I was chatting with a friend about a client. The client is a financial service outfit that wants to go beyond its current niche (as all the big ones do). I suggested a Permission Tree. He asked what that was.

Here is what that is.

One way in which Seth Godin's "Permission Marketing" is misread is the idea that permission" is the lowest kind of permission.

Transaction permission is what you give a clerk when you hand them your credit card. If that clerk then demands your phone number, or your zip code, you may get upset (I do) and you may lie (I do), because the company (through the clerk) is misusing the limited permission you have given.

In Godin's book, transactions are at the heart of all permission. Thus there are only a few levels of permission, based on how you're doing business with someone.

But if permission really is like a relationship (and it is) then there are many, many levels, and you need to approach each level differently.

For instance, what if someone has asked you to bid on a piece of business, but you didn't get the deal? What if they have been on your site, and filled out a form, but haven't tried out your service? These people are not suspects. They are solid prospects, with some knowledge of what you offer.

Thus, I offer the Permission Tree, which fills out the branches of Permission Marketing. Let's climb up and take a look.

The lowest branch of the Permission Tree is an e-mail address. Let's call this e-mail permission.

If you get someone's phone number, you have more permission. Let's call this phone permission.

Once you get their physical address, you have still more permission. You may not yet have an order, but you are much closer to one than you were before.

Information makes a prospect much more valuable. So why aren't you providing incentives, gifts, presents, and attention to this person, as you try and gain this information?

After all, once you have this permission you can address a personal e-mail to the prospect, based on real knowledge of their situation.

Not everyone needs to worry about a Permission Tree. If you're selling something like laundry soap or beer, you don't need one. The key variable is your average transaction size. If it's small, you should probably stick to mass-market techniques.

Depending on what you are selling, you may need even more information than what I have described to reach transaction permission. But at some point you will want to know about elements of their lifestyle that relate to you.

If you're selling consumer electronics, you want to know if they have a TV, and if so how big it is. You might want to know about their stereo set-up, its connection to their TV, and their Internet habits. All this is very valuable.

But here's the point. You should be willing to pay for this. You can pay for information with information – like honest advice. You can pay for it with attention - a hand-written e-mail answering a hand-written question. You can pay for it with discounts, or you can pay for it with points.

Many e-merchants make the mistake of confusing their own e-mail newsletters with premiums of this type. They are not. They are advertising. You should pay your prospect to take them, even if they have valuable information. But you don't have to pay with cash. You can pay with attention.

Now here's the pay-off. Your customer database must be able to map all these levels of permission. Your e-mail effort must be able to deliver a custom (or semi-custom) product to each prospect, based on how much permission you have. And your efforts should be geared, always, to increasing the permission you have with each contact.

If you have permission to pitch one product line, get permission to pitch others. If you have transaction permission, get permission to give regular offers, or try to get them to subscribe. (See how valuable that e-mail newsletter is now? It's subscription permission, one of the most valuable kinds of permission you can get.)

One more point. Audit everything. You audit your e-mail lists not to prove something to the government, but to prove something to your customer, that you care about them. Treat them as a lover and only then will they love you back.

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Dana Blankenhorn  (danablankenhorn@mindspring.com) is the author of the new book, The Blankenhorn Effect: How to Put Moore's Law to Work for You, available at Amazon.Com.