The End Of Permission

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Thankfully, Seth Godin is alive and well, otherwise, he’d be rolling over in his grave.

In 1999, Godin wrote the seminal marketing business book, Permission Marketing. In short, don’t assume that your consumers want your marketing pap, get their permission first. And, with that little step, you build the relationship where loyalty, trust and credibility act as a pillar and not a beacon off in the distant on a foggy night. For years, the evolution took hold. If you look at best practices in email marketing, the main foundation is based on opt-in (where consumers are opting in for your marketing messages). In many countries, the government has stepped in and created laws that force companies to get permission before sending off any kind of messaging (anti-spam laws). Is the situation perfect? Hardly. We’ve seen instances where marketers didn’t just cross the line, but completely disregarded the existence of said line. With that, we’ve seen consumers cry foul when companies they are customers of have reached out to them in an effort to fix a problem or notify them of a change in business only to get hit with a formal complaint of spamming, because there was ambiguity surrounding the formality of opting in. Lately, it seems like the bigger companies have found a solid base from which to gather permission, while entrepreneurs and solopreneurs are in a brutal tailspin of assuming a relationship and (sometimes) offering an opt-out.

It’s become a daily deluge of automatic permission assumed.

"Hey Mitch, please check out my new portfolio of photographs!," read a recent email (with no opt-out). From there, it’s been a daily spamming of massive-sized emails with photos, PDF attachments and the like. Or emails that read, "Hey, Mitch… I thought our product might be of interest to you. If you don’t want to receive updates like this, please opt out by clicking here." If it were the occasional email or faux-pas, such is life. I’m sensing a trend. And, in speaking to some of my peers, I am not alone. Now, some might come down hard on this commentary as me being offended by potential vendors or business opportunities for reaching out. This is not the case. A personalized email that said, "Hey Mitch, I’m a photographer and thought I would introduce myself to you and Twist Image about the potential of selling you some of my work," is fine (and, to be expected). These are not pitches or email introductions to sell me something. These are e-newsletters that are not personalized, that are clearly being sent to a larger audience, and that are being delivered with a frequency that matches any other traditional email marketing campaign that one might see in market (in fact, the ones that I am citing above are being sent by a e-newsletter technology).

Permission first.

It’s a busy world. It’s a busy inbox. It’s not easy. Email (and other channels, because this sort of stuff is ever-present on Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter and beyond) allow people to write something quickly, push one button and not have to deal with the ramifications. As a marketing professional (and someone who cares deeply about this industry), I’m hopeful that you and I can both get back to the good fight of helping these brands and individuals better understand that while spamming may be easy and building a true relationship may be more challenging, the new media is about quality, not quantity. Why? Because after two decades of digital commercialization, we’ve also learned another fascinating thing about marketing in these connected channels: those who spend the early days connecting to the right people (the quality) tend to build a substantive and valuable database (quantity). Who knew?

Permission means you connect to the right people. The right people become a lot of right people. Sounds like the best kind of marketing. What do you think?


  1. I don’t think it’s the end, Mitch (though I’m glad I’m not rolling over)
    the fact is, with all this noise, the few people who show up invited are even more welcome…
    Permission keeps going up in value.

  2. I wish I had the guts to show this to my ceo. He’s intent on spamming our primary market, secondary market, tertiary market, and any other market remotely connected to our industry. And AFTER we do that, he’ll be ready to sit down and talk about our value proposition, mission, and values.

  3. I have to say that everyone in our industry is thankful that Seth is not rolling over. He’s a true inspiration who not only adds valuable insights on his blog but is also someone to look up to.
    In regards to your post Mitch I think there are a couple of issues here.
    First companies who value their relationship with the end users will always use permission marketing and never spam because the business relationshio is more important then trying to squeeze a few dollars out of someone who “hopfully bites”.
    Second the reason we all receive spam is because unfortunately the profit margins are high due to the fact that some people actually respond to spam and the low costs that are involved with sending such emails create an opportunity for those that are sending them. If no one opened or purchased anything and just deleted all spam, these annoyances would eventually disappear like dinasors.
    Third the plenties for sending spam are not severe nor strict enough so the “business risks” for organizations that send such emails makes it a worth while investment.
    So as long as people keep responding ans sending money to these organizatiins these daily announces will unfortunately continue for the rest of us.

  4. With the economy still very uncertain, discipline becomes even more important then ever.Hence the need to follow proper etiquette.
    I take the view that what is happening right now is for the better.
    “Many years ago, I asked my Spiritual Master, “All the chaos in this world, who is responsible for it?” The Master replied,”2 classes of people who live by the principle of divide and rule. One is politicians and the other preachers.”
    We need to find people who are neither politicians nor preachers to run this World.
    I posted the following comment in April 2012.
    A few years ago, when 2012 was trending, on the Agora’s 5 Minute Financial blog, somebody asked, “Will the world come to an end in 2012?” The blogger replied, “No, the world will not come to an end in 2012, but the world as we know it will cease to exist.”
    I take this to mean that wars, religious bigotry, hatred, suffering etc will come to an end.
    Short term there will be pain. Long term –There will be peace on earth and goodwill to all mankind.

