The Reason Your Marketing Is Utterly Failing

There’s a reason people aren’t paying attention to your message, why they won’t give your blog or business the time of day. There’s a simple cause for why others aren’t listening to what you’re saying.

You’re missing a crucial ingredient to all effective marketing, to getting your ideas to spread. In fact, it’s the ingredient. What is it?

One simple word: Permission.

Marketing failure
Photo credit: Greg Habermann (Creative Commons)

It’s how blogger Seth Godin builds a powerful tribe of followers for every project he launches — with nothing but a blog and a great idea.

It’s how the nonprofit charity:water gets thousands of people to promote their cause every year, voluntarily raising millions of dollars for clean water wells in the developing world.

No coercing. No advertising. Just permission.

What is this permission you speak of?

Permission is the formal consent to do something (duh). If you have it, you never have to apologize for interrupting someone or promoting something that’s important to you. You’re already “in”; you’re allowed.

It’s the equivalent of waiting your turn at dinner to say something. You know you’ll get your chance, because you’ve been invited to the table.

Permission is polite. It’s courteous. It’s what every customer dreams of, what every reader of your writing is expecting. It is the #1 most-neglected discipline in most mass communication.

And it could be the reason why your marketing is awash.

How does this apply to you and your message?

There are two ways to get your voice heard:

  1. Interrupt people (90% of the advertising messages you encounter today will be guilty of this).
  2. Earn permission.

The first is typical. It’s anticipated. You see it all around you every day. It’s the reason we walk into a store and tell the saleswoman, “No thanks, I’m just looking” when she asks if we need help.

Of course, we’re usually lying. We are looking for something. We just don’t want to be sold something; we want to discover it for ourselves. Permission-based marketing lets you do just that.

The second (earning permission) is rare and unexpected. It’s the reason we love Amazon and use iTunes. These virtual environments of choice allow us to browse on our own agendas.

Because we’ve given them permission, they quietly suggest titles to us as we shop. And we don’t mind one bit.

How to get permission to do anything

Permission is about trust. Everybody wants it, but few are willing to work for it. Here are two ways to get permission:

  1. Ask for it.
  2. Earn it.

Doing the first is obvious and often necessary, but what you want is the second route. This is where lifelong fans are made.

You want to create something so compelling, so cool, that people are willing to beat your door down to see and share it with others.

Permission is valuable; that’s why it takes hard work. If you don’t have it, you’ll never grow. Your brand, business, blog, whatever will stagnate and die. You’ll always struggle and feel flustered — and it doesn’t have to be that way.

How to tell if you don’t have permission

  • If you open up every blog post with an apology…
  • If you know you’re interrupting and do it anyway…
  • If your marketing plan is a math equation instead of a simple strategy to help people…
  • If you say, “It’s a numbers game,” at least once a day…

…Then you probably don’t have permission. And that’s exactly what you need if you don’t want to get lumped with all the other self-promoting sleaze bags.

So it’s time to start: to do the work and build one loyal fan after another. It will take time and effort. It will be exhausting and frustrating.

You’ll take two steps forward and three back. You’ll want to quit or get fired. You’ll beg for an easier way. But there isn’t one.

This is why permission is so valuable. Sure, there are more expedient ways to spread a message, but none more effective or sustainable. It makes sense that the marketing you don’t have to apologize for — the kind your followers will thank you for — is the hardest to come by.

It’s because it’s worth it.

Want to get started?

If you’re ready to do marketing differently, you should start by reading the book Permission Marketing by Seth Godin. Everything I learned about this topic I owe to him. (If you don’t want to pay for it, you can get the first third of the book for free here.)

Whatever you do, don’t file this in the “nice to know” category and go back to your spammy email blasts and fearful ad campaigns. Do something unique. Do something remarkable. And do it with permission.

Your fans, friends, and customers will thank you. (Oh, and just for fun, here’s a list of hilarious marketing fails.)

What’s an example of permission marketing that you like or use? Share in the comments.

Disclosure: The above book link is an affiliate link, which means I literally make pennies off your purchase.

65 thoughts on “The Reason Your Marketing Is Utterly Failing

  1. So true. If a blogger nails this, we follow them everywhere. If a corporation gets this right (like Herman Miller does, for me) we’ll even pay a premium for their products or services.

