Permission Is a Start, But Not Enough

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About two years ago, author Seth Godin introduced the concept of permission marketing into the marketing lexicon. The essence of Godin's idea is that, because of the unique nature of the "e" world, marketers must first ask for permission to communicate with customers and prospects via e-mail.


The good news is that the idea has stuck. It is an important idea that you need to understand and apply to your e-mail marketing efforts. The bad news is that, on average, marketers have failed to get beyond a superficial treatment of the concept. Too many are focused on getting permission without asking themselves what kind of marketing they will do with that permission.


If you really understand Godin's main point -- that customers are now in the driver's seat, and you must ask what kind of communications they want and when they want them -- you must focus on how to deliver the right communications at the right time before getting permission. Too often this is an afterthought.


The proliferation of opt-in e-mail list rentals is a perfect example of a minimalist approach to permission marketing. Marketers using third-party opt-in lists view e-mail as just another way to send one-time, one-way messages to their target audiences.


A marginally better approach is for companies to build their own opt-in list. This is fine, but usually too little thought goes into how this list will be used to build mutually beneficial relationships with customers.


What it really boils down to is this: Would you rather build your opt-in e-mail list or build customer relationships? If you want to grow relationships, just getting permission is not enough.


Probably the biggest impediment to executing permission marketing properly is marketing attitude. Here marketing attitude means how you approach marketing in general. People generally fall into two camps: old school and new school.


If you have quarterly sales numbers on the brain and think the way to get someone to buy is through repetitious, high-volume outbound messages and offers, you are of the old school. If you focus on long-term customer value and believe in asking what, how and when people receive communications from you, you are of the new school. In the old school, you get permission so you can turn on the electronic megaphone. In the new school, you ask for permission to have a dialogue that is always controlled by the customer.


Old-school thinking has caused those in the industry to apply permission marketing improperly. It leads you to focus on building opt-in lists so you can deliver more messages and offers. This may result in temporary gains in responses and orders, but those gains will evaporate as the list gets fatigued. To do it right, you need to put yourself in your customers' shoes.


The key to executing permission marketing well is understanding what customers and prospects want and then delivering it. In general, they want:


• More relevant information and offers.


• Fast response times.


• Easy access to information.


• Convenient interactions.


• Relationship acknowledgment.


Furthermore, they want all of these delivered in an integrated way across all of your communications channels. This is not easy. The challenge is further complicated by having to balance your marketing objectives and budget limitations against meeting customer needs.


Here's the rub: Your customers and prospects want you to be more responsive to their needs, but you have a limited budget. E-mail marketing presents a unique opportunity to meet customer needs and build stronger relationships by providing relevant information and offers at the right time.


So what do you need in order to do this effectively and efficiently? Two things: the right marketing technology infrastructure, and a marketing methodology focused on increasing customer value over the long term.


The right marketing technology infrastructure includes:


• A marketing database that contains two to three years of purchase history and keeps track of customer/prospect interactions across all channels.


• E-marketing software that uses the data contained in that marketing database to deliver personalized messages, surveys, newsletters, etc.


• Analytic software that enables you to prioritize your efforts according to potential customer value and measure marketing results quickly.


A number of solutions provide various flavors of this type of infrastructure. Some are software providers; others are application service provider-type platforms, and some companies offer both.


If your company is looking to outsource marketing technology, one area to investigate closely is the marketing database that is accessed by the e-marketing software. Most e-marketing software solutions can run only against their own databases, and most of their databases are not designed to store detailed purchase history and data from other marketing and sales channels. This limitation will inhibit your ability to recognize the full scope of the relationship and can make you look uncoordinated to the customer.


E-marketing software also tends to have limited analytic capabilities -- it can measure campaign results but is not designed to perform more complex analytic tasks such as calculating potential customer value. This limitation will make it impossible to know how much to invest in each relationship.


As difficult as it can be to get the right marketing infrastructure in place, employing a customer-focused marketing methodology may be even tougher. Old marketing habits die hard, and unless there is a focus within the organization on changing to this new marketing model, progress will be slow and painful. It is worth thinking about employing an agency with experience in executing customer-focused e-marketing to get things jump-started.


Whatever course you decide to follow for your company, it is imperative that you recognize the potential of using e-mail marketing to build customer value over time. Once this is understood, it will become clear that getting permission is not enough -- it's what you do with that permission that counts.


• Andy Cutler is vice president of strategic services at Be-NOW, Wakefield, MA, a business-to-business e-marketing provider. Reach him at Andy.Cutler@be-now.com.
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