  5. It’s a time of revolution, Mitch, and arms dealers are making deals! Not just emails, but 10/20/30-second ads before every video… I think it’s all part of the process of establishing new norms – including our expectations. TV, radio, newspapers all had to go through a process of discovering “How many ads is too many?”, “When does the annoyance of unwanted advertising outweigh the revenue to us and the value perceived by the advertisers?”
    In a time of fragmentation of markets and advertising budgets, and increased relative costs of person-hours (as compared to syndicated content, for example) TV and newspapers have had to move to a higher ad/content ratio. Annoying to many of us – but that’s the sound of our expectations having to change.
    TV, radio, newspapers – did they do permission marketing? Well, by buying the stuff, you implicitly gave permission. Perhaps the web is just moving that way.

  6. You are absolutely right as far as permission based marketing is concerned.
    But thinking for a friend of mine who has just started his B2B gaming business , how should he reach the potential clients without writing or selling (Via an email or phone) what he is doing? Any advice on this?

  7. Vik, I think if you re-read my post, you’ll see the answer to your question. I’m not talking about not reaching out to people. I’m talking about businesses adding you to a list to automate the spamming of their sales pitch. There is a world of difference.

  8. This is exactly what I’ve been thinking as of late. I’ve received countless emails I surely never opted-into and have no way of opting out.
    It never ceases to amaze me how, in an age where it is so easy to ignore (like Seth’s example of the Microsoft Surface in your recent podcast), so many marketers are utilizing emerging technologies to implement old-fashioned, interruptive marketing (email SPAM being the lowest form).
    Our friend Mark is right—this is more of a rant than a plea, since sadly a spammer is not reading your blog (if they were, they wouldn’t spam).
    PS. How awesome is it that Seth was the first commenter?

  9. I see this trend as well. I am by no means a celebrity but I have seen my connections grow slowly over time – and those connections are to, as you say, the right people.
    I think it comes down to whether you are playing “the long game” or “the short game.” It’s so tempting to play the short game isn’t it?
    Thanks for writing this Mitch.

  10. Having recently been spambushed by new connections on LinkedIn (invite from a business acquaintance followed by a series of spam blasts), I will share this post to as many people as possible.
    Mark Leonard’s comment made me laugh. In return for his candor, I will gladly deliver this post to his CEO by mail on behalf of his employees and more importantly, his prospects. Mark: Send me his info and let the revolution begin….
    Last thing: An important takeaway is the fact that Mitch Joel, despite what I have to assume qualifies as a “busy schedule,” is open to introductions through relevant and personalized communication via email, as noted in his example with the photog.
    Despite the lack of permission, we’re all still human.

  11. Mitch,
    A big problem with these types of messages is that honest, real communications can get lost in the tidal wave of BS communications.
    I definitely don’t have the solution…
    But in my own emails I’ve started adding a very obvious unsubscribe link right at the top of the first (and only) auto responder confirmation message of a subscription. I don’t want people that don’t want to be on the list. So I have a hard time understanding why that isn’t a Best Practice.
    A big CLICK HERE to unsubscribe. If the person is invested in the information you’re going to deliver they’ll avoid that link like the plague.
    Great article… appreciate it.

  12. The golden rule in social media marketing seems to be to be interactive and provide value…yet isn’t it also true that simply getting your name out there everywhere is also pretty effective? There is something to be said for quantity, or so I sense from other business professionals. I guess the challenge is getting as many people to *want* to know about you?

  13. It is a best practice if these individuals have subscribed in the first place. If you have automatically added them, without their permission, even that first email is spam. You are better off sending a personal email and asking people if they would like to subscribe to your updates or whatever.
    To summarize, why should someone have to unsubscribe from something they have never subscribed to in the first place? Also, I am dubious of unsubscribe buttons because spammers use them as a way to validate the email address and this causes more spam.

  14. I didn’t realize this till recently that Spammers do that… I just had a friend tell me, “Never click the unsubscribe button.” His point being that Spammers use that link as a way to sign you up for even more lists.
    Was unaware of that practice till a matter of weeks ago.
    Horrible… Genius… but Horrible.
    Thanks again,

  15. The Internet is big, Alyssa. Spending time on the quality will uncover the quantity. I believe this to be the true beauty of all things digital. The shame is in the spamming or race to capture numbers or value.

  16. Your title for this blog is on the point. No permission in email marketing is annoying but what is even more disturbing is when marketers use my personal data without my knowledge to target ads. I have started noticing this trend recently that when I am browsing a particular product , say gym shoes, the shoe brand ad will follow me every where I go next on the web.

  17. Great post. Thank you. Also thankful that Seth didn’t have to roll over in his grave to read it. 🙂
    This speaks to “what’s old is new.” People want to be treated with respect. Technology simply makes it easier to disrespect. But people will continue to rally around, or buy from, those that they know, like and trust, and ignore those that they don’t.

  18. I see the same thing in my inbox. I spent a fair amount of time purging my inbox back in December. That is to suggest that I went in and unsubscribed from a number of newsletters.
    Despite that effort it seems as though I have seen the number of – here it is opt of if you want to – newsletters offset my effort.

  19. Thanks for the heads up. I was unaware of how “Unsubscribing” worked. It sounds deceptively safe.
    Then how do I permanently get rid of spam emails? I usually just do a fast Delete on my iPhone. I don’t know how they found me, but I’m no web genius either.
    Interesting article, and appreciate the helpful comments.
    Rann Patterson,
    Editor Cancer site,

  20. Agreed, the easier it is to post and blast the internet with crap, the more effective and meaningful the invite. And the easier it is to see “reality” or sincerity.

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