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Permission Marketing

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

It recognizes the new power of the best consumers to ignore marketing. It realizes that treating people with respect is the best way to earn their attention.

Pay attention is a key phrase here, because permission marketers understand that when someone chooses to pay attention they are actually paying you with something precious. And there’s no way they can get their attention back if they change their mind. Attention becomes an important asset, something to be valued, not wasted.

Real permission is different from presumed or legalistic permission. Just because you somehow get my email address doesn’t mean you have permission. Just because I don’t complain doesn’t mean you have permission. Just because it’s in the fine print of your privacy policy doesn’t mean it’s permission either.

Real permission works like this: if you stop showing up, people complain, they ask where you went.

I got a note from a Daily Candy reader the other day. He was upset because for three days in a row, his Daily Candy newsletter hadn’t come. That’s permission.

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.

One of the key drivers of permission marketing, in addition to the scarcity of attention, is the extraordinarily low cost of dripping to people who want to hear from you. RSS and email and other techniques mean you don’t have to worry about stamps or network ad buys every time you have something to say. Home delivery is the milkman’s revenge… it’s the essence of permission.

Permission doesn’t have to be formal but it has to be obvious. My friend has permission to call me if he needs to borrow five dollars, but the person you meet at a trade show has no such ability to pitch you his entire resume, even though he paid to get in.

Subscriptions are an overt act of permission. That’s why home delivery newspaper readers are so valuable, and why magazine subscribers are worth more than newsstand ones.

In order to get permission, you make a promise. You say, “I will do x, y and z, I hope you will give me permission by listening.” And then, this is the hard part, that’s all you do. You don’t assume you can do more. You don’t sell the list or rent the list or demand more attention. You can promise a newsletter and talk to me for years, you can promise a daily RSS feed and talk to me every three minutes, you can promise a sales pitch every day (the way Woot does). But the promise is the promise until both sides agree to change it. You don’t assume that just because you’re running for President or coming to the end of the quarter or launching a new product that you have the right to break the deal. You don’t.

Permission doesn’t have to be a one-way broadcast medium. The internet means you can treat different people differently, and it demands that you figure out how to let your permission base choose what they hear and in what format.

When I launched my book that coined this phrase 9 years ago, I offered people a third of the book for free in exchange for an email address. And I never, ever did anything with those addresses again. That wasn’t part of the deal. No follow ups, no new products. A deal’s a deal.

If it sounds like you need humility and patience to do permission marketing, you’re right. That’s why so few companies do it properly. The best shortcut, in this case, is no shortcut at all.


Insiders know what it is, but it’s a new term to many.

Here’s what you do:
Put a picture on your website. Something novel but still recognizable.
Or something really useful.
Then, put lots of links to various websites within the image.
Or, if you want, make it something remarkably honest or confessional or provocative.
Or make it a top 10 or top 41 list.
Then, tell the people you’re linking to about it.

They link back to you because it’s funny or new or makes them seem smart or just feels sharable.

It gets ranked up high on Digg and the other social networking sites.

You get a TON of visits. Like 250,000 new people.

Sure, only a few will actually click around and interact with you, but still, it’s neat to have it happen and it might very well have ancillary benefits in your search results.

But mostly, do it because you can.

The web has been doing this forever, and it’s likely we still will. It’s a fine hobby, but I sure wouldn’t want to build a business around it.

Here’s today’s example.

Tribe Management

Brand management is so 1999.

Brand management was top down, internally focused, political and money based. It involved an MBA managing the brand, the ads, the shelf space, etc. The MBA argued with product development and manufacturing to get decent stuff, and with the CFO to get more cash to spend on ads.

Tribe management is a whole different way of looking at the world.

It starts with permission, the understanding that the real asset most organizations can build isn’t an amorphous brand but is in fact the privilege of delivering anticipated, personal and relevant messages to people who want to get them.

It adds to that the fact that what people really want is the ability to connect to each other, not to companies. So the permission is used to build a tribe, to build people who want to hear from the company because it helps them connect, it helps them find each other, it gives them a story to tell and something to talk about.

And of course, since this is so important, product development and manufacturing and the CFO work for the tribal manager. Everything the organization does is to feed and grow and satisfy the tribe.

Instead of looking for customers for your products, you seek out products (and services) for the tribe. Jerry Garcia understood this. Do you?

Who does this work for? Try record companies and bloggers, real estate agents and recruiters, book publishers and insurance companies. It works for Andrew Weil and for Rickie Lee Jones and for Rupert at the WSJ… But it also works for a small web development firm or a venture capitalist.

People form tribes with or without us. The challenge is to work for the tribe and make it something even better.

