.

Seth Godin: And friends and family are different for different people. And so, the question is, as we come out of the slog, how do you stack the deck so that the right friends in the right family are in the room right when I get there? Because I know that that was one of the primary fuels of my parent’s existence in Buffalo is, they knew, when they went to one of their places or places that their colleagues helped have something to do with, people like them were going to be there and that they wanted to be with those people and be part of it. A long time ago, shortly after I got married, my wife and I went on a trip to Italy and we were on, sort of, the budget plan and we were eating in this basement trattoria in this little tiny town, Chianti Classico, and at the table behind us, I hear two people talking with a Buffalo accent. That’s all I can hear. And I say to my wife, “Let’s see if this works,” and I turned around and I say to the people at the other table, “Do you guys know my dad?” That’s all I said. And, of course, they knew; partly because I looked like him and because I could tell they were people like him, and of course they knew him, and that is what it would mean to be part of a community that is going to this place and bumping into the people who they want to bump into when they’re there. This is something we have to do on purpose. It’s not going to happen as an accidental byproduct of running a good ad. It’s going to happen because we understand who our viable audience is and we build something for them. That is a generous act and that is what we get to do as marketers. It’s not selfish; it’s generous to say, “This is the clubhouse for the people who are looking for our clubhouse.”

Erik Gensler: Yeah, it’s your book, Tribes. That was also just a huge inspiration and I’ve told you this before: the reason I started Capacity Interactive is because I saw there was a tribe out there of arts administrators who wanted to understand more about how digital marketing could help them and I didn’t do anything; I just organized the tribe.

Seth Godin: Yeah. I think you did something but, yes, and one of the byproducts is you organized the tribe.

Erik Gensler: Yeah, yeah. You mentioned the Zulu term, “urbana.” I don’t know if I said that right, and you said-

Seth Godin: No, it’s, “sawubona.” It starts with an S.

Erik Gensler: Sawubona. Can you explain it?

Seth Godin: I’m certainly not pronouncing it right, but I do know it starts with an S.

Erik Gensler: (laughs)

Seth Godin: Sawubona means, “I see you,” and it doesn’t mean, “I see your physical presence;” it means, “I see your parents and your grandparents before them. I see your hopes and your dreams and your fears.” And in April, 2020, what humans want more than anything else is to be seen. That we are feeling very disconnected and alone, both physically, but also emotionally, because we’re afraid and we’re afraid we’re suffering in silence, and to be seen, truly seen, is a gift. And it’s interesting; whenever I go to an art museum, I always greet the guards, every one of them and it’s astonishing how they respond because they’ve been trained to be invisible and people have acted accordingly. And so, they spend all day surrounded by a crowd and never being seen. And just like the guards in your building, the patrons to your building, the visitors, would like to be seen. And so, rather than figuring out what’s the most logistically efficient way to get people in and out, maybe it’s, “What’s the least efficient way to make them feel special?” because that’s what we sell.

Erik Gensler: I think technology’s made it—seeing people cheaply—much easier.

Seth Godin: Yep.

Erik Gensler: Like how, you know, putting someone’s name in the subject line of an email isn’t being seen; doing a mail merge is not being seen. I think we thought technology can help us solve this but I think it’s contributing to the problem and I think there’s a lot of opportunities just to go back to that humanity, that simple ability of seeing people where there’s … The Cleveland Orchestra, when someone is a first-time visitor to see a concert, they will send someone over to the seat with a box full of goodies and let them choose some branded merchandise and say, “Thank you for coming. I hope you enjoy the concert.” They did research and found that those people that get that experience of being seen are three times more likely to come back in six months than the people who didn’t get that experience,

Seth Godin: That’s beautiful.

Erik Gensler: It’s not technology; it’s human.

Seth Godin: Yeah, yup, yup. And the other thing that goes on is, someone goes to the symphony and in between movements, they applaud and they’re never coming back because the entire room made them feel stupid.

Erik Gensler: Mm-hmm (affirmative)

Seth Godin: Well, if you don’t want people to feel stupid, do some work so they don’t feel stupid.

