Permission Marketing

By: Seth Godin



I’m a business. I want to sell my products or services to you. To me, you are a target - someone I can focus my attention on and bombard you with information about how I can benefit you. On the other hand, you have your own life to lead. You already have plenty to keep your time occupied: work, rest and play. Any spare time you have comes at a cost. To get an extra five minutes you have given something else up. That five minutes needs to be spent more profitably to justify the sacrifice.

To you, I’m an interruption looking to take that five minutes from you. Unless I’m of interest. This is the challenge Seth Godin approached leading up to releasing his book, Permission Marketing way back in 1999. And these are still the challenges we face over ten years later. Join us for the next ten minutes while we revisit Godin’s thoughts and find how, with permission, you can turn strangers into friends and friends into customers.

Permission Marketing: The Way To Make Marketing Work Again

Godin points out that it is obviously impossible for you to pay attention to everything that marketers expect you to. And with the growth of social media, all those requests for attention have only gotten worse.

A significant – if not the greatest part – of this clutter is advertising. Businesses are bombarding us with messages: direct, covert, funny, heart-tugging…that all take up our valuable time. And if we were to pay attention we would waste our most limited resource: attention. If we don’t pay attention the advertiser has wasted their money. It’s a zero sum game. One winner – one loser.

Frankly, we just don’t care. The quality of goods nowadays is so high that the incremental differences between product A and Product B are so small that we don’t need to change our allegiance. If we’re happy with our favourite brand, why invest time in trying to figure out how to switch?

In 1999, Godin estimated that the average consumer sees about one million marketing messages a year—about 3,000 a day. Today that number is likely to have doubled. Not only do we get bombarded by mass media messages, we get an equal amount via our social channels: Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, Amazon, eBay and YouTube to name a few. 6000 messages per day is 14 seconds per message IF we don’t eat, sleep or do anything

Think back to your younger days. Perhaps you were a music fan waiting for the next release from your favourite band. Or perhaps you were looking forward to the next issue of your Superhero comic. What is common in these examples are three things: to you the media was anticipated, personal and relevant.

This is the crux of Godin’s permission marketing theory. By making information about your favourite product – in effect the advertisements – anticipated, personal and relevant, the vendor has captured your attention and you are willing to devote your scarce resources to it.

The Four Steps

Godin gives us four steps to consider with meeting the fundamentals of permission marketing.

  • Step 1: Every marketer must offer the prospective customer an incentive for volunteering. If you don’t provide a benefit to the consumer for paying attention, your offer will suffer the same fate as every other ad campaign that’s vying for their attention: it will be ignored.
  • Step 2: Using the attention offered by the consumer, the marketer teaches the consumer about the product or service he has to offer - specific, focused ways the product will help that prospect.
  • Step 3: The Permission Marketer must work to reinforce the incentive, to be sure that the attention continues. As a two-way dialogue between vendor and consumer has been established, the marketer can adjust the incentives being offered and fine-tune them for each prospect.
  • Step 4: The goal is to motivate the consumer to give more and more permission over time. Permission to gather more data about their personal life, hobbies, or interests and ultimately, permission to offer a new category of product for the customer’s consideration. Using the above steps, permission marketing cuts through the clutter and allows a marketer to speak to prospects as friends, not strangers. This personalised, anticipated, frequent, and relevant communication has infinitely more impact than a random message displayed in a random place at a random moment.

Think about choosing a nice restaurant for dinner. If you learn about a restaurant from a cold- caller or from an unsolicited “junk” mail, you’re likely to ignore the recommendation. But if a trusted friend offers a restaurant recommendation, you’re likely to try it out. We trust our friends.

Godin believes this is the nub behind permission marketing. The goal is to teach, cajole, and encourage a stranger to become a friend. And once she becomes a friend, to apply enough focused marketing to create a customer. If the marketing messages we send are anticipated, relevant, and personal, they will cut through the clutter and increase the prospect’s knowledge of the benefits we offer.

