The two marketing approaches of the 21st century

Over the decades, marketing has changed probably more than any other business discipline there is. Before and during the advent of the Internet, we used to think that advertising was synonymous with marketing because ads and billboards and fliers were traditional ways for companies to broadcast what they did. Both online and offline.

Clearly, the clutter just became worse when Internet marketers realized that they could reach even wider audiences at virtually zero costs. Even today (or perhaps especially today) many choose to take this approach thinking that “getting the word out” and “raising brand awareness” are the biggest (marketing) problems they have. This sort of mentality represents a kind of a shortcut. Although it is certainly understandable that individuals and organizations want to push their products in front of others by interrupting them, this is not likely to work very well anymore. Responding to clutter with yet more clutter merely crowds space to the point where there is only meaningless noise. This sort of approach, where we push someone to buy from us, may not create the kind of relationships we hope.

Do not get me wrong – there is nothing wrong with ads. It’s just that people’s attention spans are limited and they have effectively learned to ignore ads. Think of not only ads but also every message you never wanted to see as an interruption.



The type of message I am talking about is one with the sole purpose of closing a sale, right now. You can feel it when someone is trying to get something from you instead of trying to create some real value first, don’t you? Of course, the mindset a marketer has is the one of “if it is easy and free to do, it cannot hurt”. Actually, it does hurt. It only exists to serve marketers’ short-term goals and has nothing to do with the recipient who has to take it all. This interruption mindset is at the heart of interruption marketing, and it is fading away as it makes little sense to invest in advertising tactics people ignore.


Seth Godin popularized the term permission marketing, which is the established alternative to interruption marketing. Permission marketing is the ethical way to market (at first I wrote here “to do marketing” until I remembered that marketing is not really something that is being done. Messages that work are not only written and communicated, they are also felt). As opposed to interruption marketing, permission marketing is about telling personal, relevant and anticipated stories to people who want to hear them. Permission marketing at its best is that newsletter you signed up for because you thought the message was important and worth listening to.

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As I see it, permission means that attention is always borrowed. And so the best way to honor that relationship is not taking it for granted. Someone giving her attention to you in this noisy world is a gift. And this requires patience, serving not just ourselves but also others in terms of what is right in the long term.

In contrast, someone with the interruption mindset is always concerned with getting more. More clicks, more customers, more likes. More whatever. Permission marketing is concerned with determining if there is compatibility between the company and the customer. Permission marketing is like dating. A guy in a fancy suit who proposes to every girl in a bar to get married is doing interruption marketing.

Permission marketing works because it recognizes that what is scarce today is attention. Paradoxically, it also interrupts you to get your attention in the first place but only to engage you. Permission marketers thus start by asking themselves why someone should care in the first place.

Images by miguelvirkkunen, David Evers, WonderlaneDiego Torres Silvestre




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  1. Claude Forthomme (Nougat)

    Fascinating and about time too that marketers realized how boring ads can be, thanks for the information! Seth Godin of course is considered a major guru in the publishing world – I didn’t know he was the “father” of permission marketing but I’m not surprised, he’s the “father” of so many bright ideas. And he’s famous for quotes like “Marketing is a contest for people’s attention” or “The Net is not television. It is the finest direct-marketing mechanism in the history of mankind. It is direct mail with free stamps, and it allows you to create richer and deeper relationships than you’ve ever been able to create before.” Yes, right. But this does assume a very decisive effort at ensuring “content” so that communication is meaningful.

  2. John Martin

    Wow – I’ve never put those two terms to work before conceptually. Cool categorical distinction to track the real changes of consumer experience with advertisement that I’ve even seen in my short lifetime. Thanks!

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