"tribes": ten questions for seth godin


10 Questions For Seth Godin
My friend and mentor, Seth Godin has a new book out, “Tribes”. As has become a regular gapingvoid tradition, to celebrate the launch I e-mailed Seth 10 questions, which he kindly answered below. Rock on.

1. For the benefit of gapingvoid readers not yet familiar with your work [all 14 of them], let’s get the main schpiel over and done with: From your perspective, what is “Tribes” about?

It explains why top-down, buzz-driven media is the past, not the future.

The world has always been organized into tribes, groups of people who want to (need to) connect with each other, with a leader and with a movement. The products, services and ideas that are gaining currency faster than ever are ones that are built on a tribe.

Barack Obama has one, John McCain tried to co-opt one. Arianna Huffington has built the most popular blog in the world around one. Harley Davidson and Apple are titanic brands for the very same reason. They sell a chance to join a group that matters.

The punchline is that the only way to lead a tribe is to lead it. And that means that marketing is now about leadership, about challenging the status quo and about connecting people who can actually make a difference. If you can’t do that, don’t launch your site, your product, your non-profit or your career.

I’d argue that you understand how to tap into this need, Hugh. Lots of people don’t like your work–screw them, we don’t like them anyway. The people who do like, who find that it resonates… it’s likely that we’ll like each other. You lead us to a place we want to go.

2. Your seminal bestseller from a few years ago, “Purple Cow”, made the assertion that “Everyone is a Marketer”. Though this would now be considered pretty standard doctrine for marketing geeks Everywhere, at the time I remember it seeming a pretty radical, new, challenging thought. In Tribes, it seems to me you’ve upped the ante by asserting that “Everyone is a Leader”. Care to elaborate?

Sure. The idea that everyone is a marketer is still hard for a surprisingly large number of organizations. Non profits (most of them) don’t see the world that way. Neither do traditional factories or many other businesses. But it’s so clearly true, I don’t even have to outline here how the product is the marketing, how the service is the marketing, how every human being who touches something is doing marketing.

Well, if we go a giant step forward and realize that it is for and about the tribe, that tribes–connected, motivated groups of people–are the engines of growth, then it seems clear to me that what marketing means today is leadership. If you’re boring or staid, no one will follow you. Why would they?

3. Anyone who knows you would consider you a leader, in your own unique way. And the same could be said for a lot of the people you personally hang out with. But it seems to me that this book was not written for those type of folk, but for people who have yet to really consider themselves as leadership material. It seems to me that the main thrust of the book is about trying to get them to make the leap from “Follower” to “Leader”. Is there any truth in that?

Everyone isn’t going to be a leader. But everyone isn’t going to be successful, either.

Success is now the domain of people who lead. That doesn’t mean they’re in charge, it doesn’t mean they are the CEO, it merely means that for a group, even a small group, they show the way, they spread ideas, they make change. Those people are the only successful people we’ve got.

So the challenge is: your choice.

4. As you well know, I’m fascinated with marketing, both for myself and for my clients. Looking over my work from the last couple of years, I increasingly see marketing [by that I mean, GOOD marketing] as a function of LANGUAGE and NARRATIVE. In other words, the art of marketing is figuring out a way to talk to people in the market in a manner they SIMPLY HAVE NOT been talked to before. And then when I’m reading your book, I keep thinking that, SO MUCH of being a leader is simply providing people with a good narrative to explain their actions.

In other words, it’s far easier to lead if [A] You’ve got a great story that’s easy for you to share and [B], more importantly, you have a good story that is EASY for other people to share.
So much traditional marketing is built around the idea of “Merit” i.e. good quality, good prices etc.

But the older I get, I keep asking myself, “What’s the story here? What’s the REAL story that people are GENUINELY going to want to tell other people?” Do you see Storytelling as a form of Leadership? How about vice versa?

In All Marketers Are Liars, my point was that people buy stories, not stuff, and it’s stories that spread, not stuff. An iPod made by Garmin wouldn’t be an iPod, would it? It’s the story and the affect and the whole aura that makes it worth $200.

I think you’ve hit the issue on the head. Leaders tell stories. Gandhi or King or Che or yes, Rush Limbaugh. They tell stories. The stories matter and the words matter. Of course OF COURSE the product has to live up to the story, the service has to be there, the story has to be true. But no story, not idea, no marketing.