    Thank you for sharing, Jeff.

  2. If you haven’t read The New Rules of Marketing and PR by David Meerman Scott, you would like it. It’s right on message with that you have to say about interruption marketing being failtastic.

  3. Challenging thoughts. I love Godin’s books and this concept is one of his best encapsulations. At our family dinner table, we are still learning how to take turns but at least we have fun.

  4. I am reading Permission Marketing right now. So many great insights. This book predates the dot com collapse, and so far I haven’t read any mention of Google, yet even then Godin knew that the number one goal of every commercial website should be getting the visitor to opt in (p. 160). It doesn’t matter how they found you, get their permission.

  5. I think when people market something they have the false assumption that if they get their product out to a wide as audience as possible, that will give them success (FALSE!). I love how Seth Godin shows us to start with a few loyal fans and have them spread the word for you (a tribe). Another good series of books on this is the “Guerilla Marketing” series. If you are marketing something you better read ALL of these books.

  6. First and foremost, I have absolutely fallen in love with your blog. I’m so glad I found it, you really have consistently amazing advice. 

    I’ve never heard of permission marketing before, but that sounds right on. You have to earn your readers trust first, and that requires a lot of time and effort, but in the end it’s absolutely worth it. 

    Keep up the great content. You’ve certainly earned my trust. 

  7. Great post Jeff, and thanks for sharing. I haven’t read Permission Marketing yet, but I intend to after reading your post and the comments below. It really is all about trust, and creating that compelling content that allows you to earn the permission. Just like all things that are worth while in life… you have to give the “blood, sweat, and tears” to succeed. 

    I’m still learning the ropes of marketing and social media. Your blog continues to be insightful and inspiring. Thanks for the effort and keep up the great work!

  8. This is coming at a perfect time for me. Just started a new grant writing position. Thanks for sharing! 

  9. Hey Jeff, I definitely need to put this book on my must read list! As you know, I am a very passionate inbound marketer.  The very basis of Seth’s opt-in concept is what makes inbound tick.  Put out remarkable, compelling content and people will want to read, will want to engage, and hopefully opt-in.

    Unfortunately, it’s the “vacuum’s” of the internet that think that if they scream a message over and over, thousands of times, someone will be listening.

    Excellent post!  -Adam

    1. Thanks, Adam. Indeed. This is a must-read for anyone in your field of work, Adam. Honestly, I’m surprised you haven’t read it. Pick it (and All Marketers Are Liars) up — they are well worth your money and time!

  10. “We don’t want to be sold something; we want to discover.” Fave line
    I’ve just started reading your blog, recommended by a friend, and let me just say … it’s heaven sent. Very insightful articles, that would assist me in building my career in marketing and communications, and in my writing ( 

  11. Hey Jeff!

    This was well explained. I had just heard of permission marketing, and I now get a better feel for what it is! I’ll go ahead and read the book.



  12. Jeff-Your blog often offers great pieces to the puzzle of marketing online, and your insights are sometimes very helpful. In this case, not so much…

    I love the idea of permission marketing, and I understand it full well. I’ve been an independent change agent for 32 years. However, I gotta say, an e-book for $12.99? Sorry, bud, that speaks volumes to me about what’s really going on here and I’m not giving my permission. That kind of pricing says to me, “Out of touch!” Kind of reeks…

    1. David, thanks for the comment.

      Sorry, but I’m not following you. Are you saying that I’m selling an eBook for $12.99? Because I’m not. Maybe you misread something.

    2. Okay, David. I now see what you were referring to: Permission Marketing by Seth Godin is $12.99 as an eBook on Amazon. I didn’t set that price and can understand why you might think it’s out of touch (I saw that you’re selling your eBook on Amazon for $2.99). However, that’s typically something that the publisher sets, so Seth may or may not have control over that.

      That said, you can download the first third of the book for free and get the basic gist.

      1. Jeff – Glad that you addressed this. I think we all understand the problem the publishing world is creating for itself these days. I’m not complaining so much as just pointing out an issue that’s all of a sudden huge in the industry — potentially degrading the credibility of traditionally published authors. I think you handle it perfectly by linking to Seth’s free chapters. Keep up your good work! You’re a big a help.

