Direct Mail Consultant, Copywriter, and Coach Direct Mail Consultant, Copywriter, and Coach Direct Mail Consultant, Copywriter, and Coach Direct Mail Consultant, Copywriter, and Coach
Direct Mail Consultant, Copywriter, and Coach Ask Dr. Direct | Direct Mail Consultant, Copywriter, and Coach Email Alan Rosenspan | Free Consultation Direct Mail Consultant, Copywriter, and Coach


About Alan Rosenspan

How We Work

Client List & Projects

Beat the Control

Seminars & Speeches

Awards & Recognition

Recent Publications

Free Newsletter

101 Ways to Improve Response


Contact Us

Free Book

Read more »

National Mail Order Association (NMOA)
Direct Marketing
and Mail Order

Participation Marketing
By Alan Rosenspan

When I was 12 years old, I first kissed a girl.

I was a perfect little gentleman about it. I approached the object of my affections (She was a stunning 11 year old) and asked meekly,

"May I kiss you?"

She nodded her head, extended her cheek, and I awkwardly complied.

That’s Permission Marketing.

Several years later, I kissed another girl. But this was different. She didn’t just give me permission, she kissed back. And without revealing all the juicy details, it was a far more involving and rewarding experience.

And that’s Participation Marketing.

The difference between Permission Marketing and Participation Marketing may seem like one of degree. However, it is much deeper than that.

Permission Advertising is like shaking hands with a stranger. Participation Marketing is the marketing equivalent of playing "Twister." You’re not quite sure which part of your program belongs to the company or to the customer.

The Origin of Permission Marketing

Permission Marketing was the phrase (and the title of the 1999 book) coined by Seth Godin, Vice President of Direct Marketing for Yahoo.

Godin argued that most marketing was interruptive — the TV commercial interrupting the show, the magazine ad interrupting the article.

Consumers didn’t request the commercial or the ad — so they weren’t pleased by it. And that’s a major hurdle for every advertiser to get over before they could actually sell something.

But Permission Marketing is different. It’s based on three main principles:

1. The consumer, or recipient, controls the process.

2. They agree to receive communications

3. They consciously sign up (or "opt-in")

This is an excellent first step — but only a first step. Permission is not enough.

And there are some problems with Permission Marketing that must be recognized.

The Problem with Permission Marketing

The idea of Permission Marketing is as old as direct marketing.

Every time you enter into a relationship with a company, or provide any information to them, you are, in effect, giving them permission to market to you.

Think about the last time you gave to a charity. You began receiving dozens of different mailings throughout the year — each one asking you for more and more money. You may have also received telephone calls at home.

You couldn’t pay them to stop.

And the more you gave, the more likely they were to keep pursuing you. They were never satisfied.

Chances are, you also began receiving donation requests from other charities that you had never given to. Because — once you have been identified as a "donor" your name is sold and traded more often than an Internet stock.

The result is that you may stop opening any envelope from the charity, or any other charity, and you may no longer support what you originally felt was a very worthy cause. Everyone loses.

It’s even worse with e-marketing.

Here’s why: It costs the charity a substantial amount of money to keep marketing to donors through traditional channels. Direct mail can be expensive. Telemarketing even more so.

But what happens when it costs a company almost nothing to bombard consumers with updates, sales pitches, product news, special offers, items of interest, press releases, messages from the president -- just about anything?

Nothing gets read. And everybody loses.

But Permission Marketing is supposed to be above all that. After all, I did give you my permission…

Permission and Privacy

Yes, I gave you permission — but it shouldn’t be abused.

Permission Marketing should be limited to the specific information that the individual has agreed to receive. And it must be carefully nurtured, so that a trusting relationship will grow.

1. You must be extremely careful to protect your "opt-in" customers, and make sure you only send them information that is relevant and meaningful to them.

2. You need to keep asking them if they want to "opt-out" or if they want to change the kind, or amount, or the timing, of the information you’re sending them.

3. You also need to reassure them that you are not going to sell their name to anyone else.

On my free "Improve your Response" newsletter, we reassure subscribers with the following:

"Your name and/or e-mail address will never be sold, shared, surrendered, exchanged, auctioned, listed, traded, given, bequeathed, transferred, distributed, swapped, bartered, circulated or passed along to anyone else."

And by the way, if you’d like to receive it, please e-mail me at

Permission and Personalization

Permission Marketing carries an implied obligation -- that once I have given you permission to market to me, you should know me, and only send me things that are relevant to my needs.

How often does this happen? The September issue of Business 2.0 had an article on on-line marketing that began with this:

"Melissa Shore hardly bothers to open e-mail from Northwest Airlines preferred opt-in list anymore. It’s not because she’s not interested. She travels a lot in her work…and she’s always looking for travel deals."

‘Every week I’d get another email from Northwest offering me discounts on flights to Chicago or Atlanta," she says, mystified, "I kept hoping to receive a message that read ‘Melissa, we’ve got discounts on those trips leaving from New York,’ but I never have.

"I’d rather not get anything from them than something that’s not relevant."