Erik Gensler: Yeah, it’s funny, when you look at the data for symphonies, symphonies don’t have a problem getting new people in the door; they have problems getting people to come back and I think you hit on a big reason why.

Seth Godin: And, you know, one of the most comical examples of this, where it actually works because it’s so comical, is Keith Jarrett, who’s brilliant, is famous—he’s done this actually to two events where I’ve been—for walking out on the audience. And he will walk out if people are coughing too much and this was long before the current crisis. And he points out that no one coughs during the upbeat, blues-y parts of his performance. They cough during the more complicated parts. They cough when they’re a little confused. And so, he knows it’s sort of voluntary and he would really like it if the audience would work almost as hard as he does to engage with the music. So, what happens at Carnegie Hall—I don’t know if you’ve ever seen this—there are giant, giant bins of Ricola at every corner and when you get there, strangers will lean in and say, “Take some Ricola. Don’t cough! We’re in this together! Don’t cough.”

Erik Gensler: (laughs)

Seth Godin: And the fact that the whole crew is in it together, that’ll get you to come back next time so you can warn the next people.

Erik Gensler: That’s right. I happen to always be sitting next to the person who takes too many and is unwrapping it loudly during the-

Seth Godin: Exactly.

Erik Gensler: (laughs) … most important part. Something I never forgot from Permission Marketing was the idea of turning your marketing funnel into a megaphone and giving that megaphone to your evangelist and I just think that is such a brilliant concept. Do you still use the marketing funnel as a paradigm to explain marketing? Do you think it’s still relevant?

Seth Godin: Well, actually, I still have that slide in my presentation. I hope I’ll get to give a presentation again, one day. At MoMA, members are allowed to come an hour early, one or two days a week and you’re allowed to bring a guest if you pay $10. And so, I called them up; I said, “Well, how many guests am I allowed to bring?” and they said, “You can bring as many as you want,” so I bought 80. And I gave them a private tour of part of MoMA.

Erik Gensler: (laughs)

Seth Godin: And it made me very happy. But clearly, the people on staff when I showed up were unprepared for this. And the question is, why isn’t this a feature? Why is it a bug that creating a way for members to act like big shots if they bring-

Erik Gensler: Mm (affirmative).

Seth Godin: … groups with them is what we’re talking about here. That is handing your biggest fans a megaphone. How can you make it easy for them to do that and impossible for anyone else to do it because it’s the scarcity that creates the value, right? So, if I’m standing there with 80 of my coaches from around the world who have flown in for a two-day event and I’m standing in front of MoMA and saying, “Not anyone can get you in here an hour early!” I didn’t mention any member could.

Erik Gensler: (laughs)

Seth Godin: I just said, “Not anyone gets you in here now and, really, let’s go!” And being able to do that with five people or eight people or whatever you want to call it, the multiplying effect is really large. And so, the funnel is something that arts people are just now getting their arms around. I’m still stunned … in the theater, you have to give an email when you buy a ticket now but then you never hear from them. What a horrible mistake they’re making by not building a permission-based fan club of people who have bought a ticket so that they can narrate for them. So, the funnel still matters but then the step after that as saying, “Now that I’m talking to you, I’m going to give you something that will help your status if you talk to other people. Don’t do it for me. Do it for you.”

Erik Gensler: Right, I always think about that, like, magical 24 hours after someone saw an amazing concert or amazing art event and something we started doing at Capacity was, we used to, after someone bought a ticket, we stopped showing them content. We stopped showing them ads but now we realize, “Well, that’s silly,” because of this concept that you’re talking about. Give people the megaphone. So, what we started doing is after someone sees a show, we serve them content specifically about that show, behind-the-scenes content. And we found that, of course, the engagement for that is huge because what we’re asking them to do is send it to someone else, share it. And these posts are shared more than … There’s one campaign we did where the content from after they saw the event was nine times higher than any of the content we show them before and it’s that exact reason, because they’re passionate. And the crazy thing is, we thought our metric for that kind of campaign was getting people to share it and we’re like, “Oh, wow, hundreds of people are sharing this. This is great.” But we didn’t expect was the amount of money that those posts make. Certain campaigns will … those will sell way more tickets. They’ll sell subscriptions because people are sharing it and putting their fingerprints on it, their stamp of approval on it.

