Good on-line marketing means knowing what to ask

On-line marketing can be quite annoying if it is done the wrong way. And according to Seth Godin, most companies are doing just that.

Godin, Yahoo’s vice-president of direct marketing and author of the book Permission Marketing, was in Toronto recently at the latest Software Industry Information Association (SIIA) InfoSoft Essentials conference.

“Maybe five years ago, a whole bunch of companies took a hard look at the Internet. They decided it was going to be good for them; they decided to invest their money. They were completely and totally wrong,” Godin said.

“Tens of millions of dollars have been wasted in pursuing a vision that I don’t think works.”

In fact, he explained, most advertising does not work because it is not targeted to a sufficiently specific audience. “Wouldn’t it be cool if all advertising we were exposed to was anticipated, personal and relevant to us? But almost none is.”

Traditional marketing can have the opposite effect of what is intended, annoying people so much that they tune out the messages that companies have spent millions of dollars to produce.

“What advertising is all about is finding something that people really enjoy, then spamming them. But what you are really doing is interrupting them all day long,” he explained.

“If I am watching a TV show, they interrupt me; if I am reading a magazine, they interrupt me.”

This culture of interruption is the core of the golden age of marketing, which started a hundred years ago with Proctor & Gamble, he said.

“But something went wrong. Today, the average North American is exposed to about 3,000 marketing messages a day,” he said. “In the face of all those messages we are doing something really natural – ignoring most of them.”

He pointed out that advertising is everywhere – even on planes and gas pumps. “There are no more places to put more clutter…interruptions aren’t working the way they used to,” he said. And spam is no different. Having someone’s e-mail address or phone number is not the same thing as having permission to use it, Godin explained.

“The idea that you can interrupt people for free with e-mail doesn’t work, and consumers know that. Consumers have way more power than they used to.”

One reason for this, he said, is because most consumer products are of comparable quality. “All shirts are good enough, all the airlines are good enough, all shoes are good enough. Your problem is your product is just one pumpkin in a pumpkin patch filled with good enough pumpkins.”

Companies need to find a way to be different, he said, and get their messages across differently from the competition. “And this is a problem. Because if you can’t teach people why your product is different from all the other products, and they are going to ignore all the messages you send to interrupt them, why exactly are they going to buy your product?”

Godin compared the Internet to “a trade show with 37 million booths – and the lights are off and everyone is wearing a mask. With about 37 million corporate Web sites on-line, companies are a “really little needle in a really big haystack,” he said. “The odds of one of the hundred million people on the Internet are going to randomly show up at your site [are very slim].”

The “Duncan Donut strategy” to marketing where companies put their URLs on things like coffee cups in order to generate traffic to their Web site doesn’t work either, he said.

“Why, so I can buy the coffee, save the dirty cup, go home and have a virtual donut eating experience? It’s a model that’s very flawed.”

However, once a company has permission to market to a consumer, the competition becomes invisible to them, he said. “What you need for success is permission to talk to people who may want to buy what you want to sell.”

Godin said trying to sell products in traditional ways is a lot like proposing marriage to strangers. Companies need to do more “dating” of prospective clients before entering into a business relationship.

“Why are you in such a hurry to turn strangers into customers? Doesn’t it make more sense to turn strangers into friends, and then friends into customers? The whole point is that, 50 years ago, this is the way everything got sold,” Godin said.

Companies struggle to find customers for their products, when they should be finding products for their customers, Godin explained. Frequent Flyer programs, birthday cards containing digital coupons, or free give-aways with no strings attached are all examples of successful “permission marketing,” tactics, he said – which are more effective than traditional advertising.

“Why are we willing to give stuff away? It doesn’t feel right. But in today’s world where the customers have more power, it’s the answer.”