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Permission Marketing: Turning Strangers Into Friends, And Friends Into Customers

By: Seth Godin

Reviewed By: Bob Ruffolo

Wouldn't it be nice if your customers came to you, instead of having to chase them down?

In Seth Godin's book Permission Marketing, he shows you exactly how to accomplish that.

Traditional outbound, advertising methods, sometimes called "Interruption Marketing" aim to grab our attention away from something we're already doing.

Whether it be a TV commercial or a magazine ad, it interrupts what we were doing, in hopes that we'll be interested in the offer.

Permission Marketing, on the other hand, offers an opportunity for consumers to choose whether or not to be marketed to. 

Much like Inbound Marketing, it only targeting volunteers, Permission Marketing assures that the consumers pay more attention to the Marketing message.

It encourages consumers to engage in a long-standing, cooperative Marketing campaign rather than shoving its sales pitch into their faces.

Seth Godin Describes Permission Marketing as Dating Your Customer in Five Steps

  1. Offer the prospect an incentive to volunteer their contact information. (Convert)
  2. Once you've gained their attention, offer a curriculum over time, teaching them about your product or service. (Nurture)
  3. Reinforce the incentive by consistently providing value to guarantee that the prospect maintains their permission.
  4. Offer additional incentives to get even more permission from them. 
  5. Over time, leverage the permission to change consumer behavior toward profits. (Close)

As you can see, this is essentially the process of effective Inbound Marketing.

The Five Commandments of Permission Marketing

Godin outlines a set of five principles that you must follow, as a Permission Marketer, to be effective:

  1. As a Permission Marketer, you are a farmer and constantly need to work at harvesting your crop/customers. An Interruption Marketer is just a hunter and tries to kill something once with a single bullet.
  2. Permission is a process, not a single moment.
  3. Never breach the trust of your customer once they grant you permission to speak with them by selling their data to someone else.
  4. Frequency is always better than reach.
  5. Give a prospect a reason to pay attention –- you have to offer an explicit reward, information, education, entertainment, or even cold hard cash to get the customer to opt-in to the message.

Permission Marketing requires you to understand the buying process of your customers and to adjust your Marketing efforts around that, as opposed to expecting your persona to adjust around you.

The Five Levels of Permission Marketing

With the five commandments in hand, there are five levels of Permission Marketing you can then attempt. Seth Godin ranks them from least to most effective:

1. Situational Permission

This is a scenario where a lead provides their contact information and gives a business permission to assist them further.

Examples include:

  • Getting a quote for a service
  • Registering for a free webinar
  • Subscribing up to a newsletter
  • Signing up to receive a free report

At this point, the person is interested in what you have to offer, but they likely haven't made up their mind about making a purchase from you.

Most businesses that rely on Inbound Marketing for lead generation offer an incentive for leads to opt-in to their mailing list. Once they've joined your mailing list, you have permission to communicate with them further -- and if the incentive you offered was valuable enough, they will be interested in hearing more from you.

2. Brand Trust

Establishing brand trust takes time, but once you've accomplished this your customer gives you permission to regularly contact them and you will be their go-to source for the product or service you offer most of the time.

Marketing to your persona at this level is much easier than only having situational permission because you no longer have to win them over. However, that doesn't mean you can't lose their trust either. You still have to make an effort to keep their trust, but they will be more forgiving of little mistakes at this level.

It's all about keeping your customers happy and being as loyal to them as they are to you.

3. Personal Relationship

At this level, the customer's permission is earned because they have a personal relationship with someone in the organization.

Have any of your close friends or relatives ever started a business?

You are a lot more likely to do business with them than you are a competitor, simply for the fact that you want to support them and their business.

Even if your close friend works for a company (instead of being a founder) you are more likely to do business with that company unless your friend suggests otherwise.

This is why it's crucial that you are developing real relationships with your best customers and clients.

4. Points Permission

At this level, the customer is already buying a company's good or services and provides contact information because they are incentivized by points or rewards.

Examples include:

  • Frequent flyer points
  • Buy x amount of services and get the next one free
  • Shoppers cards that provide coupons on select items

Does your business have a customer loyalty program?

One of the most powerful ways to grow your business -- especially if your company is tech-related -- is to create an affiliate program where your customers can receive commissions for recommending your company.

There's nothing more valuable in marketing than a referral from someone you trust.

5. Intravenous Permission

This is the most efficient level of permission marketing because this is the level where a customer depends on your business.

The term intravenous permission comes from an analogy that Godin states in the book: "This is what you've got going when you're in the intensive care unit with a needle in your arm and a bag of medicine dripping into your veins...Your doctor has your written permission to inject just about anything he wants into your IV bag. Not only can he select and administer the drug, but he then can charge you for the treatment and fully expect that you'll pay for it."

This is where the SaaS business model really shines.

If you can create a B2B product or service that controls the back end, exists as a framework, or operates in a way that customers build their business around it -- you have the highest level of permission marketing.

At this level raising prices, upselling, and other marketing strategies that present a challenge become much easier to accomplish. That doesn't mean you have permission to abuse your power, but you certainly have leverage.

The Ten Questions You Must Ask When Evaluating Your Permission Marketing Program

Want to evaluate your permission marketing program, according to the standards set by Seth Godin? Answer these ten questions:

  1. What's the bait? It needs to be easy to describe, valuable to a large portion of your audience, easy to deliver, consistent with your core message, and beneficial enough that they are willing to exchange their attention and contact information for it.
  2. What does incremental permission cost? What does your business have to give (or pay) to further the relationship with your lead?
  3. How deep is the permission that is granted? If the prospect requests a quote from your service, send them the quote and don't bombard them with a bunch of other marketing material. This leads to canceled permission.
  4. How much does incremental frequency cost? What resources are required for you to stay in contact with your persona on a regular, consistent basis?
  5. What's the active response rate to communications? What are your email open and click-through rates? How many people respond to emails or leave comments on blog posts? Are you actively making an effort to increase engagement?
  6. What are the issues regarding compression? Do you have a feedback loop and technology in place to increase the bait as its effectiveness begins to tail off?
  7. Is your company treating the permission as an asset? Understanding the ROI of your inbound marketing efforts will help your business view permission as an asset.
  8. How is the permission being leveraged? Are you asking for feedback, offering beta tests, etc?
  9. How is the permission level being increased? What are you doing to transform interested leads into loyal customers?
  10. What is the expected lifetime of one permission? Are you measuring turnover rates of customers or subscribers?

What kind of shape is your permission marketing program in? If it's not looking too good, we can help!