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.