Monday, March 06, 2006

considered: keychain permission marketing

Like every other software geek trawling the blogosphere today, I gobbled up the recording of Seth Godin's talk at Google with equal parts keen interest and self-aware embarassment at my keen interest. Curiously, as I was watching the talk, a charming song by They Might Be Giants whose lyrics I really shouldn't quote here was chiming away on the stereo in the background. . .a juxtaposition I found equally charming.

But I digress.

One of Seth's early points was on the power of "permission marketing". Which reminded me of the most powerful bit of permission marketing going on today. I am, of course, referring to the keychain tags of retail affinity programs.

I had the happy accident of borrowing the wife's car yesterday, which entailed borrowing her keys as well. I was surprised to see that her keychain fairly bristles with thin plastic rectangles festooned with all the big local names. Dominics (food), Speedway (gas), Blockbuster (movies), CVS (drugs) and so forth. Since they are her keys, they represented all of her "favorite places", so to speak.

"Man, what a load of horse hockey" I remarked smugly to myself. "I wouldn't get caught dead signing over my info to all of these. . .hold on a minute there. . ."

What drew me up short was the new affinity program on offer at Borders. Seems the nice people from Ann Arbor have taken a lesson from Barnes & Noble and have started their own program, with a pleasant wrinkle. You don't pay to get it (B&N charges you a fee), and each time you use it you accrue "rewards" which you can redeem on stuff like gift cards and discount coupons and pony rides. Typical stuff.

Now since I spend an inordinate amount of $ on books, and since we've already established that I'm cheap, the Borders program immediately appealed. The B&N program which suggested that I "spend money today to get a nominal discount later" always struck me as odd - and made me wonder what sort of idiot B&N took me for.

And so, my point, however slim.

Since the B&N program cost $, and Borders's cost nothing, the decision to "declare affinity" to Borders was easy - even though the B&N program gives you an on-the-spot discount with each order. Their program was dumb, Borders' is less dumb. I would prefer an on-the-spot discount, but I'm not prepared to pay for it. I'm not a fan of having to chase rewards, but since it's free, I signed up.

When I asked my wife how much she paid to get all of those little plastic rectangles, she said, "nothing". When she added, "Why would I pay for one of these?" I figured it out.

My lesson was that the threshold of effort a consumer must overcome to partcipate in your marketing program must be so low as to be nearly invisible. Unless you're Publisher's Clearinghouse, in which case you're allowed to make it silly-difficult, and force consumers to do it over and over, licking stamps, folding pages, standing on one leg. So make the threshold effort zero.

What does this have to do with Google, or Yahoo, or any other on-line purveyor of stuff, other than their threshold cost of participation is zero? Not much, at least not today. But what would you say if they correlated all of the permission marketing touchpoints they have with you so as to build a complete précis on you? Wouldn't this be like giving each of the vendors on my wife's keychain visibility into her buying patterns with each of the other vendors?

What would they do with that information? As a marketing guy, I know what I'd do.

The market basket described by my wife's keychain is an apt metaphor for what is possible down the road for providers of on-line services who operate primarily via permission marketing. Be prepared to be fully and comprehensively known by them, because the extent to which they know you defines their worth to the advertisers who will pay them to reach you.

Not that there's anything wrong with that, of course.

BTW - It was a lovely talk by Seth. I liked the part about the X-Ray glasses. And the "need vs want" anthem. To be fair, his concept of permission marketing is interesting, even if it seems. . .manufactured. Yes, we want our users to talk about us. But shouldn't our products elicit that on their own? Does it still count if we (indirectly) make it happen? Just curious.

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