Last Updated: November 25, 2020

We throw away junk mail. We select e-mail services that filter out spam. We affirm legislation that defines what hours telemarketers are not allowed to call, when marketers can fax messages, and prevent the spamming of text messages to mobile phones.

Now, lawmakers are considering new regulations that will create a “do not track” option to block intelligence-gathering strategies used by Internet marketers. While many people seem uninterested in receiving advertisements and offers, marketers must still identify those potential customers who do want more information.

What is permission marketing?

According to Seth Godin (who coined the term), “permission marketing” is the privilege (not the right) of delivering anticipated, personal, and relevant messages to people who actually want them.”

Those who want messages sign up, subscribe, or otherwise opt-in to particular message mediums, such as newsletters or short message services (SMS) (See also Newsletter Marketing). Company web pages and social media platforms provide places for customers to discover and opt-in for high personalized messages. Whereas other forms of personalized marketing are seller-initiated and controlled (and therefore often pushed with much greater frequency than preferred by the customer), permission marketing emphasizes the customer’s control over the relationship, including when to ask for more and when to order it to stop.

Who implements permission marketing?

Assumed (legal) vs. Genuine Permission

Fake Permission: I can e-mail you because

  • I have your e-mail address
  • You haven’t complained
  • I’ve got some fine print in my privacy policy

Genuine Permission: I can e-mail because

  • You asked me to
  • You complain when I don’t

Permission marketing is a common tool in Internet marketing and direct mail/email campaigns. Software like Facebook Connect allows different applications and websites to share information with the user’s permission, so that the user doesn’t have to continually register the same information with every application. (Add a new app on Facebook, and notice how a window pops up to notify you that the app requests your permission to access your information.) (See also Facebook Marketing)

Any subscription to an SMS, newsletter, blog, RSS feed, or even certain loyalty cards can be an opportunity for permission marketing. For example, customers who purchase a Starbucks card may register the card online, which allows them to check the balance of their card, or even get a replacement (with the balance!) if their card is lost. When registering, Starbucks asks for the customer for their birthday, in order to send them a coupon for a free drink. When the customer’s birthday rolls around, they get the coupon; what they don’t get is continued unsolicited mail sent to their address.

For what kinds of customers is permission marketing effective?

Permission marketing interacts with customers according to their permission intensity—that is, the degree to which a customer allows/solicits information from the marketer. Permission intensity varies between customers, between marketers communicating with the same customer, and within the same customer-marketer relationship at different times. Permission intensity tends to be highest when a customer is actively shopping for a specific product or service that the company provides.

Permission Marketing (The Short Version)

  • Don’t be selfish.
  • You’re not in charge.
  • Make promises and keep them.
  • It’s like dating.
  • It’s an asset, it’s expensive, and it’s worth it.

—Seth Godin, author of Permission Marketing

As with other types of two-way marketing communication, permission marketing is most effective when the customer is comfortable with providing information about themselves in both quantity and quality. Some customers make reasoned decisions to trade total privacy for better service and more shopping opportunities. As a population, those most comfortable with this decision are those who have grown up with Internet and mobile marketing, who themselves are active in social media and surfing the Web.

How is a permission marketing campaign developed?

Permission marketing does not typically create immediate sales, but rather grabs a customer’s attention and preserves a business relationship. In permission marketing, a company makes a promise to a customer—it will do “x”—in exchange for the customer’s attention; then it fulfills that promise—and nothing else. The key is to do exactly what was promised, instead of presuming the permission to sell more. If the deal is for one newsletter a month, then sending a second is a breach of permission—and customer trust.

To keep a consumer’s attention, businesses must offer an incentive. This incentive might include a sweepstakes, useful information, some kind of entertainment, or perhaps a useful application or service. For example, a song-of-the-week entertainment incentive is particularly relevant to a company that sells music or musical equipment. A company might offer this incentive through its website, through traditional advertising, and through social media, or all of the above. (See also Cross Media Marketing)

The messaging that follows takes a different approach than typical attention-grabbing advertising efforts. Because a business already has a customer’s attention, they can focus more on the various features of products or services promoted by the company, or the brand in general. Occasionally, the incentive may have to be reinforced, or changed to keep the customer’s interest.

As communication continues, the marketer aims to increase the level of permission from the customer—permission to get more data about the customer’s interests, permission to offer a new category, permission to offer a free sample. Finally, the marketer can leverage this permission by making product offers—which at this point are being directed at an engaged audience, willingly paying attention to your messages.

What career titles work with permission marketing strategies?

Marketing Manager

What do they do?
  • promote the permission paradigm to the marketing and advertising teams
  • design permission marketing frameworks, including incentives, communication schedules, and metrics
  • create/direct teams for SMS messaging, direct mail/email, and other opt-in programs
  • monitor all permission programs and make adjustments as necessary
Education and Skills

Marketing managers have at least a bachelor’s degree in marketing or business management, along with several years’ experience in marketing communications, including advertising, social media, and mobile/Internet messaging. Education preparing them for this career includes classes in marketing, market research, consumer psychology, and business management.

Advertising Account Manager

What do they do?
  • design messaging form and content to be integrated with the incentive (entertainment, service, etc.) provided in a permission campaign
  • write copy for SMS messaging
  • craft anticipated, personal, and relevant product offers for the appropriate stage of the permission campaign
Education and Skills

Advertising account managers typically possess a bachelor’s degree in advertising or marketing; but for permission marketing, journalism or a related field may be preferable. They will have several years experience in promotional communications, including copywriting, graphic design, storyboarding, and similar projects. Educational background encompasses communications, market research, and consumer psychology; and often involves an internship between school semesters.

Market Research Analyst

What do they do?
  • use a variety of methods to identify customer habits, including how they respond to both solicited and unsolicited communications
  • research how customer behavior differs between channels (online, mobile, in store, etc.)
  • use data and statistical analysis to evaluate the return on investment for promotional messaging
  • use data to recommend kinds of incentives for permission campaigns
Education and Skills

Market research analysts need at least a bachelor’s degree in market research, computer science, or statistics; this may be supplemented by a minor in sociology or business organization/management. Initial experience is typically focused on data collection (for businesses, non-profit organizations, or research projects), followed by some time working on analysis.

How can a marketing school help you succeed?

Our Recommended Schools

  1. Grand Canyon University (GCU)

    GCU's Colangelo College of Business offers leading edge degrees that address the demands of contemporary business environments.

  2. Southern New Hampshire University (SNHU)

    Explore the bond between business and consumer behavior with a degree in marketing.

Permission marketing is a relatively new marketing concept—one of many you’ll encounter in a marketing program, which is built around equipping students with the knowledge and skills necessary for this and other kinds of campaigns.

In order to understand marketing, you’ll learn about research and development in a business. Classes in economics and accounting will prepare you for advising on price, computing the various costs (including advertising and marginal unit cost) and predicting profits. For placement, you will learn about product distribution methods and logistics, how to develop business relationships with both suppliers and resellers, and about what channels are available to your company. Finally, promotion will focus largely on communication skills.

In addition to taking specific classes in communication and presentation (including interpersonal, organizational, and Internet communication), you’ll also learn how and when to focus on exposition or persuasion, using both verbal and graphic messages. Meanwhile, classes in market research and consumer psychology will further increase your understanding of consumer behavior, including how to identify what level of familiarity (or permission) you have in a given communication.

To learn more about how a marketing program might benefit you, request information from schools with degrees in marketing, and give them your permission to tell you about what value they can provide.