  13. Very interesting idea. I am way behind in marketing my blog. I have only just started emailing my posts to my email list. Pitiful! So thanks for the ideas.  

  14. Can’t the sales assistant coming up to you and asking if you want help be a case of “asking for permission?” I know it’s different as they are interrupting you but by definition it is asking for permission. Perhaps the actual example (for a shop) would be a desk with a “can I help” sign or something similar. I know that when I go into a shop the first 5-10 minutes is always browsing even if I know exactly what I want…after that I usually want someone To come up and help me, but they’re all pestering other shoppers by then.

  15. I’ve heard about this book, but have never read it.  I think now I must.  I see this being true for so much more than marketing.  It’s true for leadership.  It’s true in mentoring.  Heck, it’s even true in marriage and parenting.  If you lead by position without permission, you’ll get people to do what you want if they have to…but they won’t be willing followers, nor will they stick around long.  Earn their trust, earn their permission to lead them…and aim for the big dreams.  Maybe this is covered n the book, I’m eager to read it now to find out.  Thanks for sparking this idea in me today.

  16. There are so many books about marketing that one could spend their hours reading instead of writing and marketing.  I’m a Godin fan, but have not read his work.  I’m currently reading Michael Hyatt’s book.  I like this “permissions” idea, and I do already seem to fit the ticket in most cases.  Still, I put writing first and foremost.  My first book “A Train Called Forgiveness” is about being the child victim of a cult and is something that has started to prove helpful to others who have suffered childhood abuse.  My major goal is to help others.  With your permission I’ll tell you more in the future.

  17. I like the honesty of this approach. I used to be the marketing director of a casino, and I remember going to a Raving conference where one of the guest speakers said, “One-hundred percent integrity in all that you do.” The concept was that if you attempt to manipulate patrons into buying what you have to sell, it is ultimately detrimental to what you have to sell. 

  18. I really enjoyed your insights. I have been blogging for a couple of years about my experiences in Ethiopia and Kenya. It has been a way of letting others see another side of the world.
    I would like to use my blog to build synergy between people that want to help and the people that need help. 
    This idea for getting permission really intrigues me!
    The Ethiopian Cowboy

    By the way I loved “Wrecked”

  19. Interesting idea:asking permission. I think I’ll read the first 4 chapters in the car tomorrow as we drive to Thanksgiving dinner! 

  20. Build it one loyal fan at a time. This is priceless advice. I’ve done my best to avoid refering to my Likes and Followers as mere numbers, but it can be hard when you set goals for yourself. But to sit back, and take comfort in the people who love your project NOW, and will definitely love it even more when you make it better, and to know that if you just keep putting in the work, you’ll get even more people to your side, that’s gold. Thanks, I needed this.

  21. Thanks for the insight. I’m always aghast at the amount of indie writers, tweeting hundreds of posts a day – plugging their books. It’s a flood of information, that probably irritates 99.9% of potential readers.

  22. What an awesome post, Jeff! This is so true. I have a friend who is marketing with spammy tweets and automated social media systems, and he has far more followers than I do. However, my following is much more organic and–I hope–more interested and loyal.

  23. Hi Jeff! 

    I really enjoyed this post. You made me think about why I’ve never really been sold to (other than annoying people by singing ad jingles), I’ve not liked being interrupted (and reality was always a lot less glamorous). 

    I think this is why Advertising is losing its “pull”: People are reclaiming their time from Corporate World. They’re becoming more independent. People also want more say in their lives. So, yes, they want to asked and given the choice to accept marketing messages or not.In a way, what Corporate World stated it wanted to do way back when – teach us what we should want (and not want), has been a success. We’ve learned what we want – and now we’re old enough to make our own choices based on what we’ve learned.



  24. Oh my gosh. I just clicked through to ge the chapters of Permission Marketing, and my mouth literally fell open. The site says: “Rather than jamming your inbox, we decided to present [the chapters] to you here on a web page instead. Feel free to forward the link to anyone you’d like. (And yes, we’ve deleted your email address and, as per our promise, will never write to you.)”

    Seth Godin now has my permission to market anything to me. That is AWESOME.

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