5. We all have different things that motivate us, that gets us out of bed in the morning. Some people want money, some people want power, some people want fame and applause. You seem very driven “To Affect Change”, both on an individual level, and collectively within companies. Where does that drive come from? Were you born with it, or has it just grown with you over the years? Is it something that is still constantly evolving? If so, how?

It used to be a curse, but now I’m getting used to it.

I’m pretty impatient with things that are as they are instead of as they could be. I’m impatient with people who grumble and settle and then get old and die. I’m energized by people who see things differently and make changes happen. We’re all so lucky, what a sin to waste it.

6. When I finished reading “Tribes” I was both stunned and delighted in equal measure to see my name cited in the Acknowledgements section as an influence in the creation of the book [Thanks!]:

“Years ago, Hugh MacLeod, the world’s most popular inspirational business cartoonist (who knew you could do that for a living?), drew a cartoon (his most popular one ever) with the caption, ‘The market for something to believe in is infinite’- as soon as I read it, I knew I wanted to write a book about that idea.”

Well, I certainly have some ideas about what that cartoon means to me, though I’d be curious to hear your individual take on it. What it says to you, personally. Thoughts?

That was the second title I had in mind for the book. And I was going to include the image itself, but then it showed up all over the web and so…

The point imho is this: You can’t drink any more bottled water than you already do. Or buy more wine. Or more tea. You can’t wear more than one pair of shoes at a time. You can’t get two massages at once…

So, what grows? What do marketers sell that scales?

I’ll tell you what: Belief. Belonging. Mattering. Making a difference. Tribes. We have an unlimited need for this.

7. Your books and blog posts seem to have one thing in common, they seem to be getting shorter and shorter with every passing year. I have no problem with that; I think people genuinely prefer short reads, over long ones. For people aspiring to publish their own books one day, what advice would you give them re. deciding on a book’s length?

Try to write a book or a blog post that can’t possibly be any shorter than it is.

8. I think aspiring writers have a lot of romantic illusions about “The life of an author”, which have little to do with the actual hard-nose reality of the publishing business. What do you think are the hardest lessons for a first-time author to learn?

Books are souvenirs that hold ideas. Ideas are free. If no one knows about your idea, you fail. If your idea doesn’t spread, you fail. If your idea spreads but no one wants to own the souvenir edition, you fail.

Book publishers don’t make authors successful (clarification: 175,000 new authors a year, 300 become successful because of publishers). Authors make themselves successful by earning the privilege of having a platform, by creating ideas that spread, and yes, by building a tribe. (Harry Potter anyone?)

9. You’re a busy guy. Besides writing books, you have paid speaking gigs, your blog to keep up, and your various start-ups and businesses to manage. When do you find time to write the actual books? Do you have a regular set time for working on it [first thing in the morning, say], or do you just somehow find the time whenever?

I don’t set out to write books. I don’t make time for them. They just force themselves on me. If I resist, the idea makes me miserable until I write it down.

I can go three or six months or longer with nothing, and then an entire book just sort of appears. If I have to grind it out, I’m not going to write it. That’s not true for everyone, but that’s what works for me.

10. You’ve been publishing your books for about a decade now. Obviously, in that time period there’s been a lot of changes in the world. But for the sake of simplicity, let’s narrow the field down a bit, to the “Purple Cow”, new-marketing world you’ve been happily residing in. What’s the biggest change you’ve seen in this brave new world, since Purple Cow and IdeaVirus first hit the bookstores?

There’s no doubt that the biggest change is that most smart people now realize that the world has changed.

When I started, I was working in a status quo, static world, where the future was expected to be just like the past, but a little sleeker.

Now, chaos is the new normal. That makes it easier to sell an idea but a lot harder to sound like a crackpot.


  1. Seth and Hugh – two of my favorite bloggers!
    I’m a believer in the power of stories in my marketing. I find that stories that get at a core truth are the most powerful. They travel like no others. Thoughts?

  2. I get energized by this kind of stories, and this kind of marketing, unfolding before my eyes in an instant, found by a link from Twitter. I just wanted to say thanks, because I think it’s well done.

  3. … and the 15 minutes that went by from Twitter message until my above comment was made, actually was me pondering the thoughts conveyed in the interview. Which is a good thing too.

  4. Would so love to be a fly on the wall when
    my two fave bloggers [sethugh] meet for a chat.
    Hugh MacLeodevotee
    Seth Godin triiiber

    a great idea, is like a raindrop upon glass – it follows the path of least resistance!
    And feeds the trees.
    It`s been suggested that the web 2.o social media phenomenon was “economically neutral”. Maybe; but, these platforms allow the idea and word virus to propagate quickly and speedily, to build connections from the previously dissolute, to exist without traditional CENTRES of exchange.
    Ultra-faster than market networks will become more and more conversational; more thought like – more and more people subsist on the edges.
    Freedom is digital.

  6. Wow, Seth has a new book out! My most favorite marketing guru. I love how you emphasize the bullet points questionaire, they really getting me eager to know more about the book. And yes, I do agree that his blog post are getting shorter and shorter, still good though. Thanks for the heads up! Now I am going to download his book.

  7. the guy seems so dated and retro to me, amazes me he has any clients or readers … though maybe it shouldn’t

  8. Now, chaos is the new normal. That makes it easier to sell an idea but a lot harder to sound like a crackpot.
    This reminds me of Hugh’s Venn diagram: full of ideas, full of shit, and full of shitty ideas. Instead of chaos, ignorance is the new normal. And, to make matters worse, few are willing to check the details, so shitty ideas are easily sold.

  9. David, just popped over to thinktopia.com
    Thanks for the link. Good website.
    While Pat’s and Seth’s books are both grounded in a “belief,” it’s a belief in who or what that differentiates the two men. Both offer value. But their goals are different.
    Primal Branding is about “belief in brand.”
    Tribes is about “belief in self.”
    Marketing prowess aside, Seth is also a master motivator – a “what are you waiting for – you can do it” kinda guy. Especially when it comes to exceptionally bright, curious people whose “crazy” ideas have long been pummeled by schools, parents and employers.
    Years before writing Tribes Seth Godin was a tribe leader. He still is and his tribe is very loyal to him. Which is precisely why I felt it necessary to post my thoughts.

  10. gregorylent,
    “the guy seems so dated and retro to me, amazes me he has any clients or readers … ”
    Funny, I paid a visit to your website… http://www.gregorylent.com …and had a similar thought about your work. Cuts both ways etc…

  11. Great questions and answers. Been following Seth for a long time and I learn something new from him everytime he writes or speaks!
    Thanks to Hugh and Seth for this!

  12. I like Seth. I read his blog. But point number one is either hard to understand or it’s utterly banal.
    If you provide a product to a market that wants it you are going to be successful. Is that what he’s saying?
    Or is he saying that you create a fan club that people want to join.
    Sorry, but I don’t get it.

  13. Good stuff you got here Hugh. An intellectual satire for the non Dilbert crowd…How do you track where this stuff goes on the web? It must be out there being shared left and right. When I see funny Dilbert stuff I share it with a lot of my colleagues around the world — just curious.

  14. Deborah,
    Great post – thanks so much!
    Seth spoke last month about non-profit marketing during a conference call with a few hundred non-profits. Essentially he encouraged non-profits to give their dedicated fans the social media tools so that they can become fundraisers.
    Very insightful.

  15. Thank you guys, for your works, books, posts and interviews. However, tribe as a fundamental sociological concept for present times is not that original. Actually, it is something from the 80’s. Massively commented by academic investigators and in the media in the 90’s, and experienced as a daily phenomenon with Web 2.0. That said, it’s true. But we should also ask: and next?…

  16. Love it, I love your articles. A very true insight which I can feel and share. It is something what I have experienced. But has long been forgotten but you bring it up. Glad to see this post being frank and unique which I find it very attracted. I would love to lead my friends then one day onto bigger surface of the problem in the future (who knows). The world is so wide and big. The cyberspace is EVEN BIGGER. Too many information out in the whole wide world and people have different degree of perspective, viewpoints and voices.
    But there are some days that power can over consume people in some ways and some not. It is how the worldviews is like. The mindset is something that we need to get the right information or block the wrong information out. Our mindset is one thing we have to discipline. Not everyone is able to act in a positive way. On the other hand, being a leader is hardwork and I personally know and feel it before so it requires a knowledgeable person to be able to impress people in a very positive and courage way.
    But all in all to learn new information in a whole experience from the ground up is very time consuming and requires extensive life’s experience to be able to break through the barriers of our world’s insight that can consume our very own time.
    Once again thanks for sharing.

  17. Thanks for the interview. I love Seth Godin’s work. And you’ve asked some great questions on his new book – us enough to make me want to read it now; and not too much that you give all the ideas of the book away.

  18. Great interview…always good to get some nuggets from Seth. Looking forward to hearing him speak on Tribes in NY in a couple of weeks!

  19. I agree with the general sentiment Hugh – very good, provocative questions. And, having seen Seth speak about Tribes already, I can assure everyone that it is far from dated thinking.

  20. I just found your blog through Seth Godin’s blog.
    I read some of your articles here, what you say is very interesting.
    I’ll continue to visit your blog.

  21. Thanks for a great interview. It’s amazing that ten questions (and their answers) could contain so many good and intriguing ideas. Offline, the business world still seems relatively fossilized in its thinking. Thankfully, a person can go online and see that there are people who do things and think in innovative ways.

  22. “The market for something to believe in is infinite.” That is beautiful, true, poignant, hopeful!

  23. Great inspirational interview. Interesting, although many people desire to be leaders are they prepared to take on the responsibilities and commitment to those end goals?
    To lead is to create; to take risks and explore; to inspire and perform and to fail and try again.
    To follow is to consume; spread and create demand.
    None is better or worse than the others, for without both side of the exchange neither exists.

  24. “Everyone is a Marketer”. “Everyone is a Leader” Seth Godin(ala High MacLeod) “Everyone is an Artist” Joseph Beuys
    “Books are souvenirs that hold ideas.” Art is a souvenir of the artists mind…
    Couldn’t resist a bit of direct commentary. Thanks for this, Hugh. You rock, as does Seth-

  25. actually this reminded me to write you a line about long tail:
    long tail is ~13.5 billion years old. 😉

  26. Another great interview, thanks…
    If people come to like and identify with the person writing the blog or identify with the brand, you have all the elements necessary to create a popular community focused on the creative output of just one person/brand. Marketing as a story; simple, profound.

  27. BonnieL;
    Thanks for checking things out. You wrote a considered and educated review. Excellent points on both perspectives.

  28. My copy still hasn’t arrived but I listened to part of the audio book last night.
    http://tinyurl.com/sethstrategy – Seth makes great insights with this topic. It reminds me of the strategy used by the Honorable Minister Louis Farrakhan during the build up to the most successful tribal movements we’ve witnessed. The Million Man March.

  29. […] Books are sou­ve­nirs that hold ideas. Ideas are free. If no one knows about your idea, you fail. If your idea doesn’t spread, you fail. If your idea spreads but no one wants to own the sou­ve­nir edi­tion, you fail. – Source […]

  30. Welkom bij The Best Business Development Institute Weblog! » Blog Archive » Zeven CRM lessen voor 2010 geleerd van 2009 (in het Engels) says:

    […] does this mean for marketing? Godin suggests that marketers need to lead these tribes. Others have proposed that it is the role of organisations to provide the platform for the tribes […]

  31. […] my real estate business today.I think marketing expert and author Seth Godin stated it best in an interview I read about his book Tribes.  He said “People buy stories, not stuff, and it’s stories that spread, not stuff.  […]

  32. […] think marketing expert and author Seth Godin stated it best in an interview I read about his book Tribes.  He said “People buy stories, not stuff, and it’s stories that spread, not stuff.  […]

  33. Storytelling is Powerful for your Real Estate Business - Real Estate Investing news you can use brought to you by The Wealth Club Online - Real Estate Investing News says:

    […] think marketing expert and author Seth Godin stated it best in an interview I read about his book Tribes.  He said “People buy stories, not stuff, and it’s stories that spread, not stuff.  […]

  34. […] think marketing expert and author Seth Godin stated it best in an interview I read about his book Tribes.  He said “People buy stories, not stuff, and it’s stories that spread, not stuff.  Leaders […]

  35. […] Seth Godin says: “The world has always been orga­ni­zed into tri­bes, groups of peo­ple who want to (need to) con­nect with each other, with a lea­der and with a move­ment. The pro­ducts, ser­vi­ces and ideas that are gai­ning currency fas­ter than ever are ones that are built on a tribe.” Tell your story and make sure it is spread-worthy from person-to-person. Make them feel like they are part of a group, then they will make a stronger, emotional connection with your product or service. […]

  36. […] The best word to describe that fit is “tribe”. Not community, not market, not segment or resource, but that very raw image of the tribe. Read Seth Godin’s description here. […]