The Evolution of Permission Marketing: What You Need to Succeed in 2013

image of chimpanzee on a laptop

Are you familiar with the phrase Permission Marketing?

If you’re trying to sell anything online (including your ideas), you should be.

In 1999, a certain smart marketer made some observations about what kinds of persuasive communication worked well as we moved into the 21st century … and what kinds didn’t.

Permission marketing is the privilege (not the right) of delivering anticipated, personal and relevant messages to people who actually want to get them. ~Seth Godin

The 20th century was the era of interruption. Your favorite television shows were “brought to you by” an increasingly noisy set of ads for soap, cereal, and shiny new automobiles. Nearly all mass communication was supported by advertising — television, newspapers, radio.

The internet brought something different.

The attempt to “monetize” the web with advertising has been a mixed bag. There have been a few stunning successes (ok, one stunning success, Google AdWords — which succeeds because it delivers a marketing message at the precise time the customer is actually looking for one) and a lot of flops.

If you’ve spent any time at all on the web, you’ve noticed something: You cannot make anyone on the internet do anything they don’t want to do.

The net interprets censorship as damage and routes around it. ~John Gilmore

The internet routes around not just censorship, but any impediment to what its users feel like doing. It’s in the nature of the internet (and more to the point, of the people who use the internet) to “route around” experiences they don’t want.

You can’t force anyone to pay attention to you online. All you can do is entice.

Permission Marketing was an expanded observation of that fact, and an exploration of an alternative. Instead of trying to gain attention by being increasingly obnoxious, we can earn a prospect’s permission to deliver a message to them.

This calls for a whole new tool kit. If people are going to ask you to communicate with them, you have to come up with a form of marketing that’s too valuable to throw away. Advertising copy gives way to content — informative, interesting material that speaks to a highly informed customer.

Is Permission Marketing just another term for “email”?

Email has been the “killer app” for permission marketing for a long time. RSS seemed like a promising candidate, but never picked up widespread adoption. There are some interesting things you can do with permission and direct mail, if you have a massive budget and a wealth of experience … which most businesses don’t.

Email is a jewel of a tool for permission marketers, but sadly, most email marketers are still doing it wrong. The basic tenet of Permission — that you need to create content with enough intrinsic value that you earn prospect attention — is ignored most of the time. Spammers and phishers still sneak through, eroding prospect trust and killing conversion for the good guys. Companies still buy email lists, then use them to send unwanted garbage.

In other words, nearly everyone’s email box is cluttered with a tremendous amount of crap. So as Permission Marketing evolves, the question isn’t only How do I create content that’s so excellent that people will opt in for it?

It’s also How do I fight the Towering Wall of Crap and get my own message heard?

Please don’t misunderstand. Email is still what works. But there are other tools out there that can make it work much better — for your business, yes, but much more important, for your audience.

Boost the power of content by improving the context

Permission in 2013 depends more than ever on context. What does your site design look like? How’s the quality of material you publish for free? (For example, your blog posts and any free resources like white papers or ebooks.) How’s your reputation with your audience? With your colleagues, peers, and competitors? How do people talk about your business on social platforms like Google+ or Facebook?

Yes, you need excellent content. That’s always been the fuel that Permission Marketing runs on. But you also need to place that content into a context that lifts it above the ordinary.

Resist the dark side you must

Along with a rise in the awareness of permission marketing, there’s been a stark rise in permission window-dressing.

  • Companies that implement email sequences, then populate them with lame, anemic content.
  • Companies that think content marketing means “clever ads.”
  • Companies whose blogs are about as exciting as a sinkful of cold dishwater.
  • Companies that bring in popular, vibrant speakers to cover their own total lack of remarkability.

Behind all of this is a lack of courage. Companies get too big, too lawyered-up, or too beholden to their venture capital to actually say anything.

Content won’t work for you if you lack the courage to actually stand for something. Which is why it gives small business (and big, flexible businesses, as it happens) such a tremendous advantage. While the dinosaurs stare anxiously at the sky watching for meteors, you have the opportunity to dart in and take over the world.

