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Inside Seth Godin's Blogging Philosophy

Author Says Love, Not Money, Energizes His Top-Rated Blog

By Published on . 9

Josh Bernoff
Josh Bernoff
Let's face it. Seth Godin's blog is a wondrous thing. It's consistently No. 1 or No. 2 on the Ad Age Power 150. More importantly, it's pure insight. At least once a day, every day, there's a little homily on marketing, or brands, or quality, or something else that makes you say "hmmm" or "that's right" or even "that's wrong" -- but something that's worth your time.

Do you have any idea how hard this is? Nobody else does this.

When I contacted Seth to interview him about his blog, he was bemused. "I don't know how to bottle what I do," he wrote. "I just do it." OK, let's admit you cannot imitate Seth -- you don't have what he's got under that bald head of his. But I am hoping you can learn by observing some of what he does. So here goes: an e-mail interview with Seth Godin about blogging.

Josh Bernoff: The clarity of your posts tells me that you have a clear idea of your audience and what they will get out of it. On the other hand, from reading you for years now, it seems you'll write on just about any topic. When you write a blog post, who do you imagine writing for?

Seth Godin: There are things we do with words in mind. For example, it's easy to say, "I wonder what my cousin would like for her birthday, let's see, she's twelve ..." and then go find something. There are other things we do without vocalizing. Tying your shoes, say, or picking out a bouquet of flowers.

I don't sit down and say, "I wonder what Josh needs?" Instead, I've carefully curated a voice in my head that blogs in a way that appears to resonate with people. I'm guessing (though I have no talent) it's a lot like curating a sound on the saxophone. Training helps, listening to records helps, but mostly you blow a lot until you resonate and then repeat, prune, experiment, prune, repeat, prune until a groove occurs.

One reason I encourage people to blog is that the act of doing it stretches your available vocabulary and hones a new voice. You won't get it for a while, but you'll get it. To one person who wrote in and said he didn't think he had anything interesting to say, I asked him whether he was boring in person too? Boring at breakfast? Boring on a date? That boring?! Probably not.

Josh Bernoff: Every blogger needs grist for the mill. In looking at your posts, they're sometimes based on current events or other people's blog posts (like your post on Malcolm Gladwell's review of Chris Anderson's book "Free") but more often than not, they are just some freestanding insight. Where does this stuff come from? I can't imagine that you sit down and it just comes pouring out. What do you read/follow/think about that stimulates this stream of insights?

Seth Godin: How come some people can visit a place like New York and see a thousand amazing things, take hundreds of great photos (like Thomas Hawk) or even write a novel... and other people visit, eat at Applebee's and send home a John Lennon postcard?

It's not where you go, it's what you look for.

Josh Bernoff: An insight a day is an incredible pace to keep up, but you never seem to miss. Do you write 'em in bunches and dole them out daily, or do you always have a pile that you're working on, or do you really just write one every day?

Seth Godin: I write at least one a day. I queue up the extras, and replace ones I don't love with a new one. This discipline does two things... first, it treats each post as a precious opportunity (which it is) and second, it cajoles me into overcoming whatever little voice in the back of my head says "nahhhh."

Josh Bernoff: Your blog doesn't sell ads, and you've resisted becoming TechCrunch or ReadWriteWeb and turning it a sort of blog/destination with multiple writers. But the blog must reward you in some way beyond the pleasure of writing. What does your blog do for you and your business?

Seth Godin: I have a problem with the second part of the question. Two problems, actually.

First, why is it that once business gets involved, it's assumed it's okay to do things that aren't fun or rewarding or kind or generous, but only things that make money?

And second, why is it assumed that people can't do business-like activities without getting paid?

Those guys at AIG getting the big bonuses? I don't understand the mind-set that says the millions they've got aren't enough, that they shouldn't skip a quarter or two, that the work is so horrible and grinding and deadening that they couldn't possibly consider doing it just because they're great at it and love it...

Sorry for the rant, but the only reason I blog is because I love it. I love being able to create something that feels like a gift, giving an idea that spreads, that may improve something for someone. I'm certain (just speaking for myself) that if I figured out a way to profit from it, I'd probably be starting down the road to wondering how to maximize that profit, and if I tried to do that, I'd fail.

For example, I don't mention Squidoo.com (a company I started) on my blog now and then because it would make me money (the mentions have so little impact as to be less than the cost of hosting), I mention it because I genuinely want to share what I've got, or give people a tool they will benefit from.

I think there's plenty of room for blogs that exist to pay the blogger, or blogs that exist to turn a profit. That's just not the kind of blog I'm writing, and I'm not the kind of blogger that could do that.

Josh Bernoff: Your blog accepts trackbacks but no comments. You respond to e-mails but Twitter only links to each post. I sense a carefully considered set of decisions here. Can you help us to understand why it works that way?

Seth Godin: What works for me of course won't work for everyone. But for me, the issues are distraction, time management, the little voice of self-doubt and the desire to push through the Dip of mattering. Comments and Twitter are like a Fresnel lens. You can use them to focus attention if you're very disciplined and very good, or, if you're like me, you'll end up finding your energy and attention diffused into a maelstrom, lost to the winds of inanity, anger or trivia. It's in my DNA. I can't do it, just as I can't read in the car.

For those that are succeeding (and I have to confess, the number I see isn't as big as you'd think given all the hoopla) I say mazel tov. To those that are using it as a defense mechanism, an opportunity to stay busy while not actually doing anything, I wonder if that's a good choice.

Josh Bernoff: Like Guy Kawasaki, whose blog is also full of delightful little nuggets, you could edit and reorganize your blog into a very nice book. Ever considered it?

Seth Godin: Where, exactly, do you think Guy got the idea, Josh? http://www.smallis.com

If I wasn't the first best-selling author to do this, I was close. I even won a fancy audiobook award for it. It inspired Scott Adams' book too, which is better than mine.

I have another collection coming out along these lines, but in a different format that I hope to announce soon...

Josh Bernoff: I said before that people couldn't imitate you, because they don't have your software between their ears. But I bet there is something you've learned from blogging that the rest of us might be better off if we did it, too. Which of your habits should we imitate?

Seth Godin: Oh, I think imitating my habits is a great idea. Habits like blogging often and regularly, writing down the way you think, being clear about what you think are effective tactics, ignoring the burbling crowd and not eating bacon. All of these are useful habits.

Thanks for the questions, Josh. This was fun.

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Josh Bernoff is the co-author of "Groundswell: Winning in a World Transformed by Social Technologies," a comprehensive analysis of corporate strategy for dealing with social technologies such as blogs, social networks and wikis, and is a VP-principal analyst at Forrester Research. He blogs at blogs.forrester.com/groundswell.

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