Seth Godin: So we went to see West Side Story a couple months ago—I cannot recommend it—and the last scene takes place in the downpour, no expense spared. It’s actually raining hard on the stage. And just as it ended and it got a fairly tepid amount of response in the audience, the loudspeaker came on and the house announcer said, “Is there a doctor in the house? We need you stage right.” And so, this was as everyone was already walking out and it was right out of a New Yorker cartoon: eight, 10, 20 doctors all clawing to get past each other-

Erik Gensler: (laughs)

Seth Godin: … to the stage and, like, by the time the third or fourth doctor was trying to claw past me, I said, “You know, there’s several people that have already gone by there. “No, I have to go anyway!” and, like, each person parading their, you know, “I have a PhD in stage medicine.”

Erik Gensler: Status, yeah (laughs).

Seth Godin: I have told this story to a hundred people. I haven’t told one line about the show to a hundred people but something happened in the theater. And I don’t mind telling the story cause I think it was a twisted knee or something; It wasn’t something particularly serious. But if we take that and go one step further, what happens if, after a live performance, everybody in the room—remember they all have cell phones; they’re all waiting for their car at the parking garage or on the way home—gets an email and it says, “We’re doing an after show talk just for you. Two of the actors are in the dressing room, taking their makeup off. Click here to see it,” and live 30, 40, 100 people tune in and they’re commenting on what went right and what went wrong that night on stage, letting us feel like something magical actually happened, something live. It opens the door to the next thing. It gives us one more thing to talk about. So, it is not immediate expenditure; it’s immediate investment, in the sense that you have stuff people want to talk about. You have a way to create scarcity around it. It just takes effort to do it.

Erik Gensler: Mm-hmm (affirmative) Yeah, it was … that’s the purple cow, right? The need for the doctor at the end, it made that remarkable.

Seth Godin: Yeah, I don’t think they could do it every night but it was a good show.

Erik Gensler: I don’t know if it cut out; you said, “Couldn’t recommend it.” Did you say, “Couldn’t recommend enough,” or, “Couldn’t recommend it?”

Seth Godin: Couldn’t recommend it, period.

Erik Gensler: (laughs)

Seth Godin: I am certainly not a qualified critic. I’m just saying that I didn’t want to bring up the name of a show and have someone go cause I said it was good cause I didn’t think it was.

Erik Gensler: Well, we can, we could agree to disagree on that. My husband has a PhD in theater, funny enough-

Seth Godin: (laughs)

Erik Gensler: … and he loved it. So, you know, we can … (laughs)

Seth Godin: That’s perfect! I love hearing that. If someone loves a piece of art and someone doesn’t, that’s so much better than two people saying it was “pretty good.” So much better.

Erik Gensler: I remember you talking about the fact that you do not spend time on social media because it distracts from doing the work. I remember you telling a story once that you were doing some big speaking event and you decided, “Oh, what the heck, I’ll just look at Twitter,” and you looked at Twitter and all of these people talked about how much they enjoyed your talk and how meaningful it was to them and one guy said something that that wasn’t kind and then, 24 hours later, you were thinking about the one negative comment. You didn’t hear all of the other positive comments. I might’ve botched that story but-

Seth Godin: No, that’s it!

Erik Gensler: Can you talk about that?

Seth Godin: Yeah, I mean, live performance really energizes me. There aren’t very many things I can focus on but being on stage is one of them, when I’m on stage. And at least I don’t do it for the applause. I do it because I like feeling in the moment with other people who are in the moment. And so, when it’s over, I come down pretty hard because it’s over and that thing that we all shared together, I can’t get it back. Well, if I search on Twitter in the car on the way back to the airport, what I’m really trying to do is recreate at least a reflection of how they felt in that moment. But that was selfish in the sense that I wasn’t helping them by knowing how they felt. It wasn’t going to change my performance or my work and seeing someone who clearly misunderstood what I was trying to do put me into a spin because I was in, “Well, how could I have done this differently?” and if I did it like that, then I would have lost the other … and so, the smallest viable audience thing flies out the window because now, instead of saying, “Did I move 20 people enough to feel a hush in the room?” I’m saying, “Is there anyone I left behind?” And you cannot create art if you’re unwilling to leave someone behind.

