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Ten years of Permission Marketing

When I wrote Permission Marketing, people thought I was some sort of crackpot (some people still do, fortunately). One author wrote that I was "delusional" and skeptical marketers were sort of amazed that the idea caught on. The Direct Marketing Association viewed the very concept as a threat to their future.

The best ideas are like that. The book published on May 6, 1999, which feels like six lifetimes ago.

Ten years later, ethical email marketing is a billion dollar industry. Many companies have been built on the foundation of this simple idea, and some of them are quite profitable. Daily Candy sold to Comcast for more than $120 million and it is nothing but a permission marketing engine. More important, I think, the attitude of anticipated, personal and relevant messaging is changing the way organizations come to market.

search on the term shows a bazillion matches, though I wish spammers would quit using the term to pretend that they are actually doing something worthwhile. It delights me to see my neologism enter the language, used by people who didn't even know that it came from a book that's only ten years old.

The biggest impact of Permission Marketing isn't that there is less spam. In fact, there's more, because it's so cheap. No, the biggest measurable impact is the growth of truly opt in marketing, from close to zero to a number big enough that we've all seen it and are part of it. Not just email lists, of course, but RSS feeds and yes, Google AdWords.

Some lessons about accidental success:

  1. Fred Hills, the editor who worked with me at Simon & Schuster, had worked on books by Nabokov and others. The fact that he didn't do a lot of business books gave me the freedom to write the book I wanted to write. Thankfully, he largely left me alone to make my own mistakes.
  2. Because I got a small advance and wasn't a key book on their list, I had a lot of freedom. They let me art direct the cover, which ended up being a big win for the book and for my brand.
  3. Brian Smale, who took the cover photo, was one of the new breed of magazine photographers who worked hard not to take boring photos. In those days, that was a revolutionary idea.
  4. This was the first book where I started my tradition of using the ideas in the book to market the book. In this case, a simple permission offer: if you visit permission.com, I'll send you the first four chapters of the book for free. And you'll never get another note from me as a result. The only reason my publisher approved this idea is that they believed it would never work. Ten years later, I have no idea how many millions of people have written to that address, but it's a lot. (Yes, it still works).
  5. I didn't have a grand organized promotional plan. I didn't orchestrate a movement. I just wrote a book and talked about it and tried to take my own advice.

There's a lot of updating that the book could use, because when I wrote it there was no Google, Facebook, Twitter, universal email access, widespread high bandwidth connectivity, browsers that rarely crashed or iPhones. But I'm going to let it stand as is, because keeping it up to date is a never ending task. I hope the general concepts stand the test of time. The biggest thing I'd change is the emphasis on games and prizes over promises and connection and information. I think the latter end up scaling better and are more universal and reliable.

Short version: Don't be selfish. You're not in charge. Make promises and keep them. It's like dating. It's an asset, it's expensive and it's worth it.

The Houdini technique

Make easy things look difficult.

Make difficult things look easy.

Flying a plane from one city to another, on time, is incredibly difficult. There’s a million things that can go wrong. And yet, for years, the airlines worked hard to make it appear easy. They wanted to appear competent and to make us feel safe.

The other day, as I waited for a flight, I heard the dreaded announcement. The flight was delayed, there was a mechanical problem. Angst filled the gate area.

Five minutes later, they announced that the problem was fixed, and we could board… we ended up leaving ten minutes early. Joy throughout the land!

Where did the joy come from? It came from the rapid shift in expectations. For a moment, the airline made it look hard. then they did the trick and we were saved.

Houdini never said, “check out these trick handcuffs and watch how easy it is for me to take them off."

Thinking about business models

A business model is the architecture of a business or project. It has four elements:

  1. What compelling reason exists for people to give you money? (or votes or donations)
  2. How do you acquire what you're selling for less than it costs to sell it?
  3. What structural insulation do you have from relentless commoditization and a price war?
  4. How will strangers find out about the business and decide to become customers?

The internet 1.0 was a fascinating place because business models were in flux. Suddenly, it was possible to have costless transactions, which meant that doing something at a huge scale was very cheap. That means that #2 was really cheap, so #1 didn't have to be very big at all.

Some people got way out of hand and decided that costs were so low, they didn't have to worry about revenue at all. There are still some internet hotshot companies that are operating under this scenario, which means that it's fair to say that they don't actually have a business model.

The idea of connecting people, of building tribes, of the natural monopoly provided by online communities means that the internet is the best friend of people focusing on the third element, insulation from competition. Once you build a network, it's extremely difficult for someone else to disrupt it.

As the internet has spread into all aspects of our culture, it is affecting business models offline as well. Your t-shirt shop or consulting firm or political campaign has a different business model than it did ten years ago, largely because viral marketing and the growth of cash-free marketing means that you can spread an idea farther and faster than ever before. It also makes it far cheaper for a competitor to enter the market (#3) putting existing players under significant pressure from newcomers.

