The Rebirth of Permission Marketing -- Part III in the Series, "Marketing in the Age of Intelligent Machines"

07/14/2015 05:03 pm ET Updated Jul 13, 2016

It was a more than sixteen years ago -- how time flies -- that Seth Godin published his little marketing classic, Permission Marketing. The premise of his book: the digital experience is changing the way we engage with customers because customers have more power to manage their relationships with brands. For a brand to succeed in the digital age, said Godin, they will need to earn permission to message to their customers. A lot of marketers followed suit, but a lot didn't. The following decade was as much about spam as it was about permission.

We're now entering a new age -- the Mobile Era -- but Godin's call to action is more timely than ever. Three reasons why:

The moment of granting permission

First, before mobile was big, digital marketing meant Web sites, online advertising, and -- perhaps most important -- email. Typically, permission meant giving me power to opt out. Today, with the plethora of mobile apps competing for customer attention, permission means giving me the choice of opting in.

It's a powerful shift in the dynamic between customer and brand.

In the first scenario, the moment of permission comes at the end of the relationship; if someone is opting out, the relationship is over (divorce).

But in the second scenario, the moment of permission comes at the beginning of the relationship (honeymoon). This gives permission to begin a relationship a special vitality that was missing in the pre-Mobile Era.

Tip of the mobile iceberg

But let's not take the honeymoon -- or the bride -- for granted. As the fictional ad man Don Draper (of Mad Men) said, "The day you sign a client is that day you start losing them." As a recent study we conducted at Kahuna shows, more than 90 percent of customers who download an app fade if brands fail to engage them; if you earn permission to message, you need to exercise that permission.

But you can also lose permission to message if you exercise that right irresponsibly. In the mobile age, you need to think about how you send the right message to the right person at the right time ... and to the right device. And the last hurdle -- the right device -- will become increasingly hard to clear as mobile moves beyond the current world of phones and tablets and into the future world of wearables, connected appliances, and the Internet of Things (IoT). Earning permission to engage customers will become even more difficult. Losing permission will get easier. In the Mobile Era, breaking up is easy, not hard, to do.

The original promise

But the most important reason permission marketing is experiencing a renaissance is because consumer-empowerment -- the cause of the original movement -- has been unstoppable. True, there have been big bumps in the road: spam, breaches of consumer confidentiality, and stupid marketing tricks that show little respect for the customer. But customers can vote with their feet -- a fitting metaphor in the age of mobile -- and many of them have, choosing brands who respect them over those who don't.

The narrative about digital reinforces our decision each time we make a decision to go or stay. The original promise of the Web -- framed by Tim Berners-Lee in the early 90s and channeled by Godin in the late 90s -- was to provide the world with an open, democratic, citizen-empowering system of communication.

With every false (permissionless) move, brands remind us that not everyone is on the right side of history. But with every right move -- we know it when we experience it -- we are delighted, if not surprised, that the system can in fact work for us, as promised. And we reward the creator of that experience with the greatest gift of all: permission to keep the relationship going, beyond the honeymoon. In the next post, I'll explore how.