Permission marketing is the marketing strategy starchild of the early 2000s, and for good reason. Grounding marketing in respect and user privacy has repeatedly proven its value, and some of the common practices of permission marketing are so widespread today (e.g. email opt-ins and lead magnets), that it’s hard to imagine a world without them.
But even when something starts in the zeitgeist and settles into industry practice, it’s easy to overlook the fundamentals that make it great. We’re going to give a thorough overview of Permission Marketing, explain how to use it in your own business, and talk a bit about the future of permission marketing.
What Is Permission Marketing?
Seth Godin, the famous marketer and blogger who coined the term in 1999, defines permission marketing as “the privilege (not the right) of delivering anticipated, personal and relevant messages to people who actually want to get them.”
Godin’s brilliant observation was that as attention became more scarce and consumer control over information rose, interruptive marketing would become less and less effective. And how can businesses succeed in a world of attention scarcity? By asking permission to communicate.
At its core, permission marketing is about respecting modern consumers. It is the antithesis to traditional interruption marketing, which steals time from consumers. TV commercials, telemarketers, and street advertisers are all examples of interruption marketing.
“Permission is like dating. You don’t start by asking for the sale at first impression. You earn the right, over time, bit by bit.”
The goal of permission marketing is to create a relationship so powerful that your audience looks forward to your communication. On his blog, Seth Godin says, “real permission works like this: if you stop showing up, people complain, they ask where you went.”
Permission marketing includes practices like lead magnets, content marketing, email opt-ins, opt-in value exchange ads, and any other format that explicitly asks permission before marketing to a prospect.
The 6 Commandments of Permission Marketing
There are a few tenets Godin recommends thinking about when engaging in any permission marketing:
- Anticipation: people will anticipate the service/product information from the company.
- Personalization: the marketing information explicitly relates to the customer.
- Relevance: the marketing information is something that the consumer is interested in.
These are a good start, but I’d also add in:
- Consent: The marketer should always ask and obtain consent before beginning or altering an agreed-upon relationship in any way.
- Transparency: It is the responsibility of the business to be as transparent about their intent as possible and enable control of the relationship to the customer.
- Data Minimization: Data types such as first-party data should be used at the minimum amount necessary to ensure relevance and personalization.
These commandments are all important from a marketing perspective, but your choices around data collection and control are now also a legal concern with the passing of data privacy laws like the CCPA, CPRA, and GDPR.
Fortunately, permission marketing and the legality of data privacy play nicely with each other.
The Most Common Channels of Permission Marketing
The ideas behind permission marketing are used in all channels these days, but here are some of the most common ways businesses use it.
Permission Marketing in Email
Email marketing that runs on permission marketing means having a list that is entirely created with opt-ins — no email scraping or buying allowed. These can be created via RSS feed opt-ins or regular newsletter opt-ins after a customer reads a blog.
Permission Marketing in Social Media
If you think about it, social media, excluding the advertising functionality, is built on permission. Users choose to follow you. They choose to watch your stories or subscribe to your channel based on the value you give them.
Approach your social media with a value-first perspective instead of a sales-first perspective, and you will have a much higher chance of seeing a positive ROI through social media.
Permission Marketing in SMS Marketing
You have to be careful with SMS marketing since texts are so personal, but SMS marketing is a great way to use permission marketing if a customer wants to hear from you. You need to be explicit and narrow with your use of texts, but as long as you’re transparent, it can be a great asset.
The most popular examples of permission marketing in SMS includes:
- Appointment confirmations
- Giveaway opportunities
- Contests / event marketing
Permission Marketing in Content Marketing
This is arguably the most popular avenue for permission marketing. Companies around the world have recognized the value of creating great content and information for free as a way to get in front of potential customers.
In fact, that’s exactly what we’re doing with this blog. The idea is to demonstrate expertise and give value upfront — that way you build goodwill and respect in the eyes of your prospective customers.
By having their content rank on search engines, companies can drive users to their site and encourage them to opt-in to a newsletter or sales call via lead magnets (more content behind an email wall) or contact forms.
The Benefits of Permission Marketing
There are all kinds of upsides to operating under a permission-based marketing model, but some of the big ones are:
1. Increases Conversion Rates
Because permission marketing operates by consent, each person who gives you permission to be marketed to by default is a more qualified prospect. In other words, the act of raising their hand and saying “talk to me” qualifies them as someone worth talking to.
This fact offers fundamentally higher conversion rates at the top of your funnel in terms of email open rates and customer engagement and all the way to the bottom of your funnel in terms of close rate and customer lifetime value.
