Permission Marketing

Networking with the Ideavirus

A Conversation with Permission Marketing Guru Seth Godin

By John Milton Fogg

Seth Godin

Perhaps no single book has had as much impact on the world of marketing in the past half-decade as Permission Marketing; it has certainly been the most discussed, scrutinized and oft-evoked marketing book in the world of network marketing. The ideas now made famous by Seth Godin in Permission Marketing; and its sequel, Unleashing the Ideavirus, are by no means wholly new—nor wholly original, as Seth himself is quick to point out. But nobody had put them together quite this way—or with nearly the impact.

Serious network marketers have flocked to the Godin table: finally, someone was articulating what we have viewed for years as the “high road” of person-to-person marketing: forget the “three-foot rule,” and instead, listen before you speak. Ask, don’t tell. Go for permission!

After getting his MBA from Stanford, Godin says he “circled around the world of marketing” as a brand manager for quite a while. “I was spending millions of dollars buying ads in People magazine, getting invited to the U.S. Open with sponsor tickets … and discovered that it wasn’t working very well.” Seth encountered Jay Levinson’s book, Guerrilla Marketing; it was an eye-opening encounter. He went on to co-author several books with Levinson, and found himself developing an entirely new perspective on what makes marketing work—or not work. Starting in 1990, he worked on a project that became perhaps the most popular online promotion of all time, with an impact on millions of people. They “learned by doing,” says Seth, discovered what was working and what wasn’t.

Finally one day (it was “in the shower, as all true breakthroughs are,” quips Godin), he realized that they was no name for their approach—there was no cogent, concise, coherent way to communicate. After three days of concentrated contemplation (“It was a long shower,” Seth deadpans), the term “permission marketing” just popped into the now-famous head that has become Godin’s trademark cover art. After that, the rest all just fell into place.

What is the essence of permission marketing?

It means two things. First, marketing to people who want to be marketed to; and second, delivering messages that are anticipated, personal and relevant.

The other day, my wife met a woman at school, a parent of another kid. It turns out this woman sells a network marketed line of cosmetics. She called my wife last night—at home, during dinner—and said, “I want to give you a free facial.”

In the old days, there was much less noise and clutter in our environment; you could afford to buy enough ads or make enough telephone calls to eventually reach people who would buy something from you. It doesn’t work that way any more.

My wife was nice about it; but she doesn’t wear makeup, period—and she did not want a facial. It was the antithesis of permission marketing: it was not marketing she wanted, and the message did not come in an anticipated, personal or relevant way. Worse yet, the woman had been taught that the best way to market was to be persistent: don’t take no for an answer, repeat the question over and over and over again.

That’s not permission marketing—that’s just “hassling someone.”

In the old days, there was much less noise and clutter in our environment; you could afford to buy enough ads or make enough telephone calls to eventually reach people who would buy something from you.

It doesn’t work that way any more. Today it’s all about marketing to people in a way that they want to be marketed to—because people today have so many choices about what, how and from whom they buy.

So people are walking around today with “No Trespassing” signs around their necks?

That’s exactly it! One of my favorite examples is the TIVO, a digital VCR you can buy for a few hundred bucks. The TIVO records TV shows onto a hard disk; with your remote, you can fast forward exactly 60 seconds—a great way to skip a commercial! It turns out, 88 percent of the people who own a TIVO skip every single commercial. Within three years, everyone will have a TIVO—and if you’re in the television business, that’s a scary thought.

What could the woman who called your wife have done that would have changed the situation?

People don’t want to hear this, but the truth is, there is nothing she could have done. My wife was just not going to buy cosmetics from her or from anyone. She was not a prospect. The woman had a good approach, though, in one respect: the free facial.

It’s like dating someone before you suggest getting married. You don’t walk up to someone in a singles bar and say, “Will you marry me?” You walk up and say, “Would you like a drink?” and if that goes well, then, “Would you like to go out with me?” and if that goes well, you ask for another date. You wait until the third date before you tell her you’re out on parole, then you date for a while longer—and then you get married!