What’s learnable, what isn’t

The most important trait in all this is the willingness to say something worth saying — something that’s real, instead of a bowlful of lukewarm corporate glop.

Everything else can be outsourced or learned.

If you don’t know how to create remarkable content, you can bring in strong writers who will give your message a vibrant voice.

And if you don’t know how to promote that content, publish it in an appealing way, leverage it for more traffic, deploy it strategically, or create a robust content strategy … that’s what you have us for. You might start by attending Friday’s webinar on an evolved permission marketing strategy — how to go beyond the standard email opt-in to create a more remarkable audience experience.

Here’s where you can get more details on that. Hope to see you there!

About the author

Sonia Simone


Sonia Simone is co-founder and Chief Content Officer of Copyblogger Media. Get more from Sonia on Twitter and .

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Comments

  1. Hey, how easy would life be if we can make people read us online. The day of the local newspaper is coming to an end and the consumer no longer has to read what they write. The internet is filled with information and the reader can go and read anywhere they want. I remember a time when all I could read was the local newsletter for our small town, we no longer are subject to these out dated methods as information is at the tips of our fingers.

  2. “While the dinosaurs stare anxiously at the sky watching for meteors…”

    One of the best quotes I’ve ever read and it sums up precisely what is wrong with so many large, inflexible organisations. Taking risks or stepping out of the corporate bubble is too often seen as a big no-no.

    Time for me to dart off and take over the world (insert evil laugh here).

    • I worked in Dinosaur World long enough to get pretty sick of it. :)

    • I was going to say the same thing about the dinosaur copy, Anthony.

      Nicely done overall, Sonia. This article will help my mother understand how things have changed in sales and marketing.

      She retired from New York Life a year ago and still thinks I should be cold calling and doing everything else under the outbound marketing umbrella.

      She’s 75, bless her heart.

  3. “Companies get too big, too lawyered-up, or too beholden to their venture capital to actually say anything.”

    There is nothing more frustrating than to see a good idea die in red tape. I understand that the Internet is big and scary and a lot of things can go wrong but when you wrap yourself up in so much red tape you never actually get anywhere! Sooner or later you have to actually make something happen.

  4. Sonia,

    In the everyday world of the corporate work treadmill, this ‘willingness to say something worth saying’ can often be seen as a negative trait. You know, not everyone wants to hear it and you’re often seen as a threat.

    But in the online world, well, that’s something entirely different.

    In a place where so many people are churning out corporate drivel, readers are desperate to find someone with something actually worth saying.

    What’s more, with such a large potential audience you’re almost certain to find a healthy niche following of people who can identify with you and add to the things you’re saying.

    Somehow, I get the feeling that this is a major reason why Copyblogger is so successful.

    • The companies who get this (and they’re not all tiny companies) will end up winning the war for online attention, IMO. No one’s content can remain remarkable after 8 rounds of legal review.

  5. Disclosure: I don’t own a business yet and am still learning. This is my take based on what I’ve been reading so far.

    “Going beyond the opt-in” sounds like something for businesses bigger than a freelance operation. For solo bloggers, isn’t the opt-in, still the simplest, most efficient way to build a trusting audience. Maybe, if you have a couple writers on staff, a web-developer, and some support techies, then a registration site would be profitable. But until a business grows to that extent, I’m hard pressed to believe there is practical life “beyond the opt-in.”

    Also, registration sites are definitely not new. If ever a company wanted to release a diverse selection of content, the easiest way to keep things organized (users and content alike) was to set up a membership site.

    Bottom line for me is (for now), the opt-in is still uber-practical. Membership would be beneficial if my audience and content library got too diverse to manage otherwise. Is this a fair assessment?

    • Registration is just another way to position opt-in. We’re talking about perceived value, which is what marketing is. Then comes the delivery of actual value.

      The My Copyblogger registration concept is built using our own Premise software for WordPress. $165 is within the budget of any company, compared with the $10,000 it used to cost to built a custom backend of this quality.

