You Have My Permission

Seth Godin, the father of permission marketing, says it’s not your fault. It’s just physically impossible for you to pay attention to everything that marketers throw at you. Is it any wonder that consumers feel like the fast-moving world around them is getting blurry? There’s TV at the airport, advertisements in restrooms, newsletters on virtually every topic and a cellular phone wherever you go.

Smart marketers have discovered that the old way of advertising and selling products isn’t working as well as it used to, and they’re aggressively searching for a new, enterprising way to increase market share and profits. SUCCESS recently talked with Seth Godin about how permission marketing can help direct sellers earn a whole different level of trust with their customers and potential business partners alike.

SUCCESS: We’d like to start with you briefly describing the concept of permission marketing.

Godin: It’s easiest to talk about it by talking about what we’re used to. What we’re used to is unanticipated, impersonal messages delivered by marketers who can interrupt us whenever they want, however they want, about anything they’re interested in. We all grew up in a world where if you had money, you had power. You had the power to get people to pay attention. And this is what we accept as normal. When, in fact, a hundred years ago, the only kind of marketing was the kind that’s now coming back: anticipated, personal and relevant messages delivered to people who want to get them. With all of the information that is available through hundreds of TV channels and the Internet, consumers today have the power to say, “I’m only going to choose to pay attention to what I want to pay attention to. I don’t care if it’s important to you. If you show me something that I don’t want to hear or see, I’m going to ignore you.” That’s where it starts.

Second, there’s an asset that can be built. That asset is the privilege, not the right, but the privilege of marketing to people who want to be marketed to, or selling to people who want to be sold to. That’s what I call permission marketing.

SUCCESS: How does permission marketing apply to a traditional company?

Godin: A good example to start with is Amazon. com, a company that is worth billions of dollars. How can that be? They don’t have a lot of inventory, warehouses, factories or even employees, for that matter. So what do they have that makes them worth billions of dollars? Simple. They have more than 40 million people who want to hear from them; 40 million who they know enough about that they can deliver these anticipated, personal and relevant messages to. And when says we think this is a product for you, sales go through the roof.

If you think about it, that means Amazon. com has earned significant power in the marketplace. They’re not a retailer who’s selling the lowest price. They are someone that wholesalers and manufacturers and consumers value because if they recommend it, they feel it’s going to work. By being this middleman, they actually add a lot of value and make a lot of profit because of one thing: a permission asset.

SUCCESS: You talk a lot about how permission marketing works in business and the importance of understanding “share of wallet” versus “share of market.” How are the two different?

Godin: In order to execute permission marketing, you have to acknowledge that share of wallet is more important than share of market. There are two ways to get married. The first way is to go to a singles bar, walk up to the first person you meet and propose marriage. If they won’t marry you, repeat the process with every person in the singles bar until someone says, “I do.” Obviously, this is a stupid way to get married. It’s also a dumb way to grow your business. But that’s what almost everybody does, including those in the direct selling industry. You walk up to someone and say, “Buy my product or tell me to go away; buy my product or hang up; buy my product or turn the page.” And when you’re constantly propositioning strangers, the hit rate is awfully low.

The alternative is called dating. You go on a date, if it goes well, you go on another date. Wait until the third date before you tell her you’re out on parole. Work your way into a relationship that grows over time. In order to do that, you have to have patience and the discipline to understand that earning that relationship is profitable because you’re not going to sell that person one thing and run away. You’re going to be able to solve that person’s needs for years to come.

If you’re dating somebody, you can’t send a stand-in to take your place on the date just because you’re busy with something else that night. Dating is non-transferable. The same thing is true with permission when you’re a marketer. You can’t say here’s my customer list, do with it as you wish. Because the minute it’s rented, sold or bought, it becomes worthless because you’re no longer treating it like permission.

Not only is permission non-transferable, it’s instantly revokable. The minute someone says I never want to hear from you again, it’s over. You have to realize that every time you interact with somebody, they have a choice and they can end the relationship at any time.

