April 17th, 2018

Permission Marketing: Why User Consent Matters

Author: Laura Lynch
Laura Lynch
Director of Marketing

Permission Marketing: why user consent matters

How to turn an interruption into a desirable resource.

If you think about most marketing you encounter day-to-day, you’ll notice that you didn’t ask for most of it. In fact, this is such a foregone conclusion for most people that the idea anyone would ask for someone to market to them seems almost laughable.

Advertisements interrupt the TV programming we watch, the music we listen to, and the articles we read. It fills our inboxes, brands our sports teams, and worms its way into product placements in block-busting Hollywood hits. If you’ve ever aggressively unsubscribed yourself from email lists, added your name to a “do not call” registry, or considered deleting your social media accounts, you already know how difficult weeding unwanted advertising from your life can be.

The problem is that marketing isn’t inherently bad. In fact, good marketing is a crucial part of our economy. The commercials interrupting your TV show also help pay for their programming. The advertisements to the side of the news article you read help the publication stay in business. And marketing campaigns that successfully connect a consumer to a product that they want performs a valuable service to the customer, while keeping businesses and the people who work for them employed.

Marketing is necessary, but it isn’t a necessary evil. The question is, how can we help marketing perform the service it was designed for without disrupting everyone’s lives? This is where the question of consent comes to play.

Permission marketing puts users in control.

Back in 1999, Seth Godin published his book Permission Marketing: Turning Strangers into Friends and Friends into Customers, in which he promoted the practice of obtaining consent from customers before marketing to them. This thinking has shaped a lot of modern digital marketing practices in ways we’ll get to in a minute.

But to clarify the premise, the idea behind permission marketing is that advertising to people who may not want to hear from you is fighting an uphill battle. Some people are never going to be customers, and the faster you can identify those people and leave them alone, the happier we’ll all be.

For instance, I used to routinely get calls from carpet cleaners offering me a great deal on cleaning the carpets in my home. The problem is: I only have wood floors. It doesn’t matter how great I think their brand might be, I will never be their customer.

On the other hand, I do have a select group of brands I explicitly want to hear from. I’ve signed up to their mailing lists, and despite culling my marketing subscriptions regularly, I still let their emails into my inbox. I almost always open them, and I often click on their links as well. Even if I don’t make purchases very frequently, I like being reminded of the brand, and I like to see what’s new from them.

What this has done is it’s allowed me to be selective about the messages that come my way, and it’s allowed these brands a safe way to build a relationship with me that will almost certainly lead to future sales. But all that is the result of asking my permission.

How to ask for marketing permission.

Once you start thinking about permission marketing in your own strategy, you may realize that many platforms have already taken a permission-first approach. Here’s a few places where marketing consent already is the norm.

Likes, follows, and subscriptions.

If you’ve created a brand page on a social media platform, then attracting followers is your way of growing a permission-based marketing stream. You focus on creating the kind of content your followers want to see, and they spread the word for you through their social networks.

Email marketing forms.

A lot of online content marketing is built on obtaining email addresses. When someone leaves an email address in exchange for a piece of downloadable content or access to a service, they’re opening the door for marketing communications from you.

However, this is only tacit consent rather than full consent, so if you’re emailing someone based on this, you should be looking for other triggers as well. And if someone stops visiting you or opening your emails, you should take that a sign that they no longer want to hear from you, and you should stop emailing them.

On the other hand, a double opt-in form moves from tacit to affirmative consent. In this situation, the customer not only leaves their email address, but then in your first email to them you ask to verify that they did actually intend to join your email list. You let them know what your list is for, and how frequently they can expect to hear from you. And you given them an easy way to withdraw consent (unsubscribe) when they’re ready.

Transparent cookie policies.

Finally, there are cookies. Web cookies can be a tricky subject, because many people misunderstand how they’re used. In some instances, web cookies are necessary for a website to function. In others, they’re a rather harmless tactic to provide your users with a seamless user experience.

Even in marketing contexts, web cookies are like a branded shopping bag: people can see where you were and change what advertisements they display on their site to match. But the website itself doesn’t follow you around.

That said, you can help your users understand cookies better by putting up a consent notice when they first visit your site. In some countries, particularly those that fall under the GDPR, that may even be a requirement.

But doesn’t permission marketing begin with an interruption?

There is, of course, a paradox about permission marketing. To get permission in the first place, you still have to draw attention to your business. Probably the only way that marketing is ever interruption-less is through organic search traffic, but most businesses need some kind of boost, particularly when they’re first starting out. It’s a little bit of a chicken-and-egg problem.

Well, all right. You have to get attention somehow. But when you do, think of it like an introduction rather than an interruption.

If you were at a social event, and you wanted to pass out some business cards, you could do it two ways:

1) You could shove your way into conversations, push your business cards on people who didn’t ask for them, cause a scene, and “make it rain” in the hopes that someone might pick up a card and decide you were someone they wanted to do business with.


2) You could wait politely for an opening, introduce yourself by explaining who you are, what you do, and why a connection might be worthwhile, get to know the person you’re talking to, and then offer them your business card if you still thought you were a good match.

You want to be the latter, right?

Of course you do.

So yes. Permission marketing doesn’t happen spontaneously. You will have to make an introduction first. But if you do that by putting your users and their needs first, you’ll get a lot farther, and you’ll make more friends along the way.

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