The fall of permission marketing (and why it will rise again)

permission-marketingIn 2004, the popularity of the term permission marketing peaked. To be precise, February 2004 was the all time high point for the buzz around permission marketing.  Ever since then, the buzz around permission has more or less declined.

Below is the Google Trends chart for the term “permission marketing” that represents this decline:


Google Trends chart representing web search interest of permission marketing

A quick history lesson

Based on my analysis of the history, there is one critical historical factor that led to the fall of permission marketing in 2004.  It was Google putting the proverbial knife in the back of permission.

In 2003 Google acquired Applied Semantics and launched Google Adsense which followed the 2002 relaunch of what we now know as Google Adwords. These two moves spurred the launch of a whole industry around keyword marketing, its lesser known synonym intent marketing and the popular term search engine marketing.

This was the early sign for the pending fall of permission marketing.

Historically, Permission Marketing = Email Marketing

Taking a step back, lets answer the question what is permission marketing?

To answer this question, I will use the definition from one of my favorite (and most respected) marketers, Seth Godin:

Permission marketing is the privilege (not the right) of delivering anticipated, personal and relevant messages to people who actually want to get them.

It recognizes the new power of the best consumers to ignore marketing. It realizes that treating people with respect is the best way to earn their attention.

Historically permission marketing and email marketing were synonyms just like intent marketing and search engine (or keyword) marketing  are now.   The problem, however, is that many email marketers cheat the system because gaining enough trust from a consumer for them to give permission is often very difficult.

In fact, it’s so difficult that lazy marketers would rather cheat than do the hard work.

This caused email marketing to not only get a bad name, but because so many unscrupulous email marketing tactics were being used by the lazy, the government was forced to get involved and create the CAN-SPAM Act of 2003 and make circumventing permission in email marketing essentially illegal.

Counterintuitively, this was another signal for the pending fall of the popularity of permission marketing instead of what should have been a boost.

The reason for this is that at the same time news was spreading about the CAN-SPAM Act, the marketing world  was going crazy promoting Google Adwords as providing better results than banner ads, yet less difficult than getting opt-in permission as required for email marketing

What followed was that everyone from one person shops to Fortune 500 companies began to circumvent permission by advertising against keywords using Google. This is essentially why keyword marketing started kicking the but of email marketing circa 2004.

Since clicks could be bought for as little as nickel, making money using Google in 2004 was within reach for even the laziest of the lazy.  This, combined with the media hype of Google’s 2004 IPO, started the downward trend in permission marketing as the darling of the digital marketing world.

However, those days are long gone.

People Are Wrong to Think Google Adwords is Still Easier than Email Marketing

It is easy for lazy thinkers to assume that it’s still easier to set up a Google Adwords campaign than it is to get permission to send marketing messages to a consumer.

I am hear to tell you that this may have been true in 2004 when the competition for keywords was scarce, but today this is far from the truth.

I would argue that Google Adwords is no longer the place for lazy marketers to hide.  In fact, I would argue that Google Adwords is at least as difficult and likely more expensive than email marketing.

Just a few weeks ago I wrote a post that specifically broke down 3 factors that increase the cost and difficulty of Google Adwords.  I recommend you read that post as this is the cornerstone of why I believe the popularity of permission marketing is going to rise again.

Why Permission Marketing Will Rise Again

As described in my post 3 reasons NOT to use Google Adwords, it is a fact that the value marketers can siphon off of Google Adwords is stabilizing, if not on a steep decline in some industries.  Google Adwords requires an intense focus on the conversion funnel and a hefty dose of A/B testing driving most DIYers out of the market.

Not to say that email marketing doesn’t require the same effort, but the difference is that the value gained from this effort is compounded as the database of opt-in email subscribers grows over time. This compounded growth makes email marketing less expensive than keyword marketing over the long run.

We all know that the smart money bets on the long run.

In addition, with the rise of social media marketing, a revitalized appreciation of permission is reappearing as the cornerstone of digital marketing efforts.

I am sure you agree that social media marketing started as a fad.  This fad then turned into a trend, and now is becoming the new norm.  With this, the smart money is now focusing on the data that shows how social can improve bottom line results.  The data shows one thing and one thing only, permission is everything.

Email + Social = Winning with Permission Marketing

With that said, the best way to leverage permission in social media marketing is to integrate email and social marketing into a comprehensive permission based marketing effort.

Think about it for a second, how many emails do you receive from Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn everyday? So many that the marketing industry created a whole new term to describe these emails: BACN (pronounced bacon, see wikipedia for definition.)

I point this out to show you that the fastest growing social media companies in the world over the last 5 years used permission-based email as the cornerstone of their growth.   Although your strategy should and must be better than BACN, it is critical that you understand that social and email are inextricably linked.

So as the digital marketing world continues to evolve, all the smart money is betting that consumers will get smarter in how they filter out unwanted marketing messages.  Whether it’s a sponsored links in Google’s Search or a sponsored post on Facebook or Twitter, you can bet that that targeting keywords will grow old and the cost of conversions will eventually eat up all of your ROI.

However, the one thing that never grows old is permission.  This is ultimately why the power of permission will rise to dominate the digital marketing world once again.


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