The Best Internet Marketing Books – Traffick’s Picks


Looking to expand your horizons, give your business an edge, or just join a historical cultural movement? Tap into some of the greatest minds in the field of Internet marketing.

Because our lives are so busy, many of us don’t find time to sit down and read important books, even ones directly related to our profession. Over the holiday season, things might be a little less busy for some of us. No better time than to arm yourself with knowledge to face the challenges of 2002.

The following are our top picks because they teach important lessons. None of them gush emptily about the massive potential of e-commerce. Rather, they try to understand how real businesses should be using the Internet to better connect with real customers… and how the Internet, and your customers, can turn against you if you don’t know how to play by today’s rules. None of them are mere cheerleaders for big business or the marketing game; but let’s face it, none of these books would have been published if they had been sullen Slashdot-style rants which (to put it in the words chosen by one reviewer of Christopher Locke’s Gonzo Marketing) urged the slick MBA’s to “all go to hell.” Something about not biting the hand that feeds you, we suspect.

Traffick Recommends:

Levine, Locke, Searls, & Weinberger, The Cluetrain Manifesto: The End of Business as Usual (Perseus Press, 2000).

Corporate approaches to e-commerce have tended to be arrogant because top executives believed what their buddies in the major media corporations told them: the Internet is a broadcast medium. “Ever since the Web showed up,” writes Doc Searls, “business-as-usual has desperately tried to pipe-weld it onto the back end of TV’s history.”  Marketing departments, PR agencies, and top execs have become dangerously insulated from the reality of consumers’ growing ability to tune out canned marketing speak. The Internet has magnified this trend by allowing us to converse with one another to ascertain if the messages are true. Companies which are willing to accept that markets are conversations (as they were in ancient times, in the days of the first markets) and that sales are merely the exclamation point on a transaction conducted in a human voice, will not only make money, but add a touch of humanity to the process.

The book triggered some indigestion in high places, but was also quietly admired by self-styled rebels toiling in management positions within major corporations and consultancies. To tell the truth, it doesn’t always sit well with us. At first, in fact, it seemed downright strange when comfortable ad industry types and veteran business reporters suddenly turned around and started parroting the grating Cluetrain-style anti-corporate jargon. Telling admittedly clueless captains of industry to “stick forks in their heads” and “get on the cluetrain” and such sounds more like summer camp gonewrong than the type of behavior we’d expect from adults. Yet the style has become common currency now, since it tends to make even dull business reading fun. Whoever allowed me to publish an article in Report on Business last year entitled “Corporate America, Stay Out of My Inbox,” must have been a secret Cluetrain fan. Every week, it seems, there is a new RageBoy wannabe. The latest convert is Steve Harmon, formerly a high-flying Internet stock tout and now an independent investment analyst, author, and fund manager. Harmon, in Zero Gravity, his book about Silicon Valley venture capital, had breathlessly detailed the pursuit of broadband-Internet-over-cable technology by the founders and funders of At Home Corp. In a recent instalment of his email newsletter High Velocity, Harmon writes that “helping [ExciteAtHome’s] demise in our view was a bumbling corporate cluster flagellation where AT&T’s honcho Michael Armstrong donned medieval whips and chains and proceeded to give Excite’s George Bell a lesson in bureaucracy.” Honcho? Cluster flagellation? But the point is made: monopolies made ExciteAtHome, and they unmade it when it suited them.

See, this rage schtick really doesn’t belong to comfortable mid-life boomers, or Wall-Street-wise thirty-something fund managers, so one naturally assumes that it has become merely convenient for some well-placed pundits to appropriate it for stylistic reasons (i.e., to market themselves). In 1992, Douglas Coupland wrote a book called Generation X: Tales of an Accelerated Culture. The book was a perfect square, and you could only get it in paperback. (Note to Amazon: when I type “generation X” into your search box, I do not want the Tom Brokaw book about, well, his generation. Fix that!) Although it was intended as fiction, not documentary, Generation X spoke to many of the questions raised in Cluetrain, such as the fact that we hate to be treated like some prefabricated “target demographic” rather than complex individuals. When then-mostly-underemployed Gen X slagged corporate orthodoxy, they weren’t thanked for being helpful canaries in the coal mine warning the rest of society that the volume of mega-corporations’ inane advertising was reaching noxious levels. Rather, Gen-X’ers were deemed bitter, spoiled, slackers. When a gaggle of Boomers (who happen to have spent decades working as advertising industry insiders being part of the problem, not the solution) trot out the same message seven years later, they get lucrative speaking gigs doing their anti-corporate schtick for the amusement of the Fortune 500 gang. Plus ça change …

In spite of its self-importance, Cluetrain is required reading for anyone who wants to understand how companies can connect meaningfully with their customers. Oh, most of the biggest companies won’t get it, of course, and why would they want to? They can hire Dennis-Miller-style jesters to ensure that one-way marketing messages at least come out sounding like conversations. And if that fails, why not invite RageBoy Himself into the booth with Dan and Al.