Permission is also selfish in the fact that everybody is focused on what’s in it for me. Meaning that it’s never your turn. It’s never your turn to say to somebody, “Okay, I’ve been giving, giving and giving. Now I want to take.” Instead, it has to be consensual, a process of give and take that never involves you saying, “I need this to make my quota, or I need you to introduce me to four friends, because if I don’t get you to introduce me to four friends, I’m in trouble.” I’m only going to introduce you to four friends if I want to, not because it’s important to you.

SUCCESS: You mention in Permission Marketing the best kind of permission is the kind that’s automatic and unquestioned. How is it beneficial in building long-term customer relationships?

Godin: The best kind of permission is what I call intravenous permission. It allows a person or company to make purchasing decisions on behalf of the customer. Just like when a doctor hooks up a patient to an IV and decides to inject drugs through this IV. I’ve got a bunch of wants and needs that are a hassle for me to keep up. If someone came to me and said, “I will keep solving your problem until you tell me to stop,” then that becomes really valuable.

I subscribe to lawn care. I don’t have to find a new guy to cut my lawn every time it’s long. What happens is he just does it until I tell him to stop. There’s lots of things that people subscribe to in their life. And the real opportunity here is to figure out how to get people to go to a direct seller and say, “I like this product. I like what it’s doing for me. Keep it coming until I tell you to stop.”

Most businesses try to find customers for their products, but the big win is when you can find products for your customers. And that is a totally different way of looking at the world. There are some great examples of organizations that grew by saying, “We have this group of customers. How can we find another product for them?” This is totally different than what most organizations do, which is let’s find more customers for our product.

SUCCESS: Talk to us about the relationship between frequency and trust.

Godin: I need to tell you the story of CD Now, which was the of buying CDs online. They got to a point where one-third of all their sales came via e-mail. Every three weeks, they would send an e-mail to millions of people who had signed up for their service. In the body of the e-mail was their message that said here is the CD we think is best for you based on everything we know about you. Just that e-mail accounted for a third of their sales. Then they went public and needed to increase sales. So they started sending an e-mail to these people every two weeks and their sales went up. They started sending an e-mail every week, and their sales went up again. They started sending an e-mail every three days and their sales went up more. And they started sending an e-mail every two days and their sales, well, went in the tank.

Things were going great, so what happened? They had trained people to ignore their e-mail. Once you start increasing the frequency of your marketing message, in the short run, you’ll make more money. In the long run, you’ve trained people to ignore you, a recipe for disaster. This is a great lesson for direct sellers as well. If you bombard prospective business partners too frequently, they will go out of their way to ignore you. Give them space and time to absorb the information and come back to them.

SUCCESS: As far as the Internet today, is it different than it was when you wrote Permission Marketing? And how do legitimate Internet marketers overcome the damage that has been done by those that have little regard for gaining permission?

Godin: Yes. Spam and phishing scams got out of control far faster than I ever expected. And so it’s harder, much, much harder to get permission than it ever was before. You can overcome it by understanding that you have no right to permission from anybody. This isn’t something that you’ve earned, it’s a privilege. You’re not allowed to say, “What I’m doing is really important and the ends justify the means. And once people realize how great this is, they’ll forgive me for the way I talked to them when they were a stranger. I’m in a hurry. I can’t wait for them to come to me.” Well, that sounds good, but it doesn’t work. What works is people who are building remarkable products. If you do something remarkable, then people who aren’t getting paid will talk about it.

SUCCESS: What about those people who are working for companies who don’t have that same commitment to producing remarkable products? What advice would you give them?

Godin: My answer to those people is you are your own boss. You are the boss of the way you’re spending your time and the way you’re spending your career, as well as the reputation you’re building. And if the person you’ve chosen to work with won’t let you do business this way—with remarkable products, treating people with respect, keeping your promises and not growing when you want to grow, but growing when the market encourages you to grow—then you are making a mistake by not finding a new partner. And that new partner could be you running your own business.

Interview taken from SUCCESS from Home, September 2005. All rights reserved.

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