Ad Books: “Free Prize Inside” by Seth Godin

The first (and long-overdue) installment in my series of book reports is an ingenious marketing book by prolific author Seth Godin. I’m not going to pretend that I’ve read all of his books, but I’ll certainly say I intend to. His writing is conversational, memorable, and easy to understand. He’s one of those rare writers who can be irreverent without being tacky.

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This book is based on the idea that the easiest way to make a product (or service) more interesting is to provide a free prize. What’s a free prize? Godin equates the free prize to the cheap-o toy in the cereal box (the first edition of his book was even packaged in a cereal box). The free prize is that little bit of something that makes your product/service better than all the others.

Godin goes through many types of free prizes and ideas for developing one yourself. He seems to clump them all into the “free prize” category, but from what I can tell, there are actually three distinct groups:

1. Cereal box prizes (i.e. separately manufactured, buy-this-get-a-free-bag gimmicks)
2. Minor changes that makes everything better (Godin calls these “soft innovations”, like being able to book your flights online)
3. Inherent differences that need to be marketed

The last type of free prize is very similar to the “Joshua Tree Epiphany,” a realization from one of the textbooks I read a few semesters ago.

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In a book called The Non-Designer’s Design Book (And in most of her others, from what I can tell) Robin Williams (a woman, i.e., not the actor) outlines what she calls the “Joshua Tree Epiphany.” Although I’m not exactly endorsing her book, the theory is solid. In a nutshell, she got a book about trees one day and, while reading it, discovered the Joshua tree. She thought she had never seen one before, and it was so exotic and interesting she was sure she would have noticed it. The next day (or whenever), she goes outside and sees Joshua trees everywhere, even in her own neighborhood. Once she knew what the tree was, it jumped out at her. You can’t find something if you don’t know what to look for. Once you name something, you notice it. It’s the “free prize” strategy.

The “free prize” concept is great and wonderful and all that, but it’s hardly the most important point in Godin’s book. I mean, if that was the only thing he discussed in the book it would hardly be worth the price, and that’s just bad marketing.

No, the best part of Godin’s book is his call to action. He explains why free prizes are important and gives us a few tactics for “championing” them. (Did he coin that phrase? I heard it in a marketing course, but I think they used it wrong.) From a student’s POV, Godin’s encouragement is pretty shocking. Wait, we’re supposed to think outside the box, even when there isn’t a box?

Students are given an assignment, and they do it. It’s the best teaching method we have right now. But by the time we’ve graduated college, we’re so used to that format that the real world is incredibly jarring. Many of us (myself included) are so comfortable with the assignment-completion ritual that it’s really difficult for us to – gasp – do something nobody asked us to do.

So if you’re paralyzed at your job, stuck in meetings that never get anywhere in a stagnant industry, take heart! Seth Godin says it’s okay to speak out, to go ahead make those “wouldn’t it be nice if…” ideas into reality. If listening to me talk about it hasn’t helped any, go find a copy of this book. And while you’re at it, get a copy of something else he’s written and let me know how you like it.

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