Meanwhile, back at the world’s biggest online bookstore, people searching for “Generation X” are given a recommended music pick: an extended mix of Hot in the City by Billy Idol. Listen, I am not your target demographic! The only place they play Billy Idol anymore is at the ballpark! You’re way off!

Cool Quote (Doc Searls):

“The assignment was painfully hopeless. Oh, the new computer was nice and the usual customers would buy it, but the larger market — the one this company needed to penetrate — could care less. The company had been too silent too long. With nothing to lose, I told them the truth.

‘We have three problems,’ I began. ‘First, there is no market for your message, least of all among journalists, who want facts and stories. Second, there is no market for your secrecy. You have long ignored the market, now they will choose to ignore you. Third, there really is no market for your press conference. Journalists want to be briefed exclusively.’

They stared at me.”

Seth Godin, Permission Marketing: Turning Strangers into Friends, and Friends into Customers (Simon & Schuster, 1999)

Unlike the Cluetrain authors and Coupland, Godin is neither angry nor sarcastic, but his now-classic text has made him into one of the leading prophets of the obsolescence of traditional (“interruption-based”) big-company marketing methods. The way he tells it, a near-total rejection of modern advertising orthodoxy is only common sense. Godin dismisses the history of advertising from the 1950’s to the 1980’s as an anachronism borne of a time when consumerism was new, and few brands competed for our attention. Too much of a good thing (easy access to consumers’ minds) has vastly multiplied the number of messages clamoring for mindshare. Consumers’ retaliatory defence mechanisms are now a permanent condition of the marketplace. Companies cannot penetrate this armor with catchier jingles or increasingly intrusive pitches; instead, they need to build long-term relationships with their customers. As Godin’s chronicle of the rise and fall of interruption marketing gathers steam, the reader finds himself nodding his head at every horrifying example of intrusive advertising.

Like Cluetrain, Permission Marketing begins from the premise that corporations need to understand how people actually live. Above all, we’re busy. We have heard it all. We have caller ID, mute buttons, and a million other devices intended to shelter us from the cacaphony.

The opposite of interruption marketing, of course, is marketing to consumers who have explicitly given their permission to be contacted. Since Godin lays out a number of highly original and ground-breaking ideas, many of which foreshadowed the huge boom in the development of opt-in email lists, those who do any kind of e-mail marketing will be on shaky ground unless they’ve read Godin.

Unfortunately, the manner in which corporations have interpreted the idea of permission-based marketing boils down to a heavy dose of email to their customers, email which often violates Godin’s stipulations that communications should be personal, anticipated, and relevant.

Godin is willing to take his share of the blame for how the promise of permission marketing got distorted, and turned our email inboxes into battlegrounds (“Permission Marketers: Did We Blow It?“).  Arguably, the problem lies to some extent in the lack of plausibility of Godin’s original formulation of the concept and principles of permission. His indictment of intrusive mass marketing is unimpeachable, but there is an over-optimism on the permission marketing side of the argument. Consumers don’t give so-called permission nearly as cheerfully as Godin’s original argument let on. Yahoo, which had hired Godin for a brief period to be its VP of Permission Marketing, is now learning that it’s easier to theorize about securing customers’ permission than it is to actually do it.

The failure of companies like Yahoo! to profitably implement these principles, and the relative success of “club ’em over the head” methods employed by their competitor AOL, seem to be cause for despair.  Surely, if any of this stuff is true, companies like AOL would crumble as consumers tuned out the noise. So far, that hasn’t happened. Good old interruption marketing lives on. To millions of viewers, the commercials during the Super Bowl are not an intrusion, they’re “destination television.” Maybe what Godin has discovered is not a universal principle of the advertising business, but rather the fact that those residing in higher socioeconomic strata have more options for tuning out the noise, and more cultural and professional motivations for doing so. If that’s all it is, it’s still an important contribution, since many businesses – especially those in the technology industry – market to a more upscale demographic.