And relevance can also be a function of timing.

One of the problems with Permission Marketing is that it is usually based on the marketers’ schedule, and not the customers’ schedule.

E-mails are sent out when the company is having a sale; or pushing a particular product or service; or trying to generate leads.

These e-mails may have nothing to do with where the customer is in the relationship; what they want; or what they are interested in. That’s a problem with all marketing programs — however it becomes markedly worse when you are working in a Permission environment.

Not only will people not respond — but they also may begin to think badly of your company and your products.

Can Permission Marketing Harm your Brand?

When a consumer sees a TV commercial that’s not relevant to them, they just tune it out. Or turn the channel.

When they receive direct mail that’s not targeted or just not interesting, they simply throw it away.

However, these other media don’t promise to be relevant — the way Permission Marketing does.

They don’t clog up a personal communications channel — the way e-mail does.

And they don’t alarm people, when it comes to privacy issues, which are becoming more and more important.

The decision to use Permission Marketing is a major step — and one that no company should undertake until they are completely confident that they can fulfill on the promise.

However, there’s another step you can take that goes beyond Permission and may be even more powerful.

Participation Marketing

Permission Marketing is only the beginning of a true interactive marketing system.

Beyond Permission Marketing is Participation Marketing.

It’s when consumers not only agree to be marketed to, but become involved in creating their own products and service offerings.

It’s when customers create their own contact strategies, even their own marketing strategies, and companies respect that.

For example, some of the home grocery shopping services offer customers a chance to register for their "Never Run Out" Service.

You select the items — such as milk and bread — and you never have to worry about ordering them again. They’ll guarantee that you’ll never run out.

And that’s way beyond Permission.

Let me give you an example of a program I did with an e-marketing company named BeNow.

The Lucent Program

We did a recent program for Lucent Technologies that was based on the principles of Participation Marketing, which I will list in a moment.

The program began with a questionnaire sent to 86,000 potential prospects. These were individuals who had expressed interest in Lucent within the past 12 months.

But we weren’t just trying to get a response — our goal was threefold.

1. Qualify each lead

2. Determine exactly which products and services they were most interested in

3. Discover what was their most important buying criteria

The questionnaire generated an 18% response.

We then ranked prospects into seven different tiers, based on what they told us. And began marketing to them in seven different targeted ways.

We also asked prospects how they wanted to hear from us — direct mail, e-mail, by telephone. And we honored their request.

The result was a highly successful campaign, where prospects received only the information from us that they requested, based on not just permission, but active participation.

By the way, questionnaires are an excellent first step in Participation Marketing. For a complete discussion on how and when to use them, please see "The Art of the Questionnaire" a recent article posted at


The 5 Principles of Participation Marketing

1. You really know your customers

You want to make sure you maintain an accurate and up-to-date database. At the very minimum, you want to know their purchase history and how long they’ve been a customer.

If you don’t know, you ask them.

Harvey MacKay, author and owner of a large envelope company, requires his salespeople to complete a 66-question profile of each and every customer.

They don’t do it all at once; but over time, they get to know each customer, their likes and dislikes, their goals and exactly what they want and expect from a supplier.

2. You generate feedback at every opportunity

You may start with a one-time questionnaire; or you may want to create an ongoing customer satisfaction survey.

Your goal is to use every interaction with a customer; every sale or every experience; as an opportunity to learn. Not only about how they feel about you. But also more about them.

3. You involve customers and prospects as much as possible.

Interaction is the key to Participation Marketing. When you buy a computer from Dell, you decide how much memory it has, and how fast you want to function. You pick all the accessories.

You become the designer, the manufacturer, and even the salesperson.

That’s one reason why Dell sells more computers than IBM.

4. You market on their schedule -- not yours.

The diaper companies do it best, with their programs for new mothers. They give them coupons when they return home from the hospital, and then they follow up a couple of months later.

The reason — at that point, the baby needs a larger size diaper.

Too many strategies are company-focused or product-focused strategies, rather than customer-focused.

5. You make them feel vested in your success.

Participation Marketing means letting your customers know your reasons for doing things, your future plans, perhaps even your profitability.

You don’t only want them to buy your products, you want them to root for you. Because it’s in their interest to do so.

The Future of Participation Marketing

For over 40 years, people sat and simply listened to the radio. By turning it on, they gave advertisers "permission" to talk to them.

Today, the most popular radio programs aren’t just shows you listen to. They’re programs you can call and talk to. "Talk Radio" predominates.

And that’s another example of Participation Marketing

But it goes even further than that. Participation Marketing may be a powerful tool for selling what you have. But it may be even more important in determining what you should sell.

My company began doing e-mail marketing because my clients urged me to. Several of them told me, "We’re starting to do a lot of it. And we’d love for you to be involved."

The highest level of Participation Marketing is when your customers

become actively involved in helping you develop new products and services, because they prefer to do business with you.


Back to First Page of Recent Publications


© Alan Rosenspan & Associates
5 Post Office Square
Sharon, MA 02067
Phone: 781-784-8283