Alan Mitchell: Taking liberties with permission marketing

Permission marketing, telling individual consumers what they want to hear, is increasingly popular. But can it live up to expectations?

As a buzzword, permission marketing seems to be sweeping the profession. Here’s a suggestion: take it with a large pinch of salt.

The theory is compelling. The holy grail of all marketing communications is relevance. If a message is relevant to the receiver, it will be picked up and acted upon – which means that it is effective from the sender’s point of view.

Irrelevant equals lose-lose. Relevant equals win-win. What better way of ensuring relevance than getting the receiver to say “Yes, that’s the message I want to receive”.

But in practice, it rarely works like that. For a start, giving permission is hard work for the consumer. It means I have to stop what I’m doing, think about it, tick a box, send an e-mail, etc: it’s an investment of time, attention and effort.

Seth Godin, the ex-Yahoo! direct marketer most associated with permission marketing, vilifies TV advertising as “interruption marketing” because it interrupts consumers while they’re watching their favourite programmes. By that definition, giving permission is more of an interruption to my life than any 30-second ad. And unless I get amazingly more relevant, useful information that saves me a lot of time or money or gives me access to much better, more appropriate offers, I’m unlikely to feel that I’ve earned a good return on my investment.

And how often does this happen? Most permission marketing schemes amount to little more than permission spamming. You say yes once and the floodgates open. Haven’t we all signed up to free e-mail newsletters only to stop reading them after the third edition, and then spent time deleting them (unread) or finding some way to stop them arriving in the first place?

Viral marketing, which leverages the permission of one individual to reach others, is not much better. It suggests that the brand itself hasn’t got the trust or attributes to attract its market’s attention in its own right, so it has to live off the trust and reputation of someone else instead. Once the novelty of viral campaigns wears off, the parasitic heart of this relationship soon becomes clear. Unless the virus’ content is incredibly powerful – usually in the form of an incredibly expensive promotion – it’s likely to backfire on the carrier or the original perpetrating brand.

Then there’s the “points for permission” approach, as espoused by Godin in his book Permission Marketing. His theory is that closing a sale is like dating someone. You start with an innocent enough question – “will you go out with me?”. If the person says yes, you have qualified your leads, which means you can focus your incentives on this person. You then increase the level of incentives over a series of such dates (or interactions) “to increase the level of permission – that is, to get them to say ‘I do’.” But sex in exchange for flowers and dinner never works for long in real life and neither will incentive points in exchange for permission work in marketing.

The ideal, of course, is permission marketing in a customer relationship management context. Customers have a continuing relationship with a company and the company has enough data and insight about them to know exactly what messages to send, about what and when. That’s the dream, anyway. But, again, how often does this happen?

It quickly becomes a nightmare on two counts. First, the marketers’ ability to get enough information to achieve this personalised, one-to-one targeting always seems to be just around the corner. “If only we could get richer, more robust, up-to-date data. Then we would be able to crack it.” Soon the entire organisation is on a hugely expensive and infinite wild-goose chase. Seduced by the god myth, the only way it can achieve its perfect targeting is by reaching the all-embracing omniscience of the good Lord himself.

The second half of the nightmare is that restricting yourself to sending only the right messages to the consumer at the right time, may mean you never close enough sales to earn a return on the money you’ve invested in all that CRM software and data. At which point, getting permission starts taking second place to good old-fashioned response-rate calculations.

Does this mean permission marketing is dead in the water? Not necessarily. So far, all we’ve got is a rudderless ship.

First, with most approaches to permission marketing, marketers are far too greedy. They want the levels of efficiency that are attained when consumers are involved in the marketing process and given “a say”, but they don’t want the corollary: a loss of control. So they plump for programmes designed to get the consumer to grant them permission to keep control over what messages are sent, to whom and when.

Second, marketers judge “efficiency” from their point of view, not the consumer’s. It may be super-efficient for a marketer to have a permission relationship with a consumer, but it becomes extremely inefficient for the consumer if he or she has to invest time, attention and effort in a myriad of such relationships. One of the big consumer benefits of traditional “interruption advertising” is that it gives them free or subsidised content, and if they don’t like the resulting messages they can simply ignore them. It’s dead easy, in other words.

Permission marketing is therefore only likely to reach critical mass if it produces a new level of value for the consumer. How? Through the rise of dedicated, focused, professional infomediaries which collect information and messages from their consumers/clients and pass them on (in suitably edited form) to many different suppliers, to find the best match – in other words, “sell” individual permissions on behalf of the consumer, while minimising the effort demanded of that consumer. But this is not just a clever marketing tool or concept. It’s a completely different business.

Alan Mitchell’s book Right Side Up: Build Brands in the Age of the Organised Consumer is available from Harper Collins Publishers, at the special price of &£16.99 (rrp &£19.99) including postage and packaging. Telephone 0870 900 2050 and ask for department 832D

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