This business model revolution is just getting started. It's' not too late to invent a better one.

Can you change everything?

You might not be as permanently stuck in a rut as you think. The rut you're in isn't permanent, nor is it perfect. There are certainly less perfect ruts, but there may be better ones as well. The certain thing is that you can change everything…

  1. Buy a competitor
  2. Sell to a competitor
  3. Publish your best work for free online
  4. Close your worst-performing locations
  5. Open a new branch in a high-traffic location
  6. Hire the best salesperson away from the competition
  7. Join the competition
  8. Host a conference for your competitors
  9. Connect your best customers and organize a tribe
  10. Fire the 80% of your customers that account for 20% of your sales
  11. Start a blog
  12. Start a digital bootstrap business on the weekends
  13. While looking for a job, spend 40 hours a week volunteering and freelancing for good causes
  14. Go on tour and visit your best customers in person
  15. Answer the customer service line for a day
  16. Learn to be a killer presenter
  17. Let the most junior person in the organization run things for a day
  18. Delete your website and start over with the simplest possible site
  19. Call former employees and ask for advice
  20. Move to Thailand
  21. Listen to audio books in your car instead of the radio
  22. Sell your cash cow division to the competition and invest everything in the new thing
  23. Find more products for your existing customers to buy
  24. Become a gadfly and tell the truth about your industry
  25. Quit your job
  26. Move your operations to another city
  27. Become a vegan
  28. Have all meetings in a room with no chairs, and everyone wears a bathrobe over their clothes
  29. Open your offices only four hours a day
  30. Open your offices 24 hours a day for a week
  31. Find every project that is near the danger zone (in terms of p&l or deadlines) and cancel it, no appeals
  32. Go for a walk during lunch
  33. Get an RSS reader and read a lot more blogs
  34. Go offline for longer than you thought possible
  35. Write five thank you notes every day
  36. Stop sending spam
  37. Do your work somewhere else. Set up your chiropractic table at the mall
  38. Have everyone at work switch offices
  39. Give your most valuable possessions to a stranger
  40. Go see live music
  41. Start a company scrapbook and take daily notes
  42. Hire a firm to make a documentary about your organization
  43. Buy some art
  44. Make some art.
  45. Do the work.

Friction saves the medium

Email is dying because it's free. If you can send an email for free to 100 of your closest friends, instantly, you probably won't abuse the privilege. But someone else will because they might define 'friend' differently than you or I.

100 times 100 is ten thousand. Spam.

So now, people don't reply when you send them a resume, because it costs too much to do that ten thousand times.

Twitter is next. The paradox is obvious: to grow, you need to remove friction from the medium. If it's not easy and free to use, people won't. But then it gets big and it becomes profitable, so people use it too much.

The churn rate at twitter is reported as more than 50%. That's because of lack of friction as well. Easy to get in, easy to get out.

Stamps are underrated. Friction rewards intent and creates scarcity.

The banal brazenness of telescammers

I got a call a few weeks ago from a telemarketer at Premier Impressions. (Her number is 800 778 6304).   She told me she was selling ads for a free directory being published by my local library. Actually, first she said she was calling from "Westchester County," but when pressed, said she was working with the County, and then when pressed further, acknowledged that she was working with the local library. I was Googling and taking notes the whole time. I told her I was concerned about her approach, and that I was going to write a story about what she was doing. I even read to her from a website complaining about stuff like this her firm had done in the past.

Well, I know the folks at the local library and asked who she was working with. She told me the head of the library's name (!) and I said I'd check with her and call back. The telemarketer insisted on giving me her full name and number so that after I checked, I could call her back and do business.

You've already guessed this: My library had never heard of these guys. But plenty of other organizations have. I called the company for comment, was transferred to their parent company and they refused to comment.

I'm just astonished by this organization. Astonished that the telemarketer would be willing to do this all day–defrauding small businesses in the name of a local charity or institution. Astonished that a company in the US can do this for years and years without someone shutting them down. Most of all, amazed at how trivial the whole thing is. Drip, drip, drip it apparently ends up with enough money on the table for people to sacrifice their ethics.

Mechanics vs. intent

There are a thousand things you can do to improve the mechanics of people spreading the word about you, your conference, your product, your event, your service. You can create hashtags, provide kiosks, host discussions, give out free postcards or hand out bumper stickers. There are plenty of useful tactics available to you.

Mechanics are important, no doubt.

More important by far is creating a desire to share. If people intend to share, they'll find a way, the mechanics are just a convenience. But if you don't go the extra mile and I end up not caring, all the tactics in the world won't help.