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Consumers Are in Charge Now

Even though I stopped writing my column for iMarketing News, I’ve kept up my subscription to the newspaper. I love reading it. It’s great for my ego! Permission marketing this and permission marketing that. Even though I wrote “Permission Marketing” almost two years ago, it appears to be more relevant than ever before.

But I’m coming out of retirement, because I think we all need a checkup from the neck up. If you read iMarketing News editor Ken Magill’s increasingly defiant editorials, and combine this with the Mail Abuse Prevention System debate about the Realtime Blackhole List, it is becoming clear that there’s a conceptual gulf, and it’s widening.

When I read about start-ups that intend to offer change-of-address services in exchange for renting and selling the data far and wide, or when I see that yet another marketer is working hard to append data from one database to another, or, worst of all, when I get spam — and I get a ton — that says, “This e-mail conforms with proposed Senate regulation,” I realize we need to reset the conversation.

I want to make three points:

o Permission is not a moral imperative. Permission marketing is not about being nice or doing the right thing or treating people the way you want to be treated. It’s about making more money. You should use permission marketing to increase revenue and decrease cost per sale, as opposed to using reasoning to talk your way around the issue.

o Permission is in the eye of the beholder. If the recipient doesn’t think you have permission, you don’t. End of discussion. I don’t care what steps you took and what tactics you used. Those are all there to increase the odds that the recipient is pleased. But the tactics are secondary to the result. If they feel spammed, they are spammed. Better to make people happy now than have to explain to them later.

o Permission is all about power. You used to have power. Marketers used to have the ability to interrupt whoever and whenever. No longer. MAPS works because it works for me, the consumer. I have power. The power to ignore you. The power to yell at my Internet service provider. The power to spread brand rage about the companies that spam me.

If the power swings back to you, the marketer, good for you. But I don’t think that’s likely to happen. Instead, more power will go to the consumer.

Let me give you an example. An article last month about start-ups that are aiming to replicate the U.S. Postal Service’s National Change of Address service shows how misguided old thinking ignores the shift in power.

In the old days, you told the post office when you moved so it would forward your mail. The deal was simple: In exchange for forwarding your mail for free, the postal service gets to tell anyone and everyone you just moved. Because it has a monopoly and because there are few alternatives — I’m not going to live in two houses just so I can get my mail — we all sign up.

In the new world, the power has shifted. First, there is no monopoly, because there is no online postal service. Second, I can keep my old e-mail address and check it every once in a while, or just set up an autoforward. (If I have an address I can’t keep, none of these services will be able to forward my mail anyway.) And third, if this does turn out to be a good idea, I will be able to shop around and get a good deal, one that certainly doesn’t involve paying or getting spammed.

The power equation is different. We may hate the postal service, but we still have to deal with it. We may not like the NCOA bargain, but it’s the only one. Online, the power belongs to me. I have choices.

So, instead of thinking like the postal service, we need to think like trusted agents. Emphasis on trusted. Instead of whining about how we have to apologize all the time to the attorney general, to consumers and to the media, we ought to behave in ways that don’t require apologies.

Neal Rosen at eWay Direct, a leading e-mail delivery service, told me he can instantly tell the difference between a client list that is pseudo permission based and one that is real. The real lists get 40 times the response rate of the fake ones.

If you think you can build a long-term successful business by cutting corners and working around the edges of true permission, you’re mistaken. Because if you’re successful in tearing down the newfound power of the consumer, all you will do is wreck the medium, not create a profitable monopoly position.

If MAPS goes away and there are all sorts of gray areas when it comes to spam, then your mail won’t get read, either. It’s in our selfish interest as marketers to make the definition of permission as crystal clear as possible, because if you have permission, it’ll be worth more. And if you don’t, you won’t have to risk brand rage because you’ll know you don’t have it. It’s more profitable for you to embrace the new medium, to date your prospects instead of trying to pick them up in singles bars. Give it a try.

I decided to embrace the medium with my new book, “Unleashing the Ideavirus.” I realized that people have tons of choices of what to read, so instead of arguing with them about copy protection and paying for the book, I put the whole thing online, for free, at www.ideavirus.com. No strings attached.

We just passed 200,000 direct downloads with a pass-along of three, giving the book more than 800,000 readers. And that translated directly into book sales. But I don’t care if you buy the book. I care if you read it. Because you, the consumer, have power, and I want to embrace that.

If I’ve awakened at least a shred of curiosity about how this power shift can benefit you, why not get the first four chapters of my “Permission Marketing” book for free? Just write to [email protected] And no, that doesn’t mean you’re giving me permission to mail to you ever again. And no, I won’t. Because when you’re a consumer today, you have power.

• Seth Godin is the author of “Permission Marketing” and president of Do You Zoom Inc., Dobbs Ferry, NY. Reach him at [email protected].com.

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