Instead of being in a hurry to make a sale, make an offer that says, “Come to my free seminar, where I’ll show you how to make money on your taxes.” Or, “Call me if you’re interested in getting a free facial—or giving one to your new bride.” Or, “If you want me to come to your house and cook you and your friends a sample on our pots and pans, I’d love to hear from you.”

Once people raise their hands and say, “Yes, I want to hear from you!” then you have permission—not to make the sale, but to outline the benefits, to start the dialogue. Over time, bit by bit, with the anticipated, personal and relevant messages, you make a sale.

The good news is, today you can use technology, like e-mail auto-responders, to do that to a far larger number of people, far more easily and cheaply than you ever could before.

Is “permission marketing” the same thing as “relationship marketing”?

They are very similar. A “relationship” implies something much deeper. And that leads to my second book.

Let’s pose the obvious question: How do you get that first date if the singles bar is closed? “How do I get permission in the first place, where there is no permission?” I’d been thinking about the question for years; I just didn’t know how to talk about what I thought.

After Permission Marketing, I told myself I would never write another book. And I didn’t—for two years, until I read The Tipping Point, by Malcolm Gladwell. Then, in the next seven days, I wrote an entire 200-page book! Gladwell had helped me find some words: I called it an “ideavirus.” The answer to the question is, you don’t get permission: you get people to tell their friends. That relationship, friend-to-friend, has permission already built into it.

If a friend tells me that this person offers a great service, I’ll listen to my friend. If a friend tells me that I need to go read this free brochure or go to that seminar or try this solution to a problem, I am way more likely to do so than if an ad tells me to do that. Networks of people who trust each other, who talk to each other, who encourage other friends to give permission to a marketer, who then takes that permission and turns it ultimately into a sale—that sequence of events is where I think the future is.

That book is regarded as the #1 most-downloaded e-book in history, isn’t it?

Yes, and in fact, the book itself is an interesting example. The thesis of Unleashing the Ideavirus is that ideas that spread are worth more than ideas that don’t. The more people know your idea, the more it’s worth. I decided to take my own advice: instead of publishing and selling the book conventionally, I gave the entire thing away on the Internet!

I didn’t ask for any payment; I didn’t ask for surveys; I didn’t ask anyone to do anything. In fact, I encouraged people to mail the whole book for free to a friend, without me being any part of the equation.

People said, “How can you possibly make money doing that?!” But I wasn’t trying to make money—I was trying to make a point. Indeed, if I had been trying to make money, I don’t think I would have made as much money as I did.

In the first three months, more than a million people downloaded the book for free or sent it to a friend. We are now up to a million and a half, making it the most popular e-book of all time. (You can still get it for free, at

Now, watch what happened next: So many people who’d read the first few pages of the free e-book wrote to me, saying they wanted it in physical book form, that I then went ahead and published the book—as a hard-cover, selling for $40, which is an insanely high price.

It went to number five on Amazon’s best-seller list. Then we sold the rights in Japan, Brazil, France, England and Germany … then we sold the paperback rights in the United States—all because the idea had already spread. I ended up making more money on that book that I did on Permission Marketing.

All because you gave it away for free.

All because I gave it away for free.

What can network marketers especially take from your ideas?

There is going to be a shift in the sorts of products that are offered. If you’re selling a nutritional supplement that genuinely makes people happier, healthier and more energetic, they’ll be more likely to tell their friends about how great it is. That is a remarkable idea. The product is so remarkable that people are inclined to tell their friends even though there is nothing in it for them.

This is a key—and it’s quite relevant to network marketing.

In Ideavirus, I talk about two kinds of people who spread ideas. I call them “sneezers,” because they spread the virus from one person to another. “Promiscuous sneezers” are people who spread the idea because they are paid to do so. “Powerful sneezers” are people who do it because it makes them feel good to spread ideas.

Most network marketers are promiscuous sneezers, even if they don’t think of themselves that way: they spread the word because they are paid to do so. They wouldn’t be in the business if they weren’t getting paid. The future lies in products that are so remarkable that powerful sneezers spread the word.

Most network marketers are promiscuous sneezers, even if they don’t think of themselves that way: they spread the word because they are paid to do so. They wouldn’t be in the business if they weren’t getting paid. Consumers know that. The future lies in products that are so remarkable that powerful sneezers spread the word: “This thing is so remarkable. If you’re interested in it, if you think it could help you as much as it is helping me, here’s who to call.” There is no obvious benefit to the person who is spreading that message. They are not paid a commission; they’re doing it simply because they want to help their friends. That word of mouth is worth way more than the word of mouth that says I want you to do this because I am going to get a commission.

Here’s the model: with every single product you sell, build into it an e-mail address that says, “Tell your friends that I am happy to send them a free sample if they send me an e-mail.” Now there is an easy way for the sneezer to tell his friends and build a permission relationship with the sales person. If someone sends you an e-mail that says, “I want a free sample,” you now have permission to write back and say, “I’d love to send you the free sample. Is it okay if I ask you three questions so that I send you the right thing?” You start that dating process based on the referral from someone who has nothing to gain.

If that free facial lady had gotten into relationship with your wife or established some level of friendship, then even though your wife does not use these products, your wife has friends who do.

That’s exactly right.

So, you want to develop a foundation of friendship with people as a base on which to build, especially in such a personal business as network marketing.

The word “friendship” is a little tricky here. I don’t think that the people who are outside the network marketing community have as good a feeling about network marketing as people inside the network marketing community would like them to have. Did I say that in a good, sensitive way?

You were just so compassionate, I can’t believe it.

Network marketing is about turning powerful sneezers into promiscuous sneezers. People get uncomfortable when they feel like they are being talked to by somebody who got bought off.

The challenge the network marketer has is not to build the industry with the top third of the pyramid being used over and over again to build your “downline.” No, the challenge is to actually sell products to people who ultimately use them, not because they are going to get paid to sell them to somebody else.

That distinction is critical. The real success stories are built by people who understand this: 95 percent of the people who buy the product never want to become sales people—but you still want them to be sneezers for you.

I’ll give you an example that has nothing to do with network marketing. I know a great folksinger who specializes in music for kids under ten. She has five CDs which she sells on her own. The average customer buys three of her CDs. She and I were talking (I don’t do consulting, but she’s a personal friend), and it turns out that it costs her only 80 cents to make a CD. She was selling them for $15.

I told her, “Look, every time someone buys one CD, send them two.”

Nobody has any use for a second CD, because it’s the same music. What are they going to do? They’re going to give it away, probably as a birthday present. One of these kids gives one of these CDs to another kid as a birthday present—and they’re likely to buy two, three or four more, because the parents get tired of hearing the same songs over and over again. Now my friend has doubled or tripled the rate of growth of her business—for 80 cents per person.


That model says, not, “Do me a favor and throw me this party because it’s good for me,” but instead, “Hey, give this to your friends. Here are three gift certificates for free facials; I know you don’t want a facial, but if you know someone at work, a secretary, friend or whatever, just hand them this free gift certificate, they will be glad to get it from you.” It’s not a hard sell, it’s worth $50, here you go. Saying, “Do it for your friends,” instead of “Do it for me,” is a very different sales pitch.

That is powerful!

It’s important to do the math honestly. If you are in the right business, the lifetime value of a customer is very high. The other day I spoke with a guy in a debt consolidation business who explained that he gets only one transaction from each customer. For him, there is no lifetime value to a customer; it’s a churn and burn business. He should get out of that business; there is no future in it, it’s nothing but sales all the time, with no real benefit to either party.

People go into marketing because they want to be in charge. It’s about being your own boss—you decided who to call, and when you call them. But to embrace Permission Marketing and Unleashing the Ideavirus, you have to accept the fact that you are no longer the boss. That’s a very hard thing for most marketers to do, especially successful marketers. The boss is the consumer.

Stew Leonards, one of the biggest supermarkets in Connecticut, has calculated that one customer is worth $52,000: that’s how much one person is going to spend on groceries at his store over the course of a lifetime. If you are in a business with a high lifetime value like that, you are going to discover that the free gift, the thing to give to people so they can give it to their friends, could be worth a lot to you! But be careful: if you are giving away something that is just a thinly veiled sales pitch, no one is going to give it to their friends. You have to give something that truly has value; if it doesn’t have value, you cannot expect people to give it to their friends.

When you do this, you win—as I learned from giving away my book. If I had only given away three chapters, it wouldn’t have spread, but giving away the whole book, that made it spread.

What stops people from accepting the ideas of Permission Marketing and Unleashing the Ideavirus?

People go into marketing because they want to be in charge. It’s about being your own boss—you decided who to call, and when you call them. But to embrace Permission Marketing and Unleashing the Ideavirus, you have to accept the fact that you are no longer the boss. That’s a very hard thing for most marketers to do, especially successful marketers.

How do you mean, “you are not your own boss”?!

You are not the boss: the boss is the consumer. The consumer decides when they talk to you. The consumer—not you—decides whether or not they are going to tell their friends about you. If you are a successful marketer, used to buying Super Bowl time, used to insisting that anyone that wants to watch the football, watch your commercial first, this is really frustrating. You don’t get to insist when you are a permission marketer. You don’t get to insist when you are trying to get people to spread an ideavirus. You hope. You know you lay the best groundwork you can, you make the best offer you can and you hope that it spreads. It doesn’t always happen; a lot of times, it doesn’t.

How can you stack the odds in your favor?

First, admit that you don’t know it’s going to work. Give yourself enough time and money to try a few things—perhaps many things. You might have to try six different things in six different communities before you get an inkling of what’s going to spread.

Then, understand that nobody owes you anything. Everyone’s favorite radio station is WIFM: What’s In It For Me. If you don’t make it a no-brainer for them, they just won’t spread it, they won’t talk to you. That’s why you have to overdo it at first, and actually give it away.

There is a great Indian word called “Potlatch.” Potlatch is giving extremely large gifts to other people. In some Uruguayan cultures, people would give every one of their possessions to their neighbors; in return they hoped that this generosity would be reciprocated. It actually got out of hand in some Indian societies and had to be banned.

Potlatch is the whole idea of saying, What’s the most overwhelming thing I can do to get this thing to work? I’ll start from there and then scale back, instead of inching my way up. It’s that sort of remarkable, unbridled generosity that makes it spread.

Any closing thoughts?

Just this: If you are working for an organization where the product or service you are selling is not remarkable, then you should find a new product or service. Remarkable stuff is the only stuff that works any more!

Survival Is Not Enough

Seth’s latest book, Survival is Not Enough, was just about to be released as this issue went into production. Here is the announcement from Seth’s Web site,

It’s come to this. All the confusion and chaos and change and turmoil in our working lives have finally tipped the balance. We now need a new way of doing business.

Every generation sees a fundamental change in the way we organize to do work. From Frederick Taylor’s classic Principles of Scientific Management (1914) to Henry Ford’s assembly line, from The Organization Man (1956) to In Search of Excellence (1982), our businesses reflect the times in which we live. Survival Is Not Enough is the next big step.

Most of us view change as a threat, and survival as the goal. Yet we work too hard to consider just getting by as our primary goal. In Survival Is Not Enough, best-selling author Seth Godin provides a groundbreaking new way to organize companies to thrive during times of change. It contains a simple yet revolutionary idea: We can evolve our companies the same way nature evolves a species.

Darwin was right. Evolution is a fundamental force of nature, and Godin demonstrates how this force can be unleashed in any organization. The first step is to eliminate the anti-change reflex that’s genetically coded into all of us. Once a company learns to “zoom” (embrace change without pain), it is much more likely to evolve. And a company that evolves can become ever more profitable.

Whether the market is up or down, whether technology is hot or not, in all industries, from retail to tech to restaurants, the organic approach to organizations described in this book will always outperform the competition. As long as our world is unstable, evolving businesses will win.