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Here's What You've Been Doing Wrong on Social Media, According to Seth Godin

Better to reach your "smallest viable audience" than the masses

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Kindra Cooper

Seth Godin social media

Treating social media as a rat race to acquire more followers and Likes is an outmoded vestige of the Henry Ford industrial revolution, whose chief goal was economies of scale: faster, cheaper, more.

But when companies try to appeal to everyone and their mother, they end up commoditizing their brand the same way mass-produced items like Pop Tarts and Kelloggs Cornflakes are marketed to any and all households with 1.9 children and a picket fence.

“If you want to reach everyone, you’d better make something that everyone wants,” Seth Godin, marketing guru and author of 18 bestselling books, said at Social Media Week New York. “You know what that means? Average. Mass and average are the same thing.”

Marketers fall into the trap of believing their job is to leverage social media as a mass medium, given that the internet allows you to sell anything to anyone, anywhere.

But social media isn’t a replacement for TV advertising; it’s a collection of tribes where people congregate based on shared interests. Typically, they seek educational or entertaining content and interaction with like minds – hence why Reddit has 130 million users who spend an average of 18 minutes per day on the site.

Seth Godin social media

Photo credit: Social Media Week 

During his closing keynote, Godin delivered three mantras on how to better reach your target audience during what he calls the “social media revolution.”


1. People don’t buy a product; they buy change


Garden-variety dog food at the supermarket costs $1.50 a pound, while brands like Orijen and Wysong retail for $30 a pound. Godin points out that dog owners don’t pay twenty times more to make their dogs twenty times happier; they’ve bought into a story about the brand and what the product can do for them.

In 1962, Harvard marketing professor Theodore Levitt famously said, “People don’t want to buy a quarter-inch drill. They want a quarter-inch hole.” It illustrates in the simplest terms why brands need to sell results, not product features, because a product is a means to an end.

Read more: American Express on Why You Should Focus on Selling Value, Not a Product

Godin countered that Levitt’s statement, while brilliant, doesn’t go far enough. A customer buys a drill to make a quarter-inch hole for a lag bolt so they can mount a shelf, but the shelf is not the end result, because nobody actually needs a shelf.

“What they need is the way it makes them feel when their spouse comes home and thanks them for finally cleaning out the rec room,” explained Godin. “That’s what you’re buying when you go to the hardware store.”

According to Godin, people buy change: they lust after a new feeling or status. Instead, brands are doing the opposite of communicating that value proposition.

They use social media and email marketing to disseminate generalized calls-to-action in the form of email spam, disruptive pop-ups, and tracking cookies online, which ignores the end result a customer is looking for when they click an ad or search for an item online.

Understanding and catering to the end result each person seeks is not an easily scalable experience no matter how much data you collect. High-end department stores are known for offering this unique privilege by hiring personal shoppers who spend time with each prospect to glean what the customer needs, but the average organization can’t afford to do this. Which brings us to Godin’s next point.

2. Focus on your “smallest viable audience.”

According to Godin, at the intersection of 21st street and 5th avenue in New York City, you’ll find five different stores selling yoga pants within a one-block radius. It’s analogous the saturation of white noise on social media.

When brands pay third parties to pad their follower counts, they make it more difficult for everyone else to build real engagement with their customers because social media algorithms advance posts with the highest engagement, even if that engagement is manufactured. Instead of shouting into the void, Godin recommends reaching your “smallest viable audience.”

Read more: How LinkedIn Provides a White-Glove Experience - Prioritization and Outreach

The way he describes it: “that core group that you know, you understand and seek to interact with and so delight them that they will tell others.” While that’s a somewhat nebulous definition, Godin says the true litmus test for designating your smallest viable audience is: If you didn’t show up tomorrow, would they miss you?

Personalization, hashtags, influencer marketing, geo-targeting and retargeting, online communities and forums are ways brands have attempted to target specific audiences at scale.

“For the first time in history, we get to treat different people differently,” said Godin, “not come up with some clever way to sell cookies to 50 million people.”

3. Date your prospects

Customer acquisition should be more like courtship, says Godin. While that might seem airy-fairy for the majority of brands with limited marketing budgets, the typical customer journey is becoming less linear, more asynchronous and spread across numerous channels. We incrementally “court” our customers through inbound content like education videos, blog posts, and funny memes – many times omitting a call-to-action or sales pitch altogether.

Once our prospects have engaged with our content, we encourage them to subscribe to our newsletter, join us at our upcoming event, or view a webinar.

Depending on the next action they take, a brand might offer them more content, but the sale happens after a series of give-and-take exchanges where the business gives the customer value-added content, the customer shares some of their data, the business provides them with more content, the customer engages and eventually factors the company into their product consideration when they’re ready to buy. Or not.

Read more: These Sexual Health and Wellness Startups Excel at Discreet Customer Experiences

“If [the first date] goes well, you go on another date. Then, I don’t know, wait until the fifth date before you tell them you’re on parole,” Godin quipped. “Then you meet their parents, they meet your parents, you get engaged and you get married.”

Pressure from upper management to acquire more followers induces a mad scramble to appeal to the median customer rather than those who are actually interested in you, forcing marketers to agnosticize their messaging, and in Godin’s word “permitting intermediaries to own your relationship with the people who are interested in you.”

He likens it to the desperation of someone indiscriminately swiping right on a dating app until they find someone, anyone, who’s willing to meet them for drinks. Don’t be that brand.