Ultimately, Godin’s approach can explain some things, but he fails to acknowledge the continued success of major brands like Budweiser and Gillette, who have continued to win the battle to stay first in the mind of their mass market. If Godin had to do it all over again, Permission Marketing might have done well to bill itself as a manual for marketing to highly discerning professionals in a B2B environment, and how to break through to “opinion leaders,” IT managers, and journalists as opposed to customers in general. But then again, that more specialized focus would have prevented the book from becoming a bestseller.

Cool quote:

“Even though they work better than advertising, these [direct marketing] techniques are astonishingly wasteful. A 2 percent response for a direct mail campaign will earn the smart marketer a raise at most companies. But a 2 percent response means that the same campaign was trashed, ignored, or rejected by an amazing 98 percent of the target audience! From the perspective of the marketer, however, if the campaign earns more than it costs, it’s worth doing again.

Of course, just as suburbanites learned when they fled the city to avoid the crowds, if a strategy works, other people will be right on your heels. That bucolic countryside fills up rapidly with other people looking to get away from it all. Correspondingly, as each of these promotional media becomes measurably effective, every smart marketer rushes to join in. Finding a unique approach that cuts through the clutter is usually very short-lived.”

Emanuel Rosen, The Anatomy of Buzz: How to Create Word-of-Mouth Marketing  (Doubleday, 2000)

Most businesses don’t start off with a huge marketing budget, so they must rely on word-of-mouth. But how does buzz actually work? Rosen uses important principles (such as providing free samples to, or fostering early excitement in, “network hubs”) and illustrates the principles with case studies from word-of-mouth success stories like PowerBar and Getting the word out about any product, it seems, is more about missionary work than it is about slick marketing talk. PowerBars caught on because hard core marathon runners and cyclists saw their own kind using it, and began asking questions: “does it work? how does it taste?”‘

This book is a must-read item for anyone seeking to generate buzz.

Cool Quote:

“Bob Metcalfe, father of Ethernet and founder of 3COM, told Scott Kirsner how young MIT engineers often come to him for advice. After they go through his six-story town house in Boston’s Back Bay, many of them say something like ‘Wow! What a great house! I want to invent something like Ethernet.’ At this point Metcalfe has to sit them down and explain, ‘No, I don’t have this house because I invented Ethernet. I have this house because I went to Cleveland and Schenectady and places like that. I sold Ethernet for a decade.”

Seth Godin, Unleashing the Ideavirus  (Hyperion, 2001)

Unleashing the Ideavirus  began as a widely-downloaded free e-book – a handy way of illustrating how viral marketing should be “smooth” – and is now available in paperback.

Godin’s colorful language helps illustrate key principles of buzz, particularly in the online context. The process of telling a friend and getting them to use the product should be “smooth” as it was with Hotmail. It helps to find either “authoritative sneezers” (influential people who don’t make many recommendations), or “promiscuous sneezers” (the types of people who tend to pass a lot of stuff on to their friends). Godin also shows a deep understanding of social and economic networks, counseling startups to “pick a hive they can dominate.” Most fast food chains, hardware stores, and other mass market retail operations, for example, become regional stars first, since the word can travel more easily (and at very low cost) amongst diners in Minnesota that a particular chicken restaurant is the best chicken restaurant around than it would if the small company’s outlets were spread out all over the place. In addition, Godin pays close attention to the visual impact of some products, like the VW Beetle, which seem to recommend themselves just by being conspicuous in design and in front of a lot of eyeballs. Conversely, the excellent high-efficiency hybrid vehicle, the Toyota Prius, failed to “go viral” in large part because of its drab exterior appearance.

Although not as definitive as Rosen’s Anatomy of Buzz, Unleashing the Ideavirus is chock-a-block with tasty examples and evocative lingo, so it may get your creative engines revving. Our major complaint is that concepts like “promiscuous sneezer,” “ideavirus,” and numerous others are very close to Rosen’s terminology (“network hubs,” “network contagion,” etc.), to the point where one is left to wonder if this book isn’t above all a slick packaging job. Yet Godin does more than others to explain the often-hazy concept of  “viral marketing” which gained currency in the wake of the wildfire-like spread of products like Hotmail and ICQ in the online context, and actually gives practical suggestions to breaking down any barriers that might stand in the way of your product “going viral.” I am left to wonder when all those Beetles are going to ask my permission to be in my field of vision. Perhaps Ideavirus is a slight concession that getting in people’s faces is still part of the marketing game.

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