Back in the 1990s, a young marketing executive named Seth Godin had become fascinated with how technology was hogging his own attention span, and that of many other buyers he knew. His response to this information-glut was to write the landmark book “Permission Marketing: Turning Strangers into Friends and Friends into Customers.”

In the book, Godin dissects 20th century media and how large corporations made us aware of products through advertising created by Madison Avenue agencies. As newspapers gave way to radio programs and TV shows, new methods were born for interspersing these mass media with interruption-based advertising. Of course, people didn’t want these interruptions, but advertisers worked constantly to nestle their ads in amongst the non-commercial content. To keep people’s interest, these advertising interruptions had to attract attention – after all, commercials only work when people spare them their time and attention. “If an ad falls in the forest and no one notices, there is no ad,” Godin claimed.

The arrival of the World Wide Web had made mass-communication easier than ever and it ushered in an explosion of information, which soon exceeded the amount of information that anyone’s attention span can handle. In Godin’s view, scarce attention spans interrupted the stranglehold that Interruption Marketing had on all of us.

No More Monolithic Market

About this time, marketers of all types were also finding it harder to buy mainstream media that would reach the majority of buyers for their products. This was largely due to the Web’s emergence as an information source. It made it much easier for buyers to satisfy their need to educate themselves on products, they stopped depending on mass media as much as before. When online, buyers each wandered to the websites that suited their individual needs, they didn’t stay in the tidy “Nielsen” audience segments by which traditional media had cast them. “The vast splintering of media means that a marketer can’t reach a significant percentage of the population with any single communication,” Godin notes. It left marketers in a Catch-22. They have to spend more to interrupt, and yet they’re making fewer sales with each interruption. Explained with a well-known metaphor, “this is a very, very big haystack, and interruption marketers don’t have that many needles.”

Enter Permission Marketing

To deal with both of the above problems, it’s necessary for marketers to approach buyers differently. They must first home in on prospects (unfamiliar with the company and brand) who are most likely to be receptive, not just those who fit the budget for their media spend.

The process begins with a small interruption to these strangers, not with a hard-sell but with a soft offer, asking permission to have a two-way dialogue with them. This is a gauge to see if the buyer would give the company any of their attention – is this stranger (the buyer) open to becoming a friend? Companies might consider this step to be expensive and risky, especially with no immediate purchase in sight, but Godin explains that once they become friends, “people [are] willing to pay attention when your message arrives in an expected, appreciated way.” Like Jiu Jitsu, Permission Marketing tackles the attention problem and uses it against itself. A buyer doesn’t have enough attention to give to everything, so when they agree to give their attention to one company, that blocks out other sellers which are vying for their attention.

Godin’s process demands that B2B marketers keep the no-spam commandment. It’s clear that Godin expects marketing to take responsibility for all communications with Friends (or ‘Leads’), including engagement that sales has with them. B2B marketers must also acknowledge that Permission Marketing makes more sense than Interruption Marketing because it mimics how we as humans form relationships. I couldn’t agree more.

We need to ask ourselves if our marketing activities align with the incremental way we build relationships