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« Canaries and coal mines | Main | Nature and nurture (professional edition) »

Q&A: The resiliency of Permission Marketing

Here's my first Monday Afternoon book Q&A. Thanks to everyone who responded...

The first book is Permission Marketing and virtually all the questions were the same, best summarized by Brandon Carroll, "How do you feel like Permission Marketing has changed since the 90s when you wrote it? How can it be applied in today's fast changing world?"

If you haven't read it yet, here is some context. I wrote it in 1998, before YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, Psy, the iPhone or the bankruptcy of Hostess.

I felt confident writing the book because there were two key shifts that hadn't drawn enough attention:

1. For the first time in fifty years, paid advertising was no longer growing as an effective, dependable way to buy attention from the people you wanted to reach. Instead, there was an explosion of cheap and even free ways to make noise. And...

2. For the first time in history, it was possible to directly reach people you wanted to reach, presuming that they wanted you to reach them. And you could do it for free.

If anything, both of these trends have accelerated. Most big companies now spend far more time than they ever spent before on advertising engaging in its free alternative. They tweet and post and ping and poke and generally put on an ever-noisier show, all based on the self-delusion that they can actually get back to 1968 and the ability to reach everyone, whenever they want. This is obviously a futile endeavor, but it's not stopping people who should know better from trying.

At the same time, a very rare and precious communications channel is being understood and refined. The ability to whisper. The opportunity to be missed. Replacing hype with permission, with an audience of believers who will go ahead and spread the word for you, because they want to, not because you pay them to.

And so, banner ads went from $50 cpm to less than 1% of that, because they're not, in fact, as effective as TV ads used to be. I was being hyperbolic 13 years ago when I said that they would disappear, but they've certainly vanished as the next-big-thing, either for marketers or for media companies. The movement of money spent on mass advertising to mass banners online isn't a smooth one, because it's a shift from mass to micro, from brand advertising to direct response.

No big brand has ever been built using banners. And so, the biggest brands built in the last decade (make any list you want, from Red Bull to Google) did not get that way using marketing that Don Draper would have recognized...

The biggest mis-fire from my original book, the thing I didn't understand well enough, is how nuanced the pursuit of permission would become. Online games and loyalty programs haven't disappeared, but they're not even close to the most important foundation of this asset. No, it comes down to our need to be included, to be respected and to be connected. Over and over, marketers that have touched this asset have raced to push it too hard and too fast, and along the way, lost the very permission they worked so hard to get.

The other mistake I made was underestimating how much fun it is to act like a big advertiser or a big media company, and how profitable it is to keep that industry moving forward. As a result, there are ever more techniques and ever more tools to act as if you're doing brand advertising in the new media space, when of course, the results are a mere shadow of what you used to be able to do with TV.

For the individual or small organization, all the social networks provide you with a fork in the road. Either you can work around the edges, spamming your way to more followers and more noise, figuring out how to make some sort of make-believe metric increase as a result of your efforts. Or, you can use these networks as a new form of 1:1 interaction, making promises and keeping them. This second path means that your followers are actually followers and that your friends are closer than ever to becoming friends.

Going forward, the organizations to bet on are the ones with a tribe, with a direct connection. If it's easy to get your Kickstarter funded, if it's easier to get your email opened, then you've built something, something that lasts.

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