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Two Problems with Permission Marketing – And How You Can Overcome Them

Anyone who has read Permission Marketing by Seth Godin or heard about permission marketing, may have wondered how to actually get a customer’s permission in the first place. (By the way, if you haven’t read the book, stop right now and read it. I believe it is a must-read book for anyone in business.)

This article will first summarize permission marketing, introduce two problem areas and then discuss ideas on how to remedy those problems

Permission marketing is meant to convert a stranger to a customer through a process of continued interaction. The premise being that no one will interact with you until they have given you permission to do so. Godin uses dating as an analogy to explain permission marketing.

A Permission Marketer goes on a date. If it goes well, the two of them go on another date. And then another. Until, after ten or twelve dates, both sides can really communicate with each other about their needs and desires. After twenty dates they meet each other’s families. Finally, after three or four months of dating, the Permission Marketer proposes marriage.

Permission Marketing is just like dating. It turns strangers into friends and friends into lifetime customers. Many of the rules of dating apply, and so many of the benefits. (Permission Marketing, pg 45)

This is a fanciful rendition of dating. We all know that it doesn’t go so smoothly most of the time. It’s the same with permission marketing. There are certain hurdles that you have to overcome: why would someone date you and how do you get that first date. In a later article, I’ll address how to keep the relationship from growing apart.

The idea behind permission marketing is for a company to circumvent the usual bombardment of traditional advertising by getting the prospect’s permission to advertise to them. I don’t know about you, but I seldom enjoy being advertised to, let alone would I give permission for it. This is almost a fundamental flaw with permission marketing.

How many people would want an ongoing dialogue with the makers of Preparation H? Do people really want to communicate with most of the companies that they buy products from? No, they sure don’t. My hypothesis is that permission marketing would be more effective for those selling a service than for most products. However, some products that have frequent modifications, updates or are mission critical may warrant an ongoing dialogue. I would like to hear from readers that can think of products that could benefit from an ongoing dialogue.

So, problem one with permission marketing is WHY would prospects give you permission to advertise to them. There must exist a strong and compelling reason for “dating” before you ever try to get a date; otherwise just sell them a product. Then, contact them again when you want to sell them something else. A strong and compelling reason would lie in your value proposition and whether your prospect would benefit immensely from an ongoing dialogue.

Second problem with getting permission is getting your prospects’ attention in the first place. This isn’t easy. In his book, Godin puts forth the idea that permission marketing will help a company get through all the “noise” of traditional marketing-TV, radio, and print. Advertising has become noise just like the sounds of traffic and construction on a busy New York street. There is so much advertising that most of it just gets filtered out.

How do you get someone’s attention if they can’t see you, hear you or otherwise know you exist? Godin’s answer is frustrating-you advertise. You interrupt them; you butt in with an ad, a direct mail piece, a cold call, etc. And we already know that most of this noise will get filtered out. Godin also says that “interruption marketing” is unavoidable.

The answer to problem one is relatively simple. You need to know your target market inside and out. You need a unique value proposition (UVP) and know how that UVP fits into your prospects’ lives. If the reason is compelling enough, if it solves their problems, or if it keeps them informed, you have a greater chance of getting their permission once you have their attention.

In other words, be relevant and useful.

Even if you are relevant and useful, your market may not wish to date you. You need to ask yourself and then your customers, “Would I want to have an ongoing dialogue about this product or service?” If you say no and your customers say no, then don’t go through the expense and hassle of setting up a permission marketing program.

If you say yes and your customers say no, then don’t set up a permission marketing campaign. However, if your customers say yes, whether you do or not, test out a permission marketing campaign. The test it and test it. If it works, test it again.

Along comes Christopher Locke who suggests in his book Gonzo Marketing: Winning Through Worst Practices to use sponsored content as a way to get permission. This really struck a cord with me because I had been suggesting to clients that they provide something useful to their customers besides information about their products and services.

I’m a big fan of architecture and design, so I’ll pick up an architecture magazine to see great buildings, but I will also look at the ads to keep abreast of trends in furniture, lighting, et al. With an interactive agency to run, I pick up eBusiness magazines and read the articles and the ads so that I know what products exist and how they will help a client.

