The Language of Permission

In the olden days, before the Net, we used to promote our products and services through mass marketing.

That is to say, we’d dream up a “unique selling proposition” or whatever other jargon was trendy at the time and then bomb the public repeatedly with that message through the major TV networks.

We were the “hidden persuaders.” And if we couldn’t persuade you to buy our latest whiter-than-white offering today, we’d buy some more airtime and keep at you until you caved under the pressure.

Those days are gone, at least for the thinking marketer they are. And if you’re marketing online, they definitely are, whether you’ve noticed or not.

Some of you may be thinking, “Yeah, yeah, heard this tune before, Nick.”

Well, the switch to a permission-based style of marketing is not the point I’m going to make. Most of us have made that switch to some degree or another.

But a great many of us have not made the accompanying switch to the “language of permission.”

Part and parcel of the old style of selling was a very deliberate style of copywriting.

The “hidden persuaders” wrote in a particular way.

The style was often fast, active, action-oriented, breathless, pushy, manipulative, and persuasive.

In other words, it was designed to overcome the reader’s natural inertia and make him or her do something. Pick up a phone, fill out a coupon, check out our store, pick out our brand in the grocery aisle, etc.

And a lot of online folks are putting the technology in place to be permission-based but are still writing in a voice that pushes and persuades. Or at least tries to.

But that’s not the way to do it.

You can’t kneel at the altar of one-to-one marketing with one knee and jab your customers in their soft spots with the other.

Along with the concept of permission comes an implicit understanding that you’re going to have to treat your customers with a little more respect than you used to.

And your writing has to reflect that respect.

If I were selling a set of pearl earrings at a great price and had only five hundred sets, I might, in those olden days, have written:

    Buy now to avoid disappointment. Only a few sets remaining at this unbeatable price! This offer will never be repeated!

    [ ] Click here to buy!

I would be pushing for an immediate sale. Right now. Forcing it. A closed offer. Do or die. And my copy skills would be judged on the basis of making or not making that sale. Making the sale now equals success. Not making the sale now equals failure.

Today, selling these items from a web site, I would be more likely to say:

    Buy now to get these earrings at today’s special price.

    [ ] Yes, put them in my shopping basket now!

    [ ] I love them, but I don’t want them right now. Put them on my Wish List and email me the next time they’re on sale.

    [ ] I like them but don’t love them. Please show me some similar sets.

A different way of writing. A whole different attitude.

The first copy style is adversarial. Me against the reader. Me against the reader’s inertia. Am I good enough to persuade the reader to buy right now?

The second style recognizes readers as regular people. It recognizes that their timelines don’t necessarily coincide with mine and that they have a value beyond today’s special offer.

The web enables us to build relationships through various levels of permission.

So write in a style that leaves the door open to build on that permission.

It’s no longer us against them. It’s time to become a trusted source for that customer.

And it’s time to change the way you write so that your style reflects this changing relationship.

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