The goal of the Permission Marketer is to move consumers up the permission ladder, moving them from strangers to friends to customers. And from customers to loyal customers. At every step up the ladder, trust grows, responsibility grows, and profits grow.

According to Godin, there are five levels of permission. In order of increasing benefit they are…

Level 1: Situation

Situational permission is usually preceded by the question “May I help you?” The consumer and the salesperson/ marketer have very high physical and social proximity. The consumer has initiated the particular interaction, so there is no question of appropriateness. Generally, there is either money on the table right now or in the near future, or the consumer wouldn’t have initiated the dialogue.

If this type of marketing is important, the organisation must invest a lot of time and money in training its front line on how to leverage the permission. As Godin points out, “Do you want fries with that?” are perhaps the six most profitable situational permission marketing words in history.

The concern is that this level of permission is so temporary that if it isn’t handled quickly, it disappears. That’s why the second best thing to do (after selling some fries) is to figure out how to upgrade this permission into something higher.

Level 2: Brand Trust

Brand trust is an intangible form of product confidence that consumers feel when interacting with a brand that’s spent lots of money on consistent, albeit frequent interruptive messages. Brand trust leads to brand extensions. If people trust “Soapey” soap, then by extension they’ll trust “Soapey” dishwashing liquid. When the new product reinforces the brand trust of the original, the permission is enhanced.

If three or four line extensions all satisfy me, I’m much more likely to give you permission to show me a fifth one. On the other hand, a brand extension that fails can do significant harm to brand trust. Once the marketer abuses the permission granted by the consumer, the consumer is in no mood to be abused again.

Level 3: Personal Relationships

The third level of permission is personal relationships. Using the relationship you have with an individual is an extremely effective way to temporarily refocus his attention or modify his behaviour.

However, just because this permission doesn’t scale well doesn’t mean it isn’t powerful. By identifying the right individuals and working to earn their trust and permission, retail and business-to-business marketers can make a huge impact on their bottom line.

Personal permission is the most powerful form of permission for making major shifts in a consumer’s behaviour. It’s the best way to sell custom products, very expensive products, or products that take an enormous amount of learning to appreciate.

Level 4: Points

The next level of permission is points. Points are a formalised, scalable approach to attracting and keeping the prospect’s attention. The offer of a reward in exchange for commitment and attention is powerful.

Frequent flier miles or loyalty points the consumer can use as currency makes it easy for a consumer to feel as though he or she is making progress toward the reward for commitment. Other points programs don’t offer a reward at all. Instead consumers work to earn greater discounts on future purchases. A third method is where consumers don’t earn a guaranteed reward; instead they earn more chances to win a reward.

With the points method, consumers must understand from the first day that the marketer will be watching their actions and will be using the data to send focused, relevant, personal messages to them. Without permission, a reward to the consumer is worth far less to the marketer.

Level 5: Intravenous

A marketer who has achieved intravenous permission is making the buying decisions on behalf of the customer. The privilege is huge, but the downside is significant. If the marketer guesses wrong or, worse, abuses the permission, the relationship can cease in a heartbeat.

Why give up so much control and allow someone else to profit from this level of trust? The first reason, which is becoming ever more important, is to save time. As we’ve identified, time is finite and in today’s busy world if we trust someone enough to act on our behalf, we can spend more time elsewhere.

Supermarkets creating preferred shopping lists on our behalf is a prime example. Associated with this is saving money. If we let others buy on our behalf according to our preferences we know what we’re spending. And thirdly, it saves us from having to make a decision.


To conclude, there are four factors to be considered as permission is granted.

PERMISSION IS NON-TRANSFERABLE. Once transferred, it ceases to be permission. We’re back to spam again.

The marketer is not in control, the consumer is. And the consumer is selfish. Consumers care very little about you or your company. It’s all about them.

PERMISSION IS A PROCESS, NOT A MOMENT. It begins with an interruption but rapidly becomes a dialogue.

PERMISSION CAN BE CANCELED AT ANY TIME. Consumers can be whimsical. Disrespect them and the disappear.