Jumping the gun from permission to “relationship marketing”

Photo by Stephen Phillips — Hostreviews.co.uk on Unsplash

A while back I heard someone (can’t remember who) say something to the effect of “Seth Godin also had this framework, permission marketing, but that didn’t really amount to much”. That statement combined with the onslaught of newsletters I have been receiving lately has made me think about how much, if at all, relationship marketing has evolved past the initial shock of GDPR and in-built Unsubscribe buttons.


First, let me say this, I am not a specialist in relationship marketing. Just the fact that I use “relationship marketing” as a stand-in for CRM should tell you something. I have heard from my colleagues who ARE specialists in that type of marketing that CRM is no longer “du jour”, much like we now call Intranets “WX” for “workplace experience”. I don’t have a lot of patience with the bombastic terminology our industry likes to use but I do agree that the abbreviation CRM is doing nobody any favours.

That said, I am not using “relationship marketing” randomly, or rather arbitrarily. I use the word “relationship” to establish the weight of an assumed connection that exists between myself as a customer and any potential, one-time buy. And why “assumed”? Well, because I would argue, one purchase does not a relationship make. So, before I tell you what triggered this post, here’s why you should continue reading: first, because this is a post about digital marketing and if you follow me, you probably are here because of that; second, because while I am not a CRM expert, this post uses experience design principles and content design thinking to show how to build a relationship post-purchase via direct to buyer media and finally, because you know I like a rant, and rants are fun to read ;)

So, here goes.

My main thesis here is that e-commerce management teams are consistently mistaking functional content for relational content, and blurring the edges between e-com support and CRM, and the resulting consumer experience is bad. I argue that functional content should be kept neatly separated from relational content and the latter should be designed using permission marketing principles.

As for the case study: I have recently made a bunch of one-time purchases, anything from knitting wool (which I immediately gave up once I realised I could not replicate 500 GBP knits for a fraction of the price) to medical services and flowers. These are, by all accounts, one-time purchases or, if not one time, then at least one in a year purchases. However, my interaction with the websites that sold me these products and services seems to strangely go on way past my initial transaction. I bought a thing and the websites think that they have a RELATIONSHIP with me. Notice I am not using the word brands to describe any of these places selling me wool, medical services or flowers. The reason I cannot call them brands is because I found them via a simple google search, I had a perfunctory and unimpressive interaction with their website and then left “never to return again”, as the story goes.

But this is what’s happened EVERY.SINGLE.TIME. Aside from getting my functional emails: “thanks for your order”, “your order is on its way”, “track your oder” and “how do you rate your recent order”, this content seemed to come interspersed with more “relational content”, stuff about the beginning of autumn, promotions, Halloween, the latest knitting successes from a community I had never been interested in joining.

In the culmination of relational content, I was invited to take some medical tests for a 20% “ghoulish” (their inverted commas, not mine) discount because it was Halloween (!!!). I truly hope there was some smart blood jokes in the email but I don’t know for sure because the idea I would take blood tests because it was Halloween made me so angry I clicked the Phishing button.

In less than 3 months since I had made all these purchases, the companies in question sent me, on average, an email/week. These emails were easily classified into: promotional (discounts/back in stock/ sales), seasonal (the dreaded Halloween/ Christmas/etc) and community (knits from our community/ how I rank in health against the average London woman and others). The most interesting aspect of all of this, bar the dated approach to content strategy (who still sends “seasonal” emails?!!) is the tone of voice used in most of the emails: friendly, chummy, over enthusiastic and, above all, assuming that I was okay with the avalanche of messages. All of these companies assumed we were in a relationship they needed to manage (because, of course, CRM).

Now, some things I would have done differently:

  1. Use functional content as a lead in → I don’t mind emails that tell me about the order; nobody does. One of the most frequently quoted examples of good experience is Deliveroo’s “track rider” function; people want to know where their stuff is. So when you let me know how my order’s doing, I’m fine with that. There is a halo of permission across most functional emails because I WANT to know. This halo can be used to tease out if I could be interested in other things. For instance, it can be used to announce that relational emails are on the way and to give guidance as to how to opt-out if not interested.
  2. Ask for permission to continue the communication → Email continues to be a very private/intimate mode of communication so the assumption that once a transaction is completed, the parties are in some sort of relationship is crazy. Not only do I not endorse your brand after one purchase, but I have zero reasons to be interested in your content. Here’s an example: even if we assume that I had decided to take up knitting as a serious hobby, the first thing to do was not to bury me under tens of future sweater ideas, but to ASK if I was getting on alright and how my relationship with knitting was going. The same for the flower company. And as for the medical services company, I can only assume they are breaching some form of professional responsibility by using my data to send me comparative charts. CRM teams should never assume things are going alright and they should always check that the user wants more info.
  3. Use the data you have been given when you went through Step 1 to build a roadmap of the relationships and tell the user what that roadmap is → to assume that I want to receive emails “from transaction until perpetuity” is, again, crazy. If you’ve sent a functional email asking for feedback, that response should enable you to decide what step to take next. Feedback from transaction = ok, then you ask permission for some updates, not forever, for a few months, and provide some options for the user to choose from. Medium — the publishing company, is an exceptional example of this. One of their experience principles is “direction over choice”, and they stick by it at all costs. Medium will not let you scroll though thousands of articles, it asks that you make a decision early on and then only feeds you what you decided you wanted, allowing you the possibility to change your mind at any time. Much like Medium, any of the companies I have bought things from could have used my response to their feedback to tailor an “entry/induction journey” for me and transform me into a relationship.
  4. Check-in often and seriously → After a couple of weeks, I stopped opening the emails altogether. I only read the headlines and got angry. This could have been a sign that something was wrong and any of the companies in question could have send me an email to ask if I still wanted to receive their emails. None did. I had to get rid of them by unsubscribing to two (those which had Unsubscribe buttons) and putting the last one in Phishing. Relationship closed.
  5. Ensure that your functional content and your relational content don’t interfere with each other → the medical company in particular had a bunch of useful updates they sent me; time since my last set of tests, that one doctor had updated their notes, etc. Lost of these got lost in the stream of relational content, and I ended up reading none.

In the end, the result of these companies managing their customer relationship was me blocking all three and deciding never to buy from one again. A fail across the line.

I am working on a fictional journey and content strategy for the medical services company. I cannot believe they are so bad that their CRM and am actively trying to reach them and show them how they can do better. They provide such an essential service they should not employ poor frameworks to engage their customers. Nobody is actively disinterested in their health so their emails should have 100% open rate. But because health is not trivial, content about it should not be trivial either. No Halloween discount. No “ghoulish” promotion. If they’re willing to listen to me, I will give them my solution for free. And I will also urge them to read some of the initial thinking by Seth Godin on the principles of permission marketing.

Relationships are built. But one transaction does not mean you’ve already started building. We operate in a world where instant commerce is a reality. A purchase doesn’t mean immediate brand preference; that needs to be earned. and paying attention to your permissions and content is just the beginning.

Digital Strategist. The Internet will save the world (pending verification). Views expressed here are my own/should not be construed as coming from my employer.