Permission Leads to Relationships (an Asset)

Hands up

Word of mouth is often how we hear about the things we actually use. We tell our friends about something we like, we hear about stuff that works from peers and colleagues. That's how most of us make purchases these days. That's how many of us always made purchases.

A couple of weeks ago I had the good fortune of speaking at the Word of Mouth Marketing Summit, this is a group very familiar with this principle. Lest you think WOM is the construct of marketing, though, here's some background information on what prompt people to share useful information.

Studies on WOM

Columbia sociologists Lazarsfeld and Katz estimated that word of mouth was seven times more powerful that newspaper or magazine ads in motivating brand-switching as early as 1955.

In 1975, the Roper Organization showed that word of mouth was mentioned as the best source of information about new products and services 67% better than advertising at 53% or editorial content at 47%.

A 2003 Cap Gemini study (cited by AdAge in TV Ads Don't Sell Cars) into the influences on car purchases showed that 71% of the 700 respondents pointed to word of mouth compared to only 15% for television ads. McKinsey estimated that word of mouth drives two thirds of the US economy. [hat tip to Mark Earls in Herd]

Permission builds relationships

Given that more of us are replacing our trust in traditional authorities with trust in each other, how would you change the way you do marketing?

One aspect of marketing that has never gone out of fashion is permission. People turn to friends and people they know even more regularly when faced with too much or conflicting information.

A concept pioneered by 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.

Relevant is more important than ever and it will allow you to build relationships by making better promises — realationships are an asset you can trade.

How can you work with that?

(1.) Ask before subscribing customers to newsletters and see your bounce rate go down and your subscription rate become more meaningful. Don't assume that just because they financed a car with you three years ago, you can still use their email address to send unsolicited information. 

(2.) When in doubt, choose opt in vs. opt out. If you touch those who can influence media buys, it's a good idea to give them the option to subscribe to your emails. Forcing people to unsubscribe leaves a bad impression, especially when your output volume is high.

(3.) Let your customers see what people bought, there's no need to be pushy about it. Make it available to them on your Web site. You know that testimonials and reviews are great — think of Amazon, for example. Bad reviews are good, too. They help your customers balance points of view out. Take reviews a step forward by allowing individuals to talk with each other and comment on other people's take. 

(4.) In fact, enable comments in many areas of your site. If you have a blog, turn the comments on, or find a way to let people reach you directly — and not through a masked email address your intern handles. The whole point of social media tools is to show you are listening, open, and curious to learn from your customers. Hire marketers and communicators who use these tools personally, then let them do it right in your organization.

(5.) Build your permission asset before you need it. This is probably the best shared secret few follow (and get tremendous results because of that). Make sure the first time your customers hear from you is not with a blatant sales pitch. Figure out a way to make yourself available to them by participating to conversations where you can add value. If what you have is worth talking about, they may already be doing that. If it's not, ask why.

(6.) Accept customer feedback everywhere. This will make really obvious to the internal stakeholders what your customers care about vs. what the organization may be hung up on.

(7.) Educate, entertain, inform as appropriate. People like to discover stories and useful content to share with peers.

(8.) Take everything one step at a time and nothing for granted. Build permission ladders where you earn the interest and attention with each conversation.

(9.) One answer does not fit all. Questions work much better. Give your customers a vote of confidence by assuming they know what they want. Chances are they do, even when they may not know how. Regardless, it's your job to connect the dots for them on how what you do helps them.


Whatever you do, before you contact someone with a pitch, find out their communications preferences. People have their own settings when it comes to communications and channels. It's a good idea to ask permission first. It helps manage your expectations and those of your clients as well.

Here are my (revised) preferences.


Make promises you can keep, and deliver so you can make better promises.

Permission is an asset and should be treated and traded as such to accrue value.

This is part of 100 Marketing Conversations series. What unnecessary materials and actions can you eliminate, consolidate, or replace with permission? Where are your stumbling blocks?


A corollary: Whenever you see an opportunity to do great work, give yourself permission to do it.


[image by mic wernej]

[edited from the archives]

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