The idea of permission marketing - obtaining permission from a prospect or customer before sending them a marketing message - is a simple one which holds the promise of more effective (email) marketing in a wired world.

Problems arise, though, when you get into the interpretation of what permission means.

One approach sees it as an administrative inconvenience; something required simply to avoid the problems associated with *not* gaining permission.

The idea is to satisfy any legal or contractual obligations. To somehow get a tick in the box that says you can email the prospect or customer something, anything, at some time. Just as long as you can "prove" you're not sending unsolicited mail.

"You know, we should get some of that email marketing action, too. What minimum requirements do we need to fulfill to get on the bandwagon?"

This approach sees permission as something negative; a constraint to business or an entry fee to the email marketing game. This misses the whole point; permission, properly gained and used, benefits the marketer.

Anyone taking this negative approach will inevitably end up sending emails to people who don't really expect or want them. That way lies marketing perdition; negative word of mouth, spam complaints, blacklisting and more.

A second approach sees permission as a valuable but flexible concept. This is the type of permission marketing often practiced by companies with strong brands or reputations, and deep pockets. In the initial engagement with the customer or prospect, they seek and get genuine and clear permission to send specific marketing messages.

Then they fall victim to the temptation to extend and redefine the permission granted; "You signed up to a newsletter about X. Well, if you like X, you'll probably be interested in Y, too. So we signed you up to our newsletter about Y."

The marketer often justifies this arbitrary extension of permission by claiming that it's acceptable in the context of the relationship they've built with the customer or prospect. Or that it's somehow in the customer's best interests.

If you made the right inferences about their interests, attitudes and perceived relationship with you, then you're OK. But that's a huge "if". It's all too easy to misjudge all three. More usually, this justification is just a public relations exercise.

Indeed, what many such companies are really saying is, "Yeah, we know technically this wasn't part of the permission deal, but we're [insert respectable name], we don't spam. This is just marketing, you know. And we didn't get that many unsubscribes. Besides, who's going to close down OUR hosting account."

Strong brands and/or customer relationships can prevent the kind of negative fallout that A.N.Other, Inc. might get with similar practices. But you're still putting those brands and those relationships - two of the most valuable assets you have - on the line, every time you take the decision to unilaterally extend the permission granted.

If you've misjudged your customers or prospects (and how can you not do so, if there's any kind of heterogeneity out there), then it's perdition marketing again.

In a third approach, marketers don't see permission as about meeting some kind of administrative, contractual or even ethical standards. They see permission as a way of initiating and building a profitable long-term relationship with an attentive and responsive customer or prospect, for as long as you respect the integrity of the permission granted.

Treated properly, this permission lets you enter a marketing conversation with your customers and prospects which is more resistant to the threats posed by the changing email marketing climate: greater competition, email fatigue, anti-spam regulation, etc..

This approach labels you as a company the customer or prospect can trust, one who respects their wishes, one who delivers on promises. It's a risk-free business proposition with staying power.

So ask yourself two questions to decide which kind of permission marketing you practice?

1. Are you requesting permission because you want to, or because you have to?

2. Do you see permission as an asset to be nurtured or one to be exploited?

Are you practicing permission marketing, or perdition marketing?

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Mark Brownlow, Ph.D., is a writer, traveler, and footbal (soccer) fan (