Erik Gensler: And so, back to the fact that you don’t use social media because it distracts from the work, can you elaborate on that?

Seth Godin: Okay, so, social media is filled with a lot of mythology. Those people who say they’re your friends, they’re not your friends; those people who are called followers are not your followers; and people who like things you do don’t actually like it. And the biggest myth is that you are the customer. You are not the customer; you are the product. That dark patterns and anxiety are manipulated to create a feeling where you feel bad unless you use it more and they do that so they can make a bigger profit. And then, Facebook showed up and started throttling how you could even reach your own fans and friends so that when you have something to say, instead of telling everyone who wants to be told, they make you pay to do that. All of these things add up to the illusion that you are hearing from your audience—you’re not; you’re just hearing from the loud people—and the illusion that you have friends and followers—well, not really cause it’s being choked and controlled by a profit making middle person. And so, if you’re going to use it … and I do Instagram Lives now and I do Facebook Lives and I have someone on my team who we post things in LinkedIn but if I’m going to spend my time there, I have to be really clear about why because otherwise, I’m going to get sucked in and being sucked in will not make you better. You don’t need to be used by the system; you can use it and you should come up with really clear rules about how. And, I guess, my last thought on this is, if you look at my Instagram, which is called @sethgodin, there isn’t one Instagram post on my Instagram that looks like it’s supposed to. There isn’t one picture of me having breakfast with a celebrity.

Erik Gensler: (laughs)

Seth Godin: I have done zero of that and I have hundreds of thousands of people who are looking at it because I’m using it my way, not the way someone at Instagram says I’m supposed to.

Erik Gensler: Love that. Do you watch or read day-to-day news coverage?

Seth Godin: Ten minutes a day.

Erik Gensler: Mm-hmm (affirmative) and is that TV?

Seth Godin: No. No TV, no. For sure, no, no, no. But 10 minutes a day is enough, I think, to be an informed citizen. If you look at my blog about when I started writing about this current COVID crisis, et cetera, I was doing it at least a week before most people and I’m not sure if I had spent an extra hour a day, I would have been able to do anything better than I did. When I was 10 and the Courier Express showed up at my house, that was all the news we were going to see until five o’clock that night when the Buffalo Evening News showed up and these were the days of the Cuban Missile Crisis and the Cold War and Robert Kennedy getting shot and everything else. So, two newspapers a day was a lot and I’m not sure we need to have a pipe running to our brain with breaking news because it’s not really breaking; it’s just commercially viable.

Erik Gensler: That’s so smart, right. You could still be an informed person and through 10 minutes a day. I like that. I’m going to take that (laughs). You’ve written a lot about this and the idea that marketing—air quotes, “marketing”— gets a bad rep and I love your definition of marketing, if you could be so kind as to share that with our listeners.

Seth Godin: Well, I think common marketing actually gets too much of the benefit of the doubt, that the narcissistic, short-term, selfish interruption grab and hype and hustle should get a worse rap. But I don’t call that marketing. I think marketing is what we do, how we do it, how we talk about it, and who we seek to serve. It’s the act of making things better by making better things. I don’t have a better word than marketing to describe what I just said, so that’s why I call it marketing. And if you’re not proud of the stories you’re telling or the way you’re telling them, don’t criticize the word “marketing,” just do it differently.

Erik Gensler: So, it’s the ethos. It’s not the process.

Seth Godin: Yeah, I think the posture is, if I’m going to serve somebody, what’s the best way to do that? You know? So, Clyfford Still made a decision in the 1950s to stop showing his work, that Hilma af Klint never showed her work. I don’t think that that was good marketing. I don’t think that was good service to the community. I don’t think they enlightened or enriched as many people as they could have if they had professionalized their work in a way that brought it to people who needed and wanted to encounter it. That doesn’t mean you have to go to Gagosian cocktail parties and kiss up to people you don’t like. It just means you need to find a way to bring your work to people who need your work.

