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Feature Interview with Bestselling Author, Marketer Seth Godin

By Annie George

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Posted on 15 Mar 2011

In his latest book, Poke the Box, Seth Godin asks when was the last time you did something for the first time? When was the last time someone in your organization started something, made that leap, had the guts to say yes, took what felt like a risk, and was willing to fail? In your agency, brokerage, company, do you have a Business Development Team in charge of starting things?  Do you have a “VP of Starting”? As he succinctly puts it in Poke the Box, “The relentless act of invention and initiative is the best marketing asset…. Be the one who starts things.”

In what is Seth Godin’s thirteenth publication, Poke the Box is a call to action about the initiative you’re taking, both in your life and in your work. In a world where the economy is not static, Seth explains that our position is defined by what we instigate, how we provoke, and what we learn from the events we cause. “In a world filled with change, that’s what matters – your ability to create and learn from change.”

At ProgramBusiness.com for our Insurance Unplugged newsletter, we recently spoke with Seth about his new book and his latest endeavor, The Domino Project, with amazon.com.

Annie George (AG): Seth, what was the inspiration for Poke the Box?

Seth Godin (SG): “For 80 years our economy has been based on the industrial age, all about assembly lines, efficient workers, and managers telling people what to do. It involved doing what you did yesterday but a little faster and a little cheaper. That means if you worked at Ford Motor Company, you were told to make the widgets a little faster and a little cheaper; if you worked at Metropolitan Life, you needed to sell policies faster and cheaper. This worked really well for a long time…until it didn’t.

“The problem with fast and cheap is that it’s a way to the bottom. If you’re just doing what someone tells you to do, then he/she will quickly want to find someone else to do what you do, only faster and cheaper. If you work for a traditional insurance company, for instance, and suddenly someone like GEICO comes along and changes the industry’s entire cost structure, there is pressure on people to continue to do what they did, only cheaper. My argument is that the new economy, the economy that we live in now is all upside down, topsy-turvy, crazy, and continually changing, and you cannot win by managing your way to the bottom. We have to work our way to the top. We don’t get to the top by doing what we’re told and by doing it even faster and cheaper, but by inventing and initiating, failing often and learning from our failures, noticing things, connecting with people, innovating and taking initiative and learning how the world works by poking the box.”

AG: Where does “poke the box” come from? 

SG: “A programmer learns to code a computer by writing a piece of code, seeing if it works, and fixing it until it does. Think of the computer as a box that you poke over and over again until you figure out how it works. That is the way most of life works. Most people who sell, for example, learn how to sell not because they took a two-hour Xerox sales training course. They learn how to sell because they went on sales calls, and they discovered that when they said one thing it worked and when they said something different, it didn’t work. That process of innovating, initiating, is how we learn anything and we have forgotten that.”

AG: How do we get that back, that curiosity, that desire to innovate, after so many years of conformity?

SG: “The only way to get that back is to do it. I’m not telling you how to do it in the book…I’m not saying that if you do X, Y, and Z, this will work. All I’m saying is that this is important and you should pay attention to it. If you pay attention to it, and if you realize that you’re spending 90% of your day reacting and the rest responding, with none of your day initiating, then maybe you’ll choose to do something.”

Seth explains in his book that those organizations that have figured out how to turn the standard on its head, to move away from the status quo, are those that are successful. “At every job of mine that I’ve liked, I’ve found a culture where the spark of initiation was valued. Unfortunately too many places are stuck with a culture of stasis.” 

With The Domino Project, Seth is walking the walk…he’s poking the box as he explained: “I could have accepted a big advance if I had gone to a traditional publisher and had them sell the book. Instead I started a new publishing company. The customer is not the bookstore, as is traditionally the case with most publishers. What we’re doing is going straight to the customer with The Domino Project and saying, ‘here, spread this idea’. We’re offering a hard cover version of the book for about $9.50; a 5-pack, so if you like the book, you can buy a few extra copies and give them away; and a 52-pack so you can get everyone in your office to read it. There is also a signed collectible, limited edition with a letterpress cover.  And there is the Kindle version, which will end up costing about $5.00. During the pre-order period, what I basically said was that if you’re a crazy fan who is willing to read this book before anyone else, sight unseen and pay a $1.00 for it, I will treat you like my best customer. Sign up for my newsletter, and we’ll lower the price to $1.00 for the Kindle version until March 1st. We had 20,000 people who signed up for the newsletter… Those people will buy the book early and begin to talk about it, which is why I want them to get the book. I want them to talk about it. I want the idea to spread.”

