Permission Marketing

It’s astonishing to think that Seth Godin’s book, Permission Marketing, was published in 1999. It feels like it’s been out there a lot longer. And, of course, in many ways it has.

The idea of building trust and relationships with your customers has been around for thousands of years. The only bump in the road has been the mass marketing frenzy of the last century. Even during the last quarter of that century, direct marketers practiced permission marketing through direct mail. Only then did permission marketing fine-tune the art of turning cold prospects into warm prospects, warm prospects into customers, and customers into advocates.

So what was so special about Godin’s articulation of permission marketing? First, his timing was perfect. Second, he pointed the way forward for marketing through the Internet. The Internet is a direct marketer’s dream because it’s so easy for a customer to respond.

But if there is anything more remarkable than how quickly permission marketing took hold among businesses online, it’s how suddenly the practice has been diluted, polluted, and drained of all its early promise. Here’s how it happened:

Inflated numbers. The modern practice of permission marketing began with the simple act of asking a prospect if it’s OK to get back to her, to start a dialogue.

Online marketers were able to exploit this practice because customers no longer had to bother returning cards and other mailings. They just had to click in the right place at a Website. But soon they got too greedy: Even while getting response rates that made their offline direct marketing colleagues swoon, online marketers discovered their numbers could be even higher if they set up an “opt-out” policy. Initial response rates jump with this policy because customer inertia is on the marketers’ side and many people don’t realize the implications of a pre-checked box.

This may be a great way to build high numbers fast, but it’s a poor way to build real permission and foster lasting relationships.

Hidden options. Next, online marketers sought to hide the opt-out option. They told folks they would be getting emails about special offers, but hid the boxes the customers would have to uncheck deep within the site. Again, the initial numbers look great-“Hey, 65 percent of people coming to the site are giving us permission!”

Well, not exactly. It’s just that they could not figure out how to say, “No thanks!”

Pretty bad privacy. Early on, marketers asked for permission to start a dialogue and sell more products or services. More recently, online marketers have asked for permission to share your personal information. The problem is, they’re not really asking permission at all.

As an example of what’s happening now, check out, one of the many high-traffic sweepstakes sites. In order to play, visitors have to disclose their name, email address, and home address, and check a box that confirms they have read the “Jackpot User Agreement and Sweepstakes Rules.”

But the sign-up page doesn’t mention or even give one-click access to the company’s privacy policy. Unless customers read thousands of words and dig deep within the site, they will fail to opt out of having their personal information shared with others.

Little wonder that Pew Internet & American Life Project’s 2000 Poll reports 84 percent of U.S. Internet users are concerned about businesses and strangers getting their information without their knowledge.

Why has this happened so quickly? We live in a time of huge oversupply to an online audience that is better connected, better informed, and a great deal savvier than ever before. As a result, companies are under the gun to deliver short-term results, so they exchange permission for immediate gain.
And there lies the problem. Permission marketing is a tactic for long-term strategies, not for get-rich-quick schemes. Take things slowly and you can earn customers’ permission. Push too fast and you just lose their trust.

Two ways forward

There may be ways to fix the problem. The first path will be pursued by companies using the mangled remnants of permission marketing. Call it Permission Lite. It will be mass-marketing online; lots of “opt-out” boxes.

The second path is one envisioned by those who believe the Net is shifting the balance of power from marketers to consumers. Read The Cluetrain Manifesto by Rick Levine, Christopher Locke, Doc Searls and David Weinberger.

The Cluetrain Manifesto talks about markets as conversations. Permission Marketing talks about building relationships through ongoing dialogue. But will customer-driven marketing be the new way forward? That depends on the strength of any new online privacy legislation.

If the Online Privacy Protection Act proposed by Sen. Ernest Hollings (D-S.C.) becomes law, the “opt-in” route will be mandated. Marketers won’t be able to share personal information unless customers offer explicit permission. If that happens soon, and I hope it does, a large part of Internet bandwidth will be saved from hosting a virtual mailbox stuffed with fliers and catalogs.

With personal privacy better protected and online customer influence growing, the early promise of a permission-based marketing future could still be revived. And Godin could report that rumors of the death of permission marketing have been greatly exaggerated.

Author: Kasia Bialek