Why Seth Godin Needs to Do Field Work

Perhaps you’ve seen the controversy over Seth Godin’s “The problem with non” post. Nonprofit leaders like Beth Kanter and and Peter Panepento are rightly calling Godin’s position to task.

Beyond the whole purple cow argument about the name of the biz (zzzzz, PASS), the real issue is calling to task nonprofits for not engaging in social media, that the mainstream commercial market is surpassing the cause industry. He points out new brands are rising up to take their place, but that the traditional nonprofit industry has taken a pass. In general he laments, “When was the last time you had an interaction with a non-profit (there’s that word again) that blew you away?”

My response to this is when was the last time Seth Godin did actual work in the field? Because I work with both nonprofit and commercial entities, and I can tell you which sector is getting it faster: Nonprofits. Much faster. If Seth did actual field work — instead of promoting his personal brand and ideas — he might have practical experience to cite in his lament. Instead, we have an uninformed opinion.

Consider the Humane Society’s efforts or LiveStrong’s or Live Earth’s and the National Wildlife Federation. These are all big brands that I’ve talked to in the past two weeks! Then there’s the CDC actively engaging to combat H1N1.

Further, in the 100 Twitter brands Seth cites as an example, almost all of them are personalities or media outlets. Only a handful are actual brands, mainstays like Dell and Whole Foods.

Seth’s defense in a comment on a critical post by CauseWire’s Tom Watson :

I was actually overwhelmed with mail (about ten times more than I usually get) and every single piece from a frustrated person inside of a non-profit.

Well, of course you were, Seth. When we complain, all of the complainers get on board; when we focus on the positive, we are joined by the positive. And everyone in social knows that negative comments — while often representing a minority — tend to greatly outweigh the positive.

But, in reality this review of Wiley CFA is engaging, and while they are struggling — just like the rest of American entities — successes are emerging. In reality, I see them making a lot more progress than Fortune 500s. They have much less for-profit baggage, like hard-selling, or a psychotic need to control the message for brand image purposes.

Why We Need to Practice

Seth’s erroneous post demonstrates an increasing weakness I’ve seen in his writing (in fact, I took him out of my reader for this reason), and other senior executives in the business. Without actual field experience people are just citing ideas. So what’s the difference between a thought leader and a so-called social media expert if neither of them have pragmatic field experience?

Parroting and/or reporting what you see on the Internet does not equate to actual savoir faire. Nor does it make someone fit to offer insights or counsel.

In his book Ogilvy on Advertising, David Ogilvy noted that he always maintained one account to keep his skills fresh. It’s for this very reason that I, too, stay engaged with actual field work. With such a rapidly moving media landscape, how can any of us claim to be of service to our organizations, clients and readers — much less “thought leaders” — unless we are doing actual work.