  6. Sonia,

    This article is as good as it gets – great content with an appropriate call to action at the end and all the rest. It’s a good model for anyone who wants to see good content marketing at work.

    From the content production side I agree with everything you say. But as a teacher/entrepreneur of 25 years I think we have to go deeper into how people process and learn from that content. They’ve got to be able to process it, retain it (sometimes), and apply it. But there’s simply too much information and too much of it in the form of lists, for example. (People may get their information fix from a list but they don’t learn from lists. ) This is why your narrative works here – the story conveys the meaning far more effectively than any list could. ( I think podcasts are an incredible way to learn.)

    If I get time this week I’ll follow up with a blog post on how people actually learn from content – I think you’ve touched some great points here. I’d be interested to hear your take on it.

    • Very cool, keep us posted!

      For our premium content, I nearly always include a “Next Action” worksheet that outlines what actual steps to take next. Being able to put an idea immediately into practice, to “try it out,” is a great help to actual learning.

      I’m another one who learns best from audio, which again is why most of our premium content has an audio version.

  7. Very informative piece Sonia, thanks.

    One huge problem I see with content comes in spreading it out too far instead creating content specifically for a target market. It can be a tough sell at times explaining to a potential client that less equals more in the long-run.

    And what is it with companies still buying lists instead of taking the time to build an actual list of people who want permit you to interact with them, all the while putting their heads on the chopping block because eventually it will come back to bite them. Doh!

  8. From the first BBS’s to ‘Internet 2.0′, what makes this medium so compelling is that it has the breadth and depth to accommodate the institutional and the individual. For the individual it’s all about attracting and serving other individuals – a niche – which seems to me to be the profile of the majority of bloggers; artisan writers and authorities on their given subjects.

    Creating content that both attracts and serves one’s readers and subscribers seems to me to be the art of blogging. Creating attractive sites, leveraging the search engines and social networks, all of which, serve to move one’s content (ideas, products and/or services) beyond one’s core readers, seems to be the science of blogging. The best bloggers – such as the notable marketer you mentioned – understand how to do both.

  9. Interruption marketing was never likely to stay successful that long, even without the internet starting to play a role. I got pretty good at tuning out tv ads, billboards, subway ads, etc. early on, because there were just so many of them. Not to mention, how difficult it often is to identify the occasional ads that are memorable with their actual brand.

    Even if I encounter a tv commercial that makes me laugh, or that I find beautiful, it doesn’t really drive me to take any action unless I already have a relationship with the company. That’s why it makes so much sense to base a marketing strategy around building relationships.

    You could just as easily call “permission marketing,” “relationship marketing” – although with the terms “inbound marketing” and “content marketing” already sharing the space, I suppose there’s no need for a new one. :)

    I think one big challenge of being sure to “say something worth saying” is figuring out what that could be that hasn’t already been said. Naturally, this is harder when you’re writing about something like marketing, an industry filled with creative thinkers who are also good writers, than when working with a client in an industry that hasn’t yet really delved into producing content as much.

  10. Thank you Sonia – so much of what comes into my mailbox is remarkably similar to the nightly news and TV ads. Fear mongering, scarcity, act fast or you’re a loser mentality and manipulation; it’s hard to resist the temptation to think “they” must know what works, but your article gives me a needed shot of inspiration to continue along the path of authenticity.

  11. Companies that think content marketing means “clever ads.”

    Amen, Brother!
    It is amazing how many companies let marketing “experts” outthink their campaign, just for the sake of being clever. Ugh.

  12. “Spammers and phishers still sneak through, eroding prospect trust and killing conversion for the good guys. Companies still buy email lists, then use them to send unwanted garbage.” Amen to this! My inbox and Spam box has been peppered with emails from companies and entrepreneurs. I find myself asking, “Who are you? When did I sign up for this?” I’ve been unsubscribing a lot lately.

    Give your audience what they want: great content that adds value and solves their problem at the same time.

  13. It seems that while people will do what they want to on the internet, we are susceptible to a wandering eye, which leads to temptation in clicking through to a myriad of links.

