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This might have been spam, from someone just trying to harvest my email address. But it looked legitimate, it looked personal, so I read it: “I was just on your Web site and wanted to email your company to ask a question. May I have PERMISSION to send via email OR direct mail some brief information regarding some offers that we have.

“I purposely have not included any offer information on this email because of the growing concern over spam which is not the intent here. I simply would like to forward over some brief info regarding a new offer that had been in controlled introduction, but available now.”

As a reporter, I have to look at this stuff. You don't. So as the spam flood has drowned more and more of us, I've seen many people ignoring such messages, bouncing them or throwing them angrily into spam folders.

Assuming this is a real offer, what did my correspondent do wrong?

He asked for permission, when what he really wanted, and needed, was something far more important: my attention.

Direct mail has my permission—usually to head right for my trash can. Magazine ads have my default permission, usually to be ignored. TV ads have my permission to be muted, and radio ads have my permission to have the channel changed on them.

Permission Is Being Confused with Attention

Attention is what you're paying to this column. You're reading it, digesting it, and trying to learn from it. You give attention to a marketer only when you need what the marketer is selling (or think you need it), or when you decide the marketer might convince you that you need it.

In the brick-and-mortar world, permission is worth anywhere from 1 cent (for a $10 cpm TV ad) to $1 or more (for a direct mail piece). But permission of even the latter type turns into a sale only 2% of the time. And the critical leap you must make between permission and a sale is attention.

How do you get that online? Well, it turned out my correspondent was writing a personal email. He wasn't a spam front. When I wrote with the answers I just gave, he wrote back, asking what he could do to win attention. Here's how I replied:

“In the present environment, with no laws mandating permission for mass email, with the spam flood rising, I don't see a pure online answer.

“You can advertise. You can point people to a Web site, give them the outlines of a pitch, and have them complete a form that will deliver them a more complete, customized offering.

“You can approach them offline, through established channels.

“Yes, it costs money. But there was never an option of not spending money to get the full attention of consumers. The fact that this email costs nothing to send is a double-edged sword. It guarantees nothing regarding attention.

“Wish I had a better answer.”

There are no shortcuts to attention.

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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.