Ads in magazines, radio, TV and web sites are the lowest form of sponsorship and therefore the least effective. The reasons are that the ads are typically irrelevant to the audience of the particular medium, they are typically not useful to the audience and there is so much advertising that people just don’t notice whether the ad is useful or relevant. People watch TV, read, listen to the radio, or interact with a web site for enjoyment, learning, or business. Anything that does not fulfill the current mode they are in is just noise that gets in the way.

However, there are some new trends emerging in the sponsored content arena and some are actually effective-the ones that are done well that is. You may or may not wish to undertake a sponsored content campaign. They are time, effort and money consuming, but when executed optimally they are very effective.

Email newsletters are all the rage these days. Everywhere you look, someone is asking you to sign up for their newsletter. Many companies are jumping on the newsletter bandwagon because they heard newsletters get customers to buy more stuff. Unfortunately, most newsletters have been failing miserably.

The idea is to get someone to sign up for the newsletter allowing the company to communicate with the prospect. The reasons they are failing is that most newsletters are too self promotional-they are just ads. Also, what content is in them is usually poorly written and irrelevant to the recipients.

Think of an email newsletter as a mini-magazine-even better an interactive mini-trade journal. A trade journal is aimed at a specific market and the content is tailored to that market only. Your newsletter should be just as focused and the content must be high-quality-the kind you find in a professional journal.

What you can then do is surround the high quality content with your branding message and maybe one to two promotional items. The fewer the better. People are more forgiving of being advertised to if they feel they are getting something valuable in exchange.

Blogs, blogs, beautiful blogs. Blogs is short for web logs or online journals. I highly recommend any company with a web site to consider implementing a company sponsored blog. Basically, a blog is an electronic diary where you post your daily musings, whether short or long.

Side note: many highly paid journalists use blogs to bypass the editorial censorship at their workplace. They want to share their ideas with the world and are willing to go unpaid for their efforts just to be heard. Some of these blogs are amazing and some are better than the articles that the journalists write for large papers such as the NY Times.

All the points mentioned above for newsletters remain true for blogs. The content can’t be overly self-promotional, congratulatory, or have too many ads and most of all it needs to be relevant to the audience.

What I like about using a blog is that your staff can participate with its creation. The following example was taken from my own consulting. Say you have a web development company, which employs sales staff, back-end programmers, and web designers.

All of these people have some useful information that they can share with the world and your web development blog would have content from each group. The sales staff know a lot about what customers want from their web projects and can relate those customer stories in short anecdotes once a week.

Your programmers know, well, programming. They can enlighten your audience about some of the cutting edge technologies that they are using or learning. Someone in the audience may get so excited about the technology that she calls to have it implemented on her site.

Web designers can discuss current information architecture issues like accessible design to comply with ADA rules. Or even how color effects buying decisions.

This is all content that is relevant to your customers. Since it comes in short, easily read postings, the customer is more likely to keep coming back to your site to read the new postings.

Even better is to have customers register to not only access the information, but participate in the discussions. This is almost like an online bulletin board except it has more restrictions.

Finally, a concept that may be before its time is sponsored content without the company’s name anywhere in the content. This is proposed by Locke in his book. He says that a company should pay one of those frustrated writers to write what they want and to not censor the writer in any way.

This is a tough sell. You have no idea if it really is working even though you’re spending money on the concept. I think it is possible for some companies to start trying out “unsponsored” sponsored content. It is not much of a stretch from “branding” advertising that is widely accepted in advertising agencies today.

One company that is having runaway success with this idea is BMW. They have been hiring big name Hollywood directors to create short action films that feature a BMW car being the “ultimate driving machine.” They never mention BMW, or to visit the nearest show room or even to go to the BMW web site, yet tons of people have done just that. BMW sales have risen significantly since the films were started.

Final Points

  • Permission marketing is mandatory in a world that has an ever increasing amount of advertising. Here a few things to remember for your permission marketing campaigns:

  • You will need to cut through the clutter by being useful and relevant to your target market.

  • Don’t be too self-promotional. Only have one or two bits of content that talks about a product or service or your latest special offer.

  • Have well written articles that address the needs of your market

  • Survey your audience frequently to ensure that you are delivering the content and quality they want.

  • Let your audience get to know you and they will let you get to know them. Then maybe the two of you will live happily ever after.

This Marketing article was written by Tim Conley on 2/11/2005

Tim Conley is the President and CEO of Sagacity Marketing, Inc. He helps companies create higher profits by integrating their business strategy into all of their marketing efforts. He can be reached through his website: