Business Advice

Sitting inside permission is a promise

Michel Hogan /

As an extension of my work on promises, the thorny issue of permission has occupied more than a few minutes of my time. Organisations can be more than a bit cavalier in their promises, so it is no surprise that attitude extends to permission. Because sitting inside permission is a promise.

The godfather of permission marketing (and by extension a terrific source on other forms of permission) Seth Godin sums it up on his blogIn order to get permission, you make a promise. You say, ‘I will do x, y and z, I hope you will give me permission by listening’. And then, this is the hard part, that’s all you do. You don’t assume you can do more. You don’t sell the list or rent the list or demand more attention. You can promise a newsletter and talk to me for years, you can … promise a sales pitch every day … But the promise is the promise until both sides agree to change it.”

To get permission, first, you’ve got to ask. The ask takes the form of a promise. I will do x, and you will get y (and only y). Then the promisee gets to agree or not. Once they have accepted the promise is set, and only the promisee can release you or agree to a new promise.

And here’s where the precise nature of permission kicks in. If you don’t want me to feel like you’ve broken your promise, be explicit about what you’re promising. What that looks like and how it happens is where the permission rubber meets the road.

So here are a few ideas and examples of areas where you can get my permission. The details will play out via specifics of your organisation’s identity and experience, and are built on the premise permission is mine to give not yours to expect, demand or assume.

1. Pop-up promise

Usually takes the form of ‘sign up to receive x’. It might be on a website, during a trade show exhibit or at another professional event.

However, what should be a simple and straightforward promise of ‘give me your email, and I’ll send you x about y’ is often abused, with my permission applied to other sundry emails about things I didn’t agree to as part of the promise.

Don’t do this. Don’t hide parts of the promise in the fine print. Stick to x and if you want more of my time and attention, ask.

2. In-person promise

We meet somewhere and exchange information, but don’t get into the nitty gritty what we can or can’t do with it.

And just like that, we’re in the grey zone. Can I send you stuff? Can I introduce you to others?

Me giving you my details means I am open to your continued contact, but being respectful means you’ve still got to ask about what.

Want to introduce me to someone else you know? Ask first. Want to send me your newsletter? Ask. Want to share an offer with me? Ask.

3. Social media promise

We’re connected on a social platform, and yes, it’s worth noting being human online is a minefield. The fundamental promise and permission of the platform are: I will see what you post, and you will see what I post, and we can comment and respond.

For anything else, see point two, because you need to ask.

Sure, the whole social vibe makes it feel like the rules of permission don’t apply. They do. And the platforms even have handy message functions so you can ask me if I want to hear your promise. I might say no or ignore you (another form of no) — but that’s my right, so suck it up and move on.

However, if you keep it short and help me understand what’s in it for me, I might say yes.

4. Process promise

I’ve purchased a product or service from you. Whether it was one transaction or many, you now have my contact information. But that doesn’t mean you have my permission to use it for anything except as a record of our business together.

For anything else, you’ve still got to ask. Want to send me offers? Ask. Want to send me a newsletter? Ask. Want to share my information with someone else? Ask.

Any of these things can become part of the process of doing business, but don’t bury them in an opt-out checkbox. Be explicit and consider the promise within the permission you’re asking for.

Permission is not elastic

All of the above ideas come with Seth’s warning label: “That’s all you do. You don’t assume you can do more.” Because permission is not elastic and can easily be broken if you don’t stick to what you promised.

For example, a few months ago I visited the site of a well-known author and podcaster to read an article. While there, a pop-up invited me to sign up for one of their newsletters. A friend had previously recommended it, so I accepted their promise of a short, fun newsletter every Friday and handed over my email.

The newsletter started arriving, and as advertised it always contained one or two things worth exploring. Then other emails from them began to land in my inbox. Hold on. I’m pretty sure I only agreed to the promise of a Friday newsletter. Not the newsletter and the additional email about the next podcast.

Sure, I know I can probably go into my ’email preferences’ and turn off any other content. But why should I have to? That’s not the promise I agreed to. Permission is always conditional. So next time you think about permission, ask yourself ‘what promise am I making?’ Then keep it.

If you want to change the promise and extend your permission to something new, ask for it.

Be respectful. Understand I may ignore you or say no. That’s okay, with time you can always ask again. If you don’t, if you take advantage of my permission, you’ll likely lose the privilege even to ask. And yes, I have unsubscribed from the Friday newsletter.

Permission is a promise, and your brand is the result of the promises you keep.

See you next week.

NOW READ: Examine what you intend and avoid toxic promises

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Michel Hogan

Michel is an independent brand counsel advising organisations on the risk to their purpose and values of making promises they can’t keep — with a strong, resilient organisation and brand as the result. You can find Michel at michelhogan.com or you can follow her on Twitter at @michelhogan.

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