Is There Such a Thing as Non-Permission Marketing?

Written on
Mar 8, 2013 
Barry Poltermann  |

Really, does anybody force you to watch TV, listen to radio, or read magazines?  Aren’t you, by those very acts, accepting the ads that come with mass media?

Isn’t that how it works? You get your content for free (or discounted) and in exchange, advertisers are granted your permission to grab a slice of your attention.

But of course, that’s NOT what we mean when we talk about permission marketing, is it? It’s certainly not what Seth Godin meant when he coined the term.

So what’s really involved in Permission Marketing?

Permission Marketing Requires Permission Plus…

The first part of permission marketing is the perception, on the part of the audience, that your communication to them will be valuable, interesting, and relevant in and of itself.  The understanding is that your marketing itself will be the content, rather than an interruption to the content.

The second part is the explicit, rather than tacit or implied, permission of the viewer.

So while a regular 60-second TV spot can be so well done that people share it as valued content via YouTube, hyperlinks, Facebook and e-mail, in this context, with the content and the explicit permission, short-form video does in fact, becomes permission marketing.

But everyone who has an episode of “Breaking Bad” interrupted by that ad ends up with a totally different, non-permission-style experience of that ad, don’t they?  Therefore in this instance, a new medium can still become traditional, interruption marketing.

Does That Make Permission Marketing Better?

I’ll probably catch some flak for saying this, but, no, permission marketing is NOT intrinsically better than traditional mass media advertising. Nor is it necessarily more effective.

It’s simply more appropriate.  Better yet, it’s the ONLY appropriate form of marketing for your very best customers and highest value prospects.

Here’s why:

Do You Talk to Your Wife Like That?

When you interrupt people with ads, you’re forced to communicate a certain way. You drop your indoor voice AND TALK LIKE BILLY MAYS — ‘CAUSE SUBTLETY DOESN’T WORK WHEN YOU’RE PITCHING A UNIQUE SELLING PROPOSITION IN A 30 SECOND SPOT.

But Billy Mays (of OxyClean fame) didn’t talk to his wife that way. Otherwise,  he wouldn’t have a wife!  He talked to his wife, kids and business partners in the way we all talk to our families, friends, and colleagues – and he saved the booming pitch-fest for his interruption commercials.

And that’s the way your marketing should be as well — differentiating between friends and family (aka, self-identified prospects and customers), who are spoken to through permission marketing versus strangers, who are reached through traditional mass media marketing.

But while most people naturally focus on “the permission part” of permission marketing, the forgotten aspect is just as important — valuable, interesting, and relevant content worth communicating!

In fact, this is the very area where most permission marketing efforts go off the tracks…

Who Decides What’s Relevant, Interesting, and Valuable?

Because permission marketing is still described as marketing, marketers feel they get to dictate the marketing message, so long as they have people’s permission to send it along to them.

THEY signed up for X, so where going to give them whatever we want through that channel,” they seem to think.

But permission isn’t a one-time event. It’s an every time event.

Signing up for your newsletter doesn’t obligate them to read what you sent. Or to remain subscribed forever. And if you don’t deliver on the promise of interesting content for your newsletter, those subscribers will promptly delete your e-mails and eventually unsubscribe.

So… who gets to decide what’s interesting, and whether or not you came through on your promise of valuable content?

The same people who gave you permission to send it.

And that leaves you with a challenge.

Who Decides What’s Relevant, Interesting, and Valuable?

YOU have to discern and create content that’s both inherently interesting to your beloved permission-granting audience AND that serves your marketing goals.

Sometimes you can accomplish both goals equally, but not very often.

Usually, you’ll need to make the “inherently interesting” part of the goal an explicit focus, while subjugating the marketing message to an implied subtext.

Your company provides content that helps your prospective customers or past customers do X, and in exposing them to that content, you get to demonstrate your expertise in that area, along with your qualifications to help them with Y and Z.

So What Counts as Content?

Most people think of content as blog posts, online magazine articles, and videos. But really, any communicating that prospects and customers voluntarily opt into counts as permission marketing content:

  • TV-shows, whether strictly online or carried by a cable network.
  • E-mails, assuming they’re opted in.
  • Your website.
  • Print newsletters, which remain an incredibly relevant form of content.
  • Tweets or Facebook posts.

In other words, any communication you have with customers that they voluntarily ask for with the expectation that the communication itself will be relevant and valuable should be crafted with an eye towards delivering on those expectations and preserving that relationship of permission and intimacy between business and customer.

Putting It All Together

So how do you get permission?

You get permission through referrals, through previous business relationships, and through audience response to your interruption advertising. People see your TV ad, hear your radio ad, or see your billboard and they want to know more.

So they go to your site. And they do so voluntarily, giving you permission to tell them more about your advertised offer, product, or service.

And boom, you’ve now gotten permission.


Now the question becomes: Is your content engaging, interesting, and relevant enough to keep that permission?

Is it good enough to keep getting permission, to keep getting their attention, and to translate all that attention and permission into repeat business and customer loyalty?

Because permission is one-time event — and only the first part of permission marketing.

Barry Poltermann is the CEO of AboutFace Media, which he co-founded in 2007.

Before founding AboutFace, Barry was a founder of the digital production company L’Orange Studios, which produced new media marketing projects for clients such as Disney (Movies.com), Activision (the Gun videogame) and Microsoft (the X-Box 360 game console and MSN Search)

In 1999 Barry founded and was the CEO of the Internet-based film financing company Civilian Pictures (Los Angeles). Civilian Pictures financed such acclaimed independent documentaries as the Wu-Tang-Clan profile "Rock the Bells" (2006, Warner Brothers), "American Movie" (1999, Grand Jury Prize-Sundance Film Festival, Sony Pictures Classics) and "The Life of Reilly", one of the most widely praised theatrical releases of 2007.

Barry also edited "American Movie"; directed and edited "The Life of Reilly"; and edited both "The Pool" (2007 Special Jury Prize-Sundance Film Festival) and "Collapse" (2009) for director Chris Smith.

Prior to working in independent film and new media, he founded and was president of Purple Onion Productions, a commercial film and video production company, and directed television commercials for Superior Street Productions (Chicago), and Neue Sentimental Films (Los Angeles). He has directed national campaigns for advertising agencies such as DDB Needham, Leo Burnett and JWT, and for brands such as Coca Cola, Ford Motors, All-State Insurance, McDonalds and AT&T.

As the CEO of Civilian Pictures his frequent media appearances included Fortune Magazine, Newsweek, Money Magazine, Barron's, and NPR's On the Media, The Motley Fool Radio Show and Marketplace. He has also been a guest on film financing panels at numerous film festivals, including Cannes and SXSW.

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