  14. What’s even more remarkable now is that people on the internet hate interruption marketing. They don’t like pop-ups, pop unders, in-stream video ads, and the like. Yet, if they’re a fan of a company’s Facebook page and see something beneficial, they’ll have no hesitation to share the site with their friends/family. People share business messages online, when they only really talk about the characteristics of offline advertising in real life. (“Have you seen that one commercial with the…”)

  15. Nobody wants advertising. Yet people do want to know of the latest fashions, the book everyone is reading, the wine that got all the mentions, what’s on sale at their local store.

    It takes time for marketers to figure this out. Marketing is not selling what you want to people. It’s letting them know who you are, letting them know how you can help them get what they want. Why people buy email lists is beyond me. (Is it even legal nowadays?) A waste of time and money. If they didn’t give you permission to contact them, they aren’t going to read what you have to say.

    But how to build these relationships is not an easy question to answer. Your customer, your product, your pricing, is different from mine. How to develop good content is something that many don’t understand. But it can be done. Not by reading a post that says “do this, not that”, but by talking, sharing, building, and re-doing, until you innately understand that what you are talking about is building a relationship, and not insisting on or begging people to buy from you.

  16. Archan Mehta :

    Sonia,

    Thanks for a wonderful post on this fab blog. I appreciate your contribution.

    However, even at the risk of sounding like a Luddite, I still prefer to curl up in bed with a good book and a newspaper rather than reading this kind of material on-line.

    Reading blogs and newsletters is okay, but sometimes you just want to feel paper in your hands.

    Your readers are right: I too am inundated by junk mail. How it got into my in-box is beyond me, but a lot of the stuff is advertising disguised in the form of information. This kind of content makes you wary of the next sales pitch. Over time, you can become jaded too.

    Have a good one.

  17. Right on. The 20th century was an anomaly with interruption marketing working because technology favored one-way communication from a centralized source.

    Before that, you would think of anything so blatantly offensive. We did business with those that we knew, like, and trusted. That never changed… We just had a period where the powerful could abuse trust.

    Everyone working today learned marketing based on 20th-century technology. It will take a while, but will learn to treat people like people.

    • Hope you are right. But now there are big chain stores. Perhaps as they begin to understand that they do have to communicate on a local and individual level, the smaller stores will be more nimble and big stores, like big advertising, will slowly disappear.

      • The big box stores are a distribution play. Home delivery beats them, not a smaller store with a smaller selection.

        The “big store kills us” fight has been waged for decades. The answer is simple, competitors who do well give a superior experience.

        In the 90′s I had superstores move in across the street and online deals from our products. We pivoted focus even more on individual service. Our shipping policies and guarantees were the same as Zappos “invented” several years later (we didn’t invent them either:).

        We were highly profitable on sales, while I feared that I could not grow faster without giving in on price. Had I known what I know today, we would have done 10x growth in a year

        People buy from those they know, like and trust. It’s a simple as that.

  18. Great post Sonia!

    “Resist the dark side you must” I agree with these thoughts completely.

  19. Permission marketing really is a huge breakthrough, The way I see it there are so many different ways you can implement it though. It is hard to know which area you should focus on: email list, product introduction sign ups, follow up offers ect.. There are so many different things you can use as a medium for permission marketing.

  20. “Permission window dressing”. Score. Bonus points for gratuitous Star Wars reference!

    Email definitely still works, amazingly. Still looking for something in this post I disagree with Simone. Isn’t “great content” supposed to be polarizing? ;-)

  21. I never really understood about email subscription and marketing till three good years after creating my site. I really depended on organic search from Google and other search engines to reach online readers.
    I can really see the difference now since I started using email subscription and ready from this site.

  22. Hi Sonia,

    I once heard a guy say “We now live in the age of ethics” (Ian Lumgold). I have adopted this saying because I know it is the case. People are moving very fast in this direction, moseso than before, because of social media, open media and the impending demise of interruption marketing.

    Permission marketing is the only way. Thanks for your great work!