Book Review: Permission Marketing


Seth Godin, Permission Marketing: Turning Strangers into Friends, and Friends into Customers, (Simon & Schuster, 1999)

Unlike the Cluetrain authors and Coupland, Godin is neither angry nor sarcastic, but his now-classic text has made him into one of the leading prophets of the obsolescence of traditional (“interruption-based”) big-company marketing methods. The way he tells it, a near-total rejection of modern advertising orthodoxy is only common sense. Godin dismisses the history of advertising from the 1950’s to the 1980’s as an anachronism borne of a time when consumerism was new, and few brands competed for our attention. Too much of a good thing (easy access to consumers’ minds) has vastly multiplied the number of messages clamoring for mindshare. Consumers’ retaliatory defence mechanisms are now a permanent condition of the marketplace. Companies cannot penetrate this armor with catchier jingles or increasingly intrusive pitches; instead, they need to build long-term relationships with their customers. As Godin’s chronicle of the rise and fall of interruption marketing gathers steam, the reader finds himself nodding his head at every horrifying example of intrusive advertising.

Like CluetrainPermission Marketing begins from the premise that corporations need to understand how people actually live. Above all, we’re busy. We have heard it all. We have caller ID, mute buttons, and a million other devices intended to shelter us from the cacaphony.

The opposite of interruption marketing, of course, is marketing to consumers who have explicitly given their permission to be contacted. Since Godin lays out a number of highly original and ground-breaking ideas, many of which foreshadowed the huge boom in the development of opt-in email lists, those who do any kind of e-mail marketing will be on shaky ground unless they’ve read Godin.

Unfortunately, the manner in which corporations have interpreted the idea of permission-based marketing boils down to a heavy dose of email to their customers, email which often violates Godin’s stipulations that communications should be personal, anticipated, and relevant.

Godin is willing to take his share of the blame for how the promise of permission marketing got distorted, and turned our email inboxes into battlegrounds (“Permission Marketers: Did We Blow It?“). Arguably, the problem lies to some extent in the lack of plausibility of Godin’s original formulation of the concept and principles of permission. His indictment of intrusive mass marketing is unimpeachable, but there is an over-optimism on the permission marketing side of the argument. Consumers don’t give so-called permission nearly as cheerfully as Godin’s original argument let on. Yahoo, which had hired Godin for a brief period to be its VP of Permission Marketing, is now learning that it’s easier to theorize about securing customers’ permission than it is to actually do it.

The failure of companies like Yahoo! to profitably implement these principles, and the relative success of “club ’em over the head” methods employed by their competitor AOL, seem to be cause for despair. Surely, if any of this stuff is true, companies like AOL would crumble as consumers tuned out the noise. So far, that hasn’t happened. Good old interruption marketing lives on. To millions of viewers, the commercials during the Super Bowl are not an intrusion, they’re “destination television.” Maybe what Godin has discovered is not a universal principle of the advertising business, but rather the fact that those residing in higher socioeconomic strata have more options for tuning out the noise, and more cultural and professional motivations for doing so. If that’s all it is, it’s still an important contribution, since many businesses – especially those in the technology industry – market to a more upscale demographic.

Ultimately, Godin’s approach can explain some things, but he fails to acknowledge the continued success of major brands like Budweiser and Gillette, who have continued to win the battle to stay first in the mind of their mass market. If Godin had to do it all over again, Permission Marketing might have done well to bill itself as a manual for marketing to highly discerning professionals in a B2B environment, and how to break through to “opinion leaders,” IT managers, and journalists as opposed to customers in general. But then again, that more specialized focus would have prevented the book from becoming a bestseller.

Cool quote:

“Even though they work better than advertising, these [direct marketing] techniques are astonishingly wasteful. A 2 percent response for a direct mail campaign will earn the smart marketer a raise at most companies. But a 2 percent response means that the same campaign was trashed, ignored, or rejected by an amazing 98 percent of the target audience! From the perspective of the marketer, however, if the campaign earns more than it costs, it’s worth doing again.

Of course, just as suburbanites learned when they fled the city to avoid the crowds, if a strategy works, other people will be right on your heels. That bucolic countryside fills up rapidly with other people looking to get away from it all. Correspondingly, as each of these promotional media becomes measurably effective, every smart marketer rushes to join in. Finding a unique approach that cuts through the clutter is usually very short-lived.”

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