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May I Contact You Please? The Evolution of Permission

Authors: Doug Wick Doug Wick
Posted Under: Social Media
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doug wickGuest post by Doug Wick (@dougwick), who thinks a lot about marketing and is a Director of Business Development for Powered, a social marketing company in Austin, TX. He writes frequently for Powered’s blog, The Engaged Consumer, and at

evolution of permissionIn the past decade of direct marketing online, the focal point has become contacting consumers through the email channel.

Email makes sense to us as marketers. It’s like direct mail, but online. We put together a piece that contains compelling marketing copy with an effective call to action, we let it fly in a campaign, analyze the resulting opens, clickthroughs, and conversions, then tune and repeat.

But ultimately early usage of email was just that – an offline marketing approach ported to the online world. With the rise of the social Web, we are starting to see our brands exposed to other ways of contacting consumers. Facebook fan pages, Twitter, Youtube channels – our brands are joining communities and starting to access channels of communication that are unique to the online medium.

But email marketing still reigns supreme. Email is still the most widely used communications technology among most demographics (with the exception of SMS among younger generations), and despite the social Web, it’s still the place where people look for direct marketing messages.

Differing opinions exist on the future of email, but I think – more than the medium – it’s more important to talk about the future of permission. After all, as a CRM, relationship, or social marketing professional you are often judged by the size of your database. It’s the true measure of channel potential. How many people have giving you the permission to contact them?

Levels of Control

Permission in email marketing is whether someone has checked the box indicating that they are willing to be contacted in the future. In Twitter, and other social networks, it’s whether someone has friended or followed you. Ultimately, permission is an act of trust from a consumer – that them allowing you control of what hits their inbox or twitterstream is something that you won’t abuse.

What the social Web has brought about is a small but significant difference in just how much control they have to give you. With email, marketers manage their own opt-outs. Despite the best efforts of faithfully CAN-SPAM compliant marketers (like you) this is often not the most clean or effective process for the recipient, thanks to some rotten apples out there. On Twitter and similar, a third party is managing the opt-out mechanism, and it happens in a very consistent, real-time way before the user’s eyes. There is less commitment in giving permission on social sites, because it can be taken away just as easily as it was granted.

Levels of Disclosure

But while the social Web often gives a consumer more control over the act of granting or revoking permission, some social sites (such as Facebook) provide the opportunity to disclose a large amount of personal information. The more a user is in the practice of disclosing, the more seriously the decision to allow permission is considered (assuming permission means access to all of that information). But because email is still most users’ primary communications system, the control issue will more than likely still trump disclosure issues. That might change, however, as social tools evolve, and the SMS-generation grows up.

Understanding Permission Behavior, and Using It

The future of permission is that it will become complex. It is likely that consumers will become more and more in control, and they will develop usage patterns on various services that make them approach permission differently. The order of “most-guarded” contact permission down to “least-guarded” might vary for different segments of people across different networking services. This will create complexity but also opportunity for marketers.

The marketer will be wise to understand the least guarded communications permission for their target audiences, work to obtain that, and advance inward as trust develops. Once a marketer has permission to contact a user anywhere, anytime, she or he must use it very carefully or face demotion. One potential approach could be to send what you know are only the most important messages to the most-guarded channel, with messages of lesser importance going to the others.

How do changes in permission impact your marketing efforts?

(photo by Micky)

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