2. Lowers Costs
Because a lot of permission marketing strategies such as content marketing are inbound (customers finding you) instead of outbound (you finding the customer), costs are lower.
For example, it is much cheaper to email thousands of opted-in subscribers than it is to mass mail a city with physical mailings.
3. Reduces Churn Rates
Another benefit of consent and personalization is that it fosters real relationships. Customers feel understood and begin to proactively rely on your business for certain information, tools, or services. This strengthening of customer relationships lowers churn rates on email lists and encourages repeat purchases.
4. Prepares Your Business for Data Privacy Regulations
California and the EU are leading the charge against invasive data practices that have ripped customer data ownership away from users and given it en masse to huge internet companies by passing comprehensive data privacy laws that subject companies to massive fines for breaches.
Consent and minimizing data use are fundamental to these laws, so by approaching all of your marketing through the lens of permission and consent, you will by proxy prepare yourself better for these legal responsibilities.
The Downsides of Permission Marketing
While permission marketing is a fantastic approach, there are some downsides to consider.
1. Takes More Time
Because a lot of permission marketing strategies like SEO, blogging, and email marketing can take time to build up and execute upon, you may not see as much short-term revenue as you would from interruptive advertising.
This is especially true for more established businesses that have never invested in permission marketing beforehand.
2. Still Relies on Interruptive Marketing
There’s an irony in permission marketing called the initiation paradox, which essentially says that you need to interrupt a customer to earn their consent. This is evident in permission marketing but is not absolute.
For example, you could interrupt a customer’s time with genuinely useful information that they can then choose to act on, which would prove the paradox, but you can also create blogs that users find by proactively searching for terms and topics relevant to them — and then they can choose to hear more from you.
That wouldn’t support the paradox because the customer controlled every aspect of the relationship.
3. Requires More Care and Upkeep
Sticking true to permission marketing isn’t always easy. You have to respect your customers by not going beyond what was promised, and it takes a lot of labor and time to give your customers a positive, valuable, and entertaining experience.
It’s the difference between building your own email list by spending hours and hours releasing guides and giving advice and just buying an email list and slapping a sales discount on it. The latter is way easier, but the former is so much more effective in the long run.
Permission Marketing Best Practices
1. Divide Your Marketing Into Customer Lifecycle Stages
It’s useful to think of your customers as if they were on a journey. A journey from not knowing who your company is to being an evangelist who loves sharing you with the world. This is commonly referred to as a “marketing funnel” because you’re pulling people from the top to the bottom.
The easiest way to think about your funnel is by dividing your customers into stages, or levels. The most common levels permission marketers use are:
- Awareness: Are aware of their problem but not the solution.
- Consideration: Are evaluating their choices for the solution they need.
- Decision: Are determining if your solution is the right choice for them.
Then, you can build content that speaks to users at each stage. For example, in the consideration stage, you could create a blog that talks about all of the specific solutions available to a customer’s problem. So if you were a password manager, then you could write about all of the different types of password managers available.
But even within those are more layers and distinctions worth thinking about. For more on customer lifecycle stages, go here.
2. Provide an Obvious Way to Deepen The Relationship
As an extension of the “stages” idea, you need to always give the customers a direct way to ascend to the next level of engagement.
If they are on a blog, they should have a way to get on the email list. If they are on the email list, they should have an opportunity to buy a product. If they’ve bought a product, they should have the chance to buy again or buy a different, high-value product.
Give your customers a chance to opt-in at every point.
3. Make Iteration Fundamental to Your Strategy
Part of permission marketing is always improving your messaging, and improving your messaging is best accomplished by being more personal, more useful, and more relevant.
This should never feel “completed”, and iterating on your marketing across each segment should be an ongoing project.
4. Invest in Long- and Short-Term Strategies
Because permission marketing can take a bit to get off the ground, you should invest in short-term marketing strategies such as PR and more traditional marketing to bolster your permission efforts.
For example, you could take a great piece of content you wrote and advertise it to potential customers, or you could pay for a feature on someone else’s list.
These are great ways to be presented to new audiences — especially if every time you engage in these marketing actions you do so with the idea that you’re trying to give a potential customer something useful.
The Future of Permission Marketing
The transparency of blockchain also gives the entire internet ecosystem a fascinating opportunity: the chance to return data ownership to users and compensate users for interacting with ads.
This is the ultimate expression of permission-based marketing because users opt-in to the advertising of their choice, which best matches companies to potential users and improves the experience for both businesses and customers.
See how we’re building that reality here.
Permission marketing is the industry standard for online marketing and for good reason. By grounding yourself in respect-based engagement and personalization, you can attract the best prospects for your company at the lowest cost while encouraging long-term customer retention.