AG: Other books will also be available through The Domino Project?

SG: “We have six books already in the pipeline, and we’ll keep coming up with interesting things for those who like this kind of stuff and keep sending them out, maybe every few weeks, perhaps more often. We will see how it goes.”

AG: The insurance industry struggles with ways to add value…they can’t give discounts, or rebates like in other industries…

SG: “And they shouldn’t.  There are other ways…For example, people who sell Life insurance have been doing it for so long that they forgot why they got into it in the first place. They’re so focused on making the sale that they forgot to be a part of the community. People buy life insurance, an invisible product that they don’t get until they’re dead, because it makes them feel good. Yet, most people trying to sell insurance try to make the person feel bad. This is the chasm that new media and the Internet make easier to cross. Things will change if you can figure out how to be on the other side of the table, how to teach people what they need to know. If you can recommend your competition when your competition is a better choice and give these generous choices to the community, not in a way that costs you money, but in ways that cost you time.

“When speaking to real estate brokers, for example, I’ll ask them why they need such big offices? They can offer the use of these offices to the community. Make them available for meetings. There could be two, three, five meetings a day taking place in the office. You can have the local boy scouts, girl scouts, cub scouts, and chamber using the offices to meet.  Who do you think will then get the call when there’s a listing from one of these members attending the meeting? It’s a no brainer.

“Same thing for the local life insurance or property/casualty agent…you actually cannot compete if you’re going to sell a person on price. What you can compete on is being a human being, and being someone who does brave things for the community, while you also happen to sell insurance. No one looks forward to buying insurance; no one wakes up in the morning, and says, ‘I hope I buy some insurance today.’ What they want is to be connected, what they want is to be integrated into the community. They want to know they are part of something and that their family is taken care of. That’s when insurance works the best. Not when my cousin comes into my house and needs to sell me something.

“I can think of so many ways that a property/casualty agency can be adopted by the community. They can sponsor the neighborhood watch program, organizing the community to look out for one another. In making it so that neighbor A knows neighbor B, the agency becomes the glue of the community -- which is 85% of the way of getting insurance sold. The challenge is that you have to do it over and over and over again until it works.

“This is where poking the box comes in. We have been embittered, overwhelmed, and embattled because there are so many people trying to cut so many corners and sell, sell, sell. What the Internet is teaching us is that most people would rather not have a hard sale approach. Most people want to connect.

“If you are relying on just selling price, you’re going to lose. It’s like someone walking down the street and looking for the bar with the cheapest price for scotch. Bartenders understand that you don’t build a business that way. If someone walks in and says, ‘I’m shopping for scotch, how much do you charge for a shot? The bartender doesn’t tell him/her. That’s not the right game; you can’t win that game. What I am getting at here is that there are very few insurance brokers that will buy something the way they are taught to sell something.”

Seth underscored this point. He has a friend who lives down the street from him who sells commercial insurance and makes over $1 million a year. His friend cold calls no one. “He has built a niche for himself, and a focus for what he does,” explained Seth. “The people who need what he sells tell each other about it because it’s so powerful. It’s not average insurance for average people. If all you’re going to do is sell average policies for average people, why would you think you’d get more than your fair share? You won’t. You win by being the one they’d miss if you were gone. By being the linchpin.”

About Seth Godin

Called “America's Greatest Marketer” by American Way Magazine, Seth pioneered Permission Marketing, writes the most popular blog in the world written by an individual; is a bestselling author (13 books, more than 35 languages), founded Squidoo.com, ranked among the top 125 sites in the US (by traffic) by Quantcast; and has given thousands of keynote speeches on marketing for companies, governments, and non-profits.

Poke the Box is available at amazon.com.


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