The Hyping Point

A few readers have written in, asking me about a recent article in Fast Company about Malcolm Gladwell’s  Tipping Point and new research by Duncan Watts. (Cory’s take on it is here). Full disclosure: Duncan is brilliant, and so is Malcolm. Which is my point, I guess. Duncan’s work does nothing at all to discredit the importance of what Gladwell is saying in the Tipping Point. Mostly, I think it’s a provocative headline designed to get clicks for the magazine…

As I understand it, people are influenced by the people around them. That we act, like buffalo, in a herd. The idea that a single influential individual (even a blogger like Guy or a talk show host like Oprah) can individually change the herd is crazy, and I don’t think anyone has argued that.

What should be really clear, though, is that people with big audiences certainly count as one of the people around you. If the guy down the row at work buys a Mac Air, it counts. If Guy buys a Mac Air, it counts just as much (or possibly a bit more). If a kid in school is listening to Ini, it counts. And if you hear HotStepper on a popular radio station, it counts just as much. Since people with big audiences have more ‘friends’ and have more ‘people down the hall’, they have more influence. Not because they count for more, just because they ‘know’ more people. (Forgive the excessive use of single quotation marks, please).

Unleashing the Ideavirus didn’t spread because ‘important’ people endorsed and promoted it. It spread because passionate people did.

One more reason not to obsess about the A list in any media category. Worry instead about people with passion and people with lots of friends. You need both for ideas to spread. That was Malcolm’s point all along.

After the lawyers

If it’s in print, it matters even more. Things in print have a tone and a finality that add an impact that you need to care about.

So, after the lawyers are done, let the marketers make sure it sounds like you. Your signs, your contacts, your fine print… your words don’t just sit there, they shout.

Consider this sign (hidden camera quality, sorry). Here are the highlights:

At a florist? The people here are uniformly nice. Why are they yelling at me? Why not ditch the capital letters and the rigid rules and say something like,

"At Surroundings, it’s really important to us that you be delighted (not just happy). Please keep your receipt and be sure to bring it with you if there are any problems. We’ll be happy to exchange any cut flowers that aren’t just right–we’ll give you a store credit or any other item in the store of equal or lesser value. Unfortunately, we can’t exchange plants. If you have any questions, don’t hesitate to ask any of us for help."

Same rules, different marketing.

Don’t get fooled again

Next time you get an email (copied to all your friends plus people you don’t know) warning you about some horrible computer virus, some sick kid collecting greeting cards or the National Do Not Call List, don’t just blindly follow instructions and then forward to everyone you know.

Instead, go to Google and type in the word "snopes" followed by the gist of the cause or the event or emergency. Snopes will then tell you whether it’s a hoax or not. Save you and your list a whole lot of time.

Needle in a Haystack marketing

So, why bother everyone with a blog post about iPhone voice mail?

It used to be that marketing to the masses cost a fortune, or sometimes, two fortunes.

With a blog or CraigsList or Squidoo, you can enter your information into the vast online database for free.

No, doing that won’t reach everyone. In fact, it will reach almost no one.

But that’s fine if the few people you do reach are the people who are looking for you. My iPhone post will get seen by the hundred or thousand people who do the precise Google search that turns it up. And they’ll be glad they did.

If you’re using a tool that supports this sort of deep search (this blog is a poor example of that, of course) and you’ve got the time, go ahead and solve very specific problems, realizing that you won’t reach everyone, just the people who care a great deal.

The two tips I have for you:

1. Be sure to really and truly solve the searcher’s problem. Boilerplate and selfish redirection of attention are bogus strategies that don’t pay off. I like this solution to the search for "Michelle Obama pictures," and it’s no surprise it comes up first.

2. Make it a habit. Solve five or ten or fifty problems a day and soon you’ll have thousands of solutions, which ought to be enough.

If your iphone voice mail is silent (no sound)

I discovered a bug with my iphone over the weekend. Due to an update, when using it with Bluetooth, I found that while I could make and receive calls, my voice mail showed up but I couldn’t hear it. AT&T blamed Apple and vice versa. Finally, we discovered that it was sort of sending the sound to Bluetooth, but not really.

We reset everything, including clearing all my voice mail. Nothing worked.

All I had to do (which is a bit of a pain in the neck) is route the audio to the handset manually and …fixed.

George, check your spam filter

If I was in the middle of an email dialogue with you and suddenly I’m not, please check your spam filter. I’ve heard from about six people that my email is starting to show up there instead.

Sorry to interrupt everyone else, but it’s a bit of a catch 22… if the only way to tell you that you’re not getting my email is by email…