Erik Gensler: And I think you’ve talked about marketing as, “Telling stories to create change.” I kind of love that, too.

Seth Godin: Yeah, exactly. And if the change isn’t the change you hope for, don’t blame the audience; blame the choices that you made.

Erik Gensler: What are you most proud of?

Seth Godin: Oh, I’ve, you know, I’ve been so lucky. I won the birthday lottery. I won the family lottery. I won the health lottery. I would like to keep track of what the people I have taught, have taught other people. That when I see the work that readers of mine have done, that fills me with an enormous amount of satisfaction. And the,n seeing who they are teaching, that doubles it. And so, I try to focus on that as opposed to whatever noise I’ve got in my head on any given day.

Erik Gensler: How have you changed in the last decade of things you thought were true? Are there some things in the last 10 years you’ve had these “aha!” moments that, “Wow, I’ve really profoundly look at this differently or have evolved?”

Seth Godin: I would think, I really expected that the peer-to-peer, open nature of a platform that let lots of people publish and speak clearly would, on average, make things better and what I did not expect was how powerful mob rule and fear are. So, I’m guilty of missing that completely and I’m still optimistic because humans have been around for a hundred-thousand years and we’ve course-corrected each time to go back to a world that we can truly be proud of more corners of it. So, I think that what we did was, we replaced the three voices of network TV with the 200 voices of cable but when it got to 2 million or 20 million voices, we freaked out and became, too often, part of a short-cycle mob mentality. And I don’t know what I would’ve done if I had seen that coming, but I’m still optimistic that people like you, people like Nathan Winograd, people like Sarah Jones, who find their people … that’s what we have to bet on this return to appropriate circles, Dunbar’s number, villages, groups of people who are competing with each other to be better. I’m hoping that that will … that’ll come back.

Erik Gensler: Did you read Sapiens?

Seth Godin: I read parts of Sapiens, off and on. I have a friend who’s not a big fan of Sapiens so I’m smiling when you ask that.

Erik Gensler: (laughs)

Seth Godin: But he’s a very smart author.

Erik Gensler: Yeah, I love his stuff. Twenty-one Lessons for the 21st Century, too kind of blew my mind. And he talked about this, what’s happening right now. I’m going to borrow a question from Oprah. She asks her guests, “What do you know is true?”

Seth Godin: Everyone, without exception, doesn’t know what you know, doesn’t want what you want, doesn’t believe what you believe in, might not even need what you need, and that’s okay. That, if we’re going to serve other people, we have to connect with them and if we’re gonna connect with them, we have to accept the fact that they have a noise in their head just like we do, except their noise is different. And that has to be okay.

Erik Gensler: Yeah, acceptance is so powerful (laughs) and so hard, sometimes.

Seth Godin: Yeah.

Erik Gensler: So, we’ve come to your final question and it’s the question we ask everyone who comes on this podcast. And the question is, if you can broadcast … well, I guess, here, it’s narrowcast … I’m conscientious now that I’m asking this to you … but if you can give a piece of advice to the executive directors, leadership teams, staff, and boards of thousands of arts organizations, what advice, in this moment, would you provide to them, right now?

Seth Godin: Well, I think it’s pretty straightforward. You already know what to do and you’ve been hesitating to do it but this would be a good time to do it.

Erik Gensler: That’s great. Seth, thank you so, so much for being such an inspiration to me and so many people. And I don’t think my business would be the same if I didn’t have you as an inspiration. So, I can’t thank you enough.

Seth Godin: Well, I am blown away. This hour flew by. You’re erudite and thoughtful and generous and it was totally a pleasure. So, thanks for taking the time.

About Our Guests
Seth Godin
Seth Godin
Author & Speaker

Seth Godin is the author of 19 books that have been bestsellers around the world. He has five TED talks and is involved in projects that spread his wisdom and generosity, like the altMBA, The Marketing Seminar, and his podcast, Akimbo. His blog